Higher Education's Transparency Problem

Nobody knows at present exactly what happened at Penn State -- but it would come as no surprise if a major university, when informed that it had the makings of a scandal affecting its campus, decided to cover the matter up rather than report everything directly and openly, and thereby subject itself to negative publicity.

Openness and transparency are not the ways great corporations -- which is what a modern university is -- do business.

In the Duke lacrosse case, the very first advice a dean gave to the lacrosse players -- threatened with possible indictment on first-degree rape charges -- was not to tell their parents.  The next advice was not to get attorneys.  (And the dean giving this advice was herself a member of the Bar.)

The primary goal was to keep the story out of the news.  That would be best for Duke.  (It was clearly not in the best interest of the  players.)  When the university learned the players had in fact gotten attorneys, its displeasure was palpable.

Thereafter, Duke did its utmost to wash its hands of its falsely accused students -- the better to demonstrate that it had nothing to do with any possible racism, sexism, hubris, or privileged class status supposedly revealed by the case.  The university president, Richard Brodhead, kept an antiseptic distance from the lacrosse players: he never communicated with them; he refused to look at evidence of their innocence; he turned down requests to meet with their parents.  They became anathema to him -- and it was important that they be publicly seen to be an anathema to Duke.  Duke's reputation before the community required it.

The chairman of Duke's board of trustees, Robert K. Steel, told one of the boys' defenders that it would be "best for Duke" if they were tried.  "Best for Duke."  It wouldn't matter if there were convictions, because "it could all be sorted out on appeal."  Blatantly innocent students (proven so by DNA tests two weeks before the first arrests in the case were made) should have to bear the burden of public opprobrium, a vindictive and (in Durham) biased trial, and possible conviction -- all because it would be "best for Duke."  As Steel also allegedly said to fellow trustees, Duke was not defending its students because "sometimes people have to suffer for the good of the organization."

That organization reserved all its animus for its own; it never had a bad word for Nifong, nor for the false accuser.  In fact, it cooperated with the prosecutor, handing over private student information in violation of FERPA and then lying about it to the court, not to mention joining with Nifong to initiate a sham motion for the same information in order to make it appear as if Duke was actually following the law.

Contrast this with the response of Donna Shalala of the University of Miami when members of Miami's football team were involved in a fracas:

[W]e will not throw any student under the bus for instant restoration of our image or our reputation. I will not hang them in a public square. I will not eliminate their participation at the University. I will not take away their scholarships.

It's time for the feeding frenzy to stop. These students made a stupid, terrible, horrible mistake and they are being punished. They are students and we are an educational institution and we will act like an educational institution, not like a P.R. organization that's trying to spin and to restore an image that we worked so hard to put in place.  (Oct. 17, 2006)

A university can be in the kid business.  Or it can be a corporation.  The latter seeks to preserve at all costs its name, reputation, and business accounts; the vast sums it accrues from its sports programs; its millions in revenues.  Its goal can be its own aggrandizement.  

A university can even come to regard students as a necessary but transitory evil -- basic to its continued existence, but not the essence of what the school itself is.  That essence is made up of the faculty, who prime their own egos; the administration, which does the same; and the balance sheets, donation totals, and new buildings, all of which the university scrutinizes in the same way a CEO spies his profit sheets.  Like a corporation, a university can come to believe it has to think only in terms of "the big picture." 

It can be willing -- some would argue that it has to be willing -- to discard a few insignificant individuals  along the way as "collateral damage."  What corporation ever grew great except on the detritus of those it crushed while building its success?

How much was Penn State concerned that it might lose if there was a scandal?  Was anyone afraid of being fired if they spoke up?  Was anyone afraid of retaliation if they reported something?  (Who wants to be the whistle-blower against a great corporate entity?)  What was uppermost in the thoughts of those who may have known about the scandal and yet said nothing -- or even worse, helped for years to cover it up?  Were they concerned with what was "best for Penn State"?

It remains yet to be seen how Penn State reacted, and what decisions it made, and what course it took.  And what sort of business Penn State was in.

R. B. Parrish is author of The Duke Lacrosse Case: A Documentary History and Analysis of the Modern Scottsboro.