Sunday, November 13, 2011

The Blank Canvas

As I continue to follow the news from my hometown of State College, PA I'm trying to make sense of it all.  We, as humans, do this every day with any experience.  We take in new data and fit it into what we already know, and from that point our understanding either grows to incorporate the new information of we create some sort of spin on the new data to make it fit what we already know, or more accurately, what we already believe.  A wise bumper sticker reminds us "Don't believe everything you think" and that's worth remembering these days especially.  I've read editorials this past week that assert without any doubt that the child abuse scandal may be laid at the doorstep of huge money making sports programs at our universities.  The next article I read, from the sports page of course, stated that large money making sports programs were not the problem, far from it! but the problem lay with one coach becoming so famous and powerful that he lost his sense of reality.
I wonder if we use a story like this to express the beliefs we already have.  Could it be that the story itself is a blank canvas that we project our fears and beliefs onto?  Perhaps a paint by number canvas is more accurate, the story has set up some of the outlines before hand, and we fill in the colors.  I can't help but notice that the stories I've read this week, that sports are out of control at large universities, that an aging legendary coach is suffering under the weight of a gigantic ego, that people living in a "cow town" (thank you for that description of my hometown Maureen Dowd) are too ignorant to know what's right, are the same stories I've heard before.  The only difference is now there's a powerful story with a moral component that can be used to express those same ideas.  I've noticed that "but we need to remember the victims" has become the way to end every news story on the scandal.  Why is that? Why isn't the focus on the victims there from the start?  I wouldn't say that those editorial writers and TV talking heads don't care about the victims, and I do believe people are genuinely interested in making sure this doesn't happen again, but I will pose the question "What steps do we need to take, and can we look for those steps with anything less than a completely open mind?"
Penn State University has taken several steps to address the scandal involving former football coach Jerry Sandusky.  Most of the principal players in the story have either been fired or placed on leave.  As much as PSU is a place of higher learning, it is also a multi-million dollar business.  Of course there are plenty of costs involved with being a place of higher learning so the mere fact that money is a factor shouldn't surprise anyone.  There is, however, a large gray area where the need to raise money to pay for  buildings, professors and other operating expenses and the branding and marketing of a product.  I make these points because I believe that the steps taken thus far are primarily about the business side of the university.  Protecting the bottom line or the product is paramount and the people who have been fired or placed on leave were considered detrimental to that product.  The steps taken so far are not, however are not going to solve the issues that aided and abetted the abuse that occurred.  Looking around our society, it seems that this kind of abuse is sadly not uncommon.  The Catholic Church has been struggling to find some direction forward with this, and the political arena is full of issues of harassment and abuse so there's no shortage of lessons to study.  If there's any one thing we could take from the lessons laid out already I would think it's that hiding or covering up never works.  It does seem to be a driving motivator in any of these scandals, that to have allowed justice to prevail would have compromised the institution.  I believe that this is a larger issue than can be solved by firing a few people no matter how iconic they might be.  I believe that this is a time for thoughtful people to think, and to share and engage in conversation.  I think it's fair to say that accepting"conventional wisdom" is part of the problem that has brought us here.  What kind of solutions could we come up with if no ideas were out of bounds?  What kind of world might we create if stretched the definition of what's possible.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Morality in Business

Most of the world probably only sees the unfolding story in State College, PA as a minor blip on the radar or just another incomprehensible fanatical football fueled frenzy.  I grew up there, I followed Penn State football and later worked in radio with the football network so I'm hoping you'll excuse my deep feelings for what is going on.  I don't claim to have all the answers, or even a few of them but I think that's okay because I do believe that asking questions and thinking about them is often more useful than coming up with a specific answer to fit each question.  I've followed the outrage following Coach Paterno's firing by the university board of trustees on Wednesday night.  Many friends who still live back in the old hometown have expressed great anger at not only the trustees but also the press that descended on Happy Valley for round the clock coverage.  One friend joked that now ESPN stands for "Every Second Paterno News".
Why did the board fire the legendary coach?  People are asking in a shocked tone "How could this be?" I can't say I'm surprised.  A board of trustees is charged with maintaining the status, reputation and in particular how those factors translate into money for a university.  Like a corporation, the bottom line is the key factor, anything that might endanger that will be gone quicker than you can say "Joe Pa"
The board kept Paterno as a coach even as many called for his retirement (and they were calling for that twenty years ago) because his image put people into the seats at the stadium and sold t-shirts, hats and any number of other branded items.  When the idea of someone who was accused of not doing enough to stop child abuse being seen on the sidelines of the school's football team continuing to receive the accolades of his amazing career started to look like something that would damage the image of the university the cold hearted business mind took over.
I don't think we should be surprised.  Corporations or boards are amoral by definition, they exist to safeguard the bottom line whatever examples of moral behavior there are occur because of the decisions of people.   Of course a board of trustees or a large corporation is made up of people but those people have to choose to make decisions, especially if that decision might impact the business model.  What would that have looked like in this situation?  The board could have chosen to let Paterno finish out his final season as coach.  Would that have been the right decision? That's one of those questions that might be worth thinking about, not to answer per se, but to see where it takes you.
As I wrote in my last posting, often there are two sides to the coin, and one is directly connected to the other.  Consider this idea, the same business first process has kept Joe Paterno the head coach of Penn State's football team for years even as university administration sought to have him "retired".  That same system fired him by phone late at night when he no longer served the bottom line.  I'm sure a lot of my friends who are savaging the press now, loved the fact that Joe Paterno became such a recognizable figure over the past twenty or thirty years.  Could it be that when we make that kind of deal (with the devil perhaps?) and accept the fame, we must also accept the chance that the fall will be that much greater due to the heights that you've grown accustomed to.
This story is full of questions about what was the right thing to do? Coach Paterno says he wishes he had done more, so he's obviously thinking about that.  What should the board have done? If they felt they needed to make a clear statement that they were serious about change, there's nothing that could telegraph that intention any clearer than taking down the symbol of Penn State, which I'm fairly sure most people would say was Joe Paterno.  What should they do next? Do they need to remove everyone who was involved with this? At the moment, several of the principal players in this story are still employed by the university.  Can the university have a re-birth and re-invent itself? How clean does the slate need to be for this to happen?

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Long Ago, Far Away

This week I've been reading numerous articles about the town I grew up in and the university I attended.  The fact that they are essentially one in the same makes the experience all the more powerful and potentially confusing.  I grew up in State College, Pennsylvania, a town that while some might not want to admit it exists because it's the home of the main campus of Penn State University.  As a child abuse scandal unfolds and threatens to take down many top officials in the university and it's football program there has been a lot of ink split, or data entered on the idea of lost innocence.  Many times I've read that "The town I knew is gone" or "This isn't my alma mater any more".
I have not felt this loss of innocence.  I've not felt like my hometown has been taken away.  I'm still a Penn State alumni and my feelings about the university haven't changed.  And so I've asked myself, "Why not?"
One thing that comes to mind is that when I think of Penn State I think of the people I knew there, teachers and fellow students and my day to day life.  I think of walking to class across the leaf strewn fields of autumn.  I remember late nights working on paintings in the studio or those early morning classes in winter when we'd stumble into a large auditorium looking like zombie extras from the latest horror movie.  I never looked at the university as a sacred idol, it was a series of experiences good, bad and every point in between.
If the president of the university resigns tomorrow Penn State will still be there.  The bells from Old Main will still ring four times an hour and students will still walk through the same hallways as I did back in day.  As much as I admire the football talents of Coach Paterno if he leaves there will still be people playing football.  The sun will still rise in the east and set over the western edge of Beaver Stadium on a perfect, brisk autumn afternoon.
Perhaps these feelings of losing something essential and un-replaceable is connected to what may have motivated the people involved in the scandal.  It seems that many large and profitable entities have grown over time to a point where people will willingly sacrifice the most vulnerable and needy to preserve the institution.  Church officials who hide sexual misconduct or re-assign priests, corporations who cover up pollution or other practices that impact the local community or in this case (it appears) university leaders who either ignore or cover up abusive treatment of children.  Perhaps people are doing this without even thinking.  If something good can come from this I think it would be that the punishment is strong enough to erase any doubt in anyone's mind as to what are the appropriate actions to take when a child is being abused, sexually or any other way.  Those, of course, are to notify police immediately.  If that message came out clearly then this would be a great lesson learned and after all isn't what places of higher learning are all about?... learning?
From the details that have emerged so far I question the judgement of Coach Paterno but still admire his skill as a football coach. The memory of the many games I watched from the stands or listened to as I helped run the radio broadcasts are still there and still wonderful.  It may well be that he needs to leave his position at the university as a result of these incidents, but again the world will continue.   My love for my hometown and undergraduate university have not diminished because of what some people have done even though they hold powerful positions within that institution.  It's the same as my love of my country which is not diminished by the many horrible actions it's committed over the years.  The treatment of Native Americans, imprisoning Asian Americans during the 1940s, anything from slavery right on up through the invasion of Iraq, our history is full of shameful events but I believe it's still possible to love something while you work to make it better.  If you've made your country or your church or your college an idol or some kind of sacred ideal then it's almost impossible to acknowledge any human frailty or mistake.  Again, this kind of worship seems to bring about the horrible actions we're reading about every day now in this particular scandal.  I don't believe that my country or school is absolutely right all the time and so while I will work to make things better I'm not surprised when people turn out to be... well, human.