I began my career at Penn State and spent seven years there, getting tenure, before I moved on. It’s been awful to watch the events of the last month play out.
Most of the commentary about the child sex abuse allegations against the former football coach and the administrative failure to stop it have focused on the corrupting influence of football — on the health and safety of women and children; on academic affairs; on the budget as a whole. These critiques are important.
But I never had a lot of contact with the football program. No football player ever enrolled in one of my classes, but perhaps that was because of the courses I taught, which are about gender and poverty. (Not so popular with male athletes?) Football wasn’t a world I knew well.
I did, however, have contact with the university administration, and the way I see it, it deserves more attention in the analysis of what went wrong at Penn State.
The administration is incredibly powerful at Penn State. I’m certainly not the first person to note that. While I was there it was a constant subject of discussion among the faculty. As so many of them observed over the years, the Penn State administration is deeply hierarchical, a thoroughly top-down affair. From my perspective as a new faculty member, the signature feature was the department head system, rather than a chair system. Chairs are elected by and represent the faculty in their departments. Heads are hired by the deans and are responsible, strictly speaking, to them alone; they serve at the pleasure of the dean. Department heads are thus arms of the administration and departments are its functional appendages.
The head system symbolized the way power works at Penn State. It is highly centralized and concentrated in relatively few hands. So, too, is decision making. The faculty senate at Penn State holds no real authority. Faculty members are rarely consulted and have relatively little influence. Staff members hold no power, either. They are not unionized. And the geographic location of Penn State in the center of an enormous and depressed former industrial region means that the university is the only game in town. Few on staff are in a position to challenge power.
From what I saw as a junior professor, the powerful, hierarchical administration produced some questionable outcomes: a department head dismissed with minimal procedure; hires that did not meet my professional organization’s standard practices for searches; and excessive administrative control over general research agendas (several journalists have alleged this regarding Penn State’s close connection to the natural gas companies and its generous support of research ok’ing the controversial practice of “fracking”).
What happened when the Penn State administration, including the President, failed to act to stop sex crimes against children was indicative of a lot of other less horrifying failures, too. In a place where there is little policy, procedure, or culture to encourage consultation or shared decision-making, bad things can happen – to students, faculty, staff, or the public. None of it is good for the university as a whole.
There are so many good people on the faculty and staff at Penn State who want to participate and have tried to dent the walls of power. And their greater participation would undoubtedly make a difference. As Penn State English professor, Michael Berube, pointed out in the New York Times, it’s hard to believe that the alleged crimes of the assistant football coach would have been covered up by, say, the faculty senate, if it had been consulted.
I know that Penn State is not unique in its hierarchical administration. Many other universities already follow Penn State’s model or are heading in that direction. But the alleged crimes and cover up at Penn State should give them pause.
Historiann again here: I don’t have anything to add, except to observe that the more I hear about “Happy Valley,” the more it sounds like a cult. Why do people fall into it? What do non-athletes and “fans” get out of the mass delusion that football should be a big part of their lives? Why do university administrators feed this delusion?
And finally, why am I ultimately unsurprised to hear that football culture and authoritarian management style go hand-in-hand?