So exactly why did you resign, again?

Did anyone else read this provocative nothingburger of an essay?  Michael Bérubé on “Why I Resigned the Paterno Chair:”

I read the Freeh report the morning it was released and proceeded to ignore every news-media outlet’s request to comment. A producer for National Public Radio’s All Things Considered called my English-department office, my office at the Institute for the Arts and Humanities, my cellphone, and my home phone. For good measure, she e-mailed and tweeted me. That afternoon, I saw a cloud formation that pretty clearly seemed to be a smoke signal—”Professor Bérubé, this is NPR. Please call us RIGHT THIS SECOND.” Radio, TV, newsmagazines, and newspapers called and wrote. But I had nothing to say that day, and I have had nothing to say since. Until now.

If only he had clung to his original instincts!  I found the essay at turns apologetic, defensive, and strange.  The best I can say for it is that it reflects the weird world of being in the midst of a media spectacle that bears no resemblance whatsoever to the world you know, work, and live in.  (I was at Penn in the early 1990s when the “water buffalo” fracas hit the national news, and I found portrayals of student life there in the national media utterly unrecognizable.)   Bérubé doesn’t seem to know what the point of the essay is, other than to make people stop asking him to comment on the Penn State football team and higher administration criminal conspiracy to conceal systematic child rape.

I wonder why the editors of the Chronicle ran it, quite frankly.  I would love to hear from the rest of you about what you made of it.

34 thoughts on “So exactly why did you resign, again?

  1. I followed it on CHE for a while to try to figure out the central *why* in his title, but learned nothing. It was just bizarre and more than a little embarrassing to read. As one commenter said: “wow, brave stand, you went from one endowed chair to another.”

    My read was that he seems to think he is some principled stand-up guy. For what exactly?


  2. Stacey–thanks for that. I wish he had written that paragraph somewhere near the top of his essay, or really anywhere in the essay.

    I didn’t see the essay until I saw it in the print edition tossed into the department mailroom this afternoon. GAdams, I went to read the comments at the CHE this evening after posting, and was glad to see that some commenters were just as confused and irritated as I was. (Most of the people who liked his essay appear to be apologists for Penn State, big football, JoPa, or all of the above.)


  3. Yes, that twitter post clears it up but…it still sounds like special pleading. Certainly the categories you mention as approving sure saw it that way. At least when I stopped reading short of about 80 replies they did. I still think it is a self-serving apologia for everything wrong with large institutions and the things they prioritize.


  4. I was really surprised by the attacks on people who are skeptical of big-time football and who see the documented systemic abuse in the big-time programs. (I don’t think too many feminists were surprised to learn that a big football program offered cover to a serial rapist. The only twist in the Penn State case is that the rapist was an adult man and the victims were boys, not college-aged women.)

    I also thought it was a reach to assume that all critics of football are preppy crypto-racists, as opposed to a Man of the People like Berube. I’ve said all along: keep the football scholarships! Keep all of the athletic scholarships! Just fire every coach making more than the average Associate Professors at each institution, and make all of the sports club sports.

    IOW, it’s not the sport, it’s the corruption introduced by money.


  5. Basically, he resigned so he could defend Paterno? (I’m referring to the additional explanation). I don’t know about you, but it still looks self-serving to me. And the essay was bad: unclear, full of straw mans, and that weird attack to sports in SLAC. I did my PHD at an SEC institution, and it wouldn’t have surprised me if what happened at Penn State had happen there (for the culture, not for any particular person). And everybody would have reacted the same way they reacted at Penn State. It’s the culture, not the institution in particular.
    As for other sports, I can only say that some of my best students have been on the swimming team. Why? I have no idea.


  6. koshembos: I remember his nastiness about Hillary Clinton too. We must have been reading the same blogs in the mid-2000s and have become disillusioned by them around the same time. (I used to read his blog daily, up until the insanity of the 2008 Dem primary).


  7. Actually, I was a little surprised by the number of people who didn’t think there was a sufficient explanation of why I resigned the chair. Quite apart from the supplementary explanation I provided on Facebook (about resigning the chair as a precondition of commenting on the scandal that has engulfed my institution), I thought that these two passages were fairly clear. Number one:

    “So there are two institutional failures here. The first, in 1998, is primarily a failure of our police and child-protection authorities. The second, in 2001, is primarily a failure of university governance. In between the first and the second, we now know that a couple of Penn State janitors, too, were aware of Sandusky’s criminal escapades, but told themselves they would lose their jobs if they reported what they saw. The cover-up in 2001 strongly suggests that their fear of a culture of secrecy at Penn State was well founded.

    “And that is damning enough—to the reputations of the men who never reported Sandusky to the police, and to the reputation of the university that once prided itself on its athletics integrity. That alone is enough to compel me to resign the chair I had once been so honored to hold.

    Number two:

    “But those of us who live and work at Penn State, and who are most horrified and disgusted by these crimes, might yet be able to try to say that some of what has been said and written about Paterno has been unfair–even unhinged. And we might be able to say that while acknowledging that his failure to ensure that Sandusky was brought to justice is more than enough to taint his legacy forever.

    I’m not seeing that last sentence as a defense of Paterno, but I guess YMMV.

    As for the no-big-deal about going from one chair to another, well, it turns out that lots of people associated with Penn State are very devoted to the Paterno name.

    Sorry about Hillary. I like her again. Best Secretary of State ever.


  8. Berube e-mailed me this morning with the text of the comment above. I was able to rescue it from my SPAM filter, but not until after Z had already left another comment on the thread as it existed without his comment.

    Z, I don’t know for sure why he needed to give up the title, but it seems like people would be less inclined to see his views as above the fray if he still held the Paterno chair. Berube makes his affection and loyalty for the surviving Paterno family very clear in the preamble of his essay. Having lived in a small, isolated academic town once upon a time, I can understand why he wanted to make this clear, while at the same time wanting to distance himself from the Paterno name.


  9. And there’s a fair amount of inside trading here if you are in the Penn State bubble. Jay Paterno is mentioned, Scott is not. Scott is the one out front defending Joe Pa the loudest (and is repugnant in other ways).


  10. Maybe it’s an English prof thing or maybe it’s that I am at a big school where sports matter a lot, but I was deeply moved by this essay and admire Berube for writing it. I don’t know him personally, but I had been waiting to see what he would do and what he would say about it. I think he eloquently captures the pain, conflict, and ambivalence of being in a situation fraught with so many personal and professional challenges. I commend him for publicly grappling with the idea that the catastrophic failures of individuals who have done so much good doesn’t erase all the good they’ve done — even if it means one must relinquish one’s own visible, material tie to a name that now seems so tainted. That’s not an easy position to occupy. I admire Berube for writing this essay, knowing he’d get hammered in many quarters no matter what he said.

    Oh, and I’m surrounded by former Hillary haters who now think she’s a goddess and a genius, so I’ll even forgive Berube his lapse in political judgment. It’s nice to see Democrats united in something.


  11. Madwoman, I think you said it a lot more clearly and eloquently than Berube. I think a lot of us were puzzled by the obfuscatory language and the attempts to cast blame on outsiders for daring to have opinions. For example, I don’t think it was a stretch for some of us to connect this rape coverup conspiracy to the rape culture that dominates many college and professional football teams.

    I know people close to the scene of the crime want everyone to treat said crime as though it weren’t connected in any way whatsoever to other, similar crimes. But I’m not a prosecutor, I’m a historian and a cultural critic, and I’m not bound by criminal law here on my own blog. Historians and cultural studies scholars used to approach accusations of sexual assault and rape as though they were prosecutors–they would isolate the accusation and evidence for and against it from other accusations as well as from the larger structures of power, money, and privilege embedded in human societies. Ergo, most accusations of sexual assault or rape (or lynching, or other extralegal assertions of power over another human body) were treated as anomalies in the body politic rather than a key component of the body politic. It was only feminist historians who insisted on connecting the dots in ways that prosecutors can’t that has yielded a great deal of fresh insights into the conditions of women’s lives throughout American history (for example.)

    (I know that you’re not arguing on this point with me, Madwoman. I’m explaining my point of view, especially because I blogged about the rapes and the fallout at Penn State over the past year.)

    Interesting point, Western Dave. A lot of you clearly see this from so many angles that aren’t apparent to me, from this distance.


  12. Truffula–I think many people mean it as a sign of affection, but not everyone does. I use last names because that’s what I do as a historian, that’s what newspapers and magazines do, and I never call the president “Barack” or his opponent “Mitt.”

    But on Madwoman’s point: I’ve had one blogger with whom I argued back in the spring of 2008 apologize for the tussle and admit that I was right about Obama and Clinton. I think that took guts. I may have to apologize on-blog about a post I made recently accusing the Romney campaign of utter incompetence if he becomes President-Elect Romney!


  13. I’m not sure what it means to “resign” from an endowed chair, beyond disowning the title itself. That is, I don’t know which perks of a chairholder’s job are usually contingent entirely on his or her occupying a specific chair. The practical question doesn’t pop up often: off the top of my head, I can’t think of anyone who (for example) was hired or appointed as “Abigail Thorne Professor of Women’s History” and later decided to be just plain “Professor of History.” My point is that Bérubé probably has no reason to expect his readers to think he made a personal sacrifice by parting ways with the Paterno name.


  14. “I admire Berube for writing this essay, knowing he’d get hammered in many quarters no matter what he said.”

    Where’s the virtue in what he wrote? Berube has it every which way from Sunday. I disapprove of child rape, but I admire the good members of the Paterno family. Joe Paterno behaved badly in some respects/he behaved well in others. Penn State deserves to be sanctioned/Penn State deserves to be admired. I’m distressed, but I’m proud.

    Much braver just to resign the chair and say nothing, recognizing he’s been damaged by association and also recognizing he’s pretty damn well off compared to other people in Centre County.


  15. EngLitProf: I *do* know of specific perks attached to endowed chairs, so Berube might have given something up in switching to another named chair (or he might have picked up a new perk–I don’t know.)


  16. I agree with LadyProf.

    And I am sure B. knew already which named chair he would get to switch to when he resigned. Indeed, he may have hesitated to resign whilst negotiating.


  17. Ah, well, this Madwoman is clearly odd woman out here on the question of Berube’s essay. I’ve got nothing more to say on that subject.

    In re “Hillary,” however, I’ll add this: I’ve got a framed, autographed Clinton campaign poster down in my basement that shouts, “Hillary! For President.” That, and the slings and arrows I endured as a pro-Clinton blogger during the mud fest of 2008, entitles me to use “Hillary” in informal contexts of affection and humor. In other contexts, she is “Clinton,” “Mme Secretary,” or “She Who Rules the World,” depending.

    If she runs as “Hillary!” in 2016, I’ll quit my day job to support her, because nothing would give me more satisfaction than to hear all those misogynist fauxgressives who lectured to me about how corrupt and reactionary she was and how pure and RADICAL Obama was have to call her “Mme President.”


  18. Yes, those were good times, eh? And those of us who tried to point out the utter fatuousness of those fantasies about Obama were heckled and derided as clueless old bitches (or worse yet, clueless racist old bitches) who didn’t see the bright new day that was dawning.

    I wish we were wrong, Madwoman! But alas. It sucks to be right.


  19. It’s worth noting that Berube kind of HAD to write an essay because he’s the current president of the MLA. If he were just some obscure dude with an endowed chair, sure, he could have just resigned and let it be: the reason that he needed to explain his rationale is because this happened at the exact moment that he is also the most prominent person in his (my) field right now. That’s not saying that the Chronicle needed to publish it, but there is a reason why he couldn’t resign in silence.

    While I wasn’t necessarily moved by Berube’s explanation, as Madwoman was, I did get it, and I did finish the essay understanding why he resigned, and I felt like I got the “point” of his writing about his experience. And I didn’t feel like he was being an apologist for Division I Football, or like he was being an apologist for Paterno. (I actually thought that his point about the discourse on college sports – where people deride football or basketball but have no problem with, say, lacrosse or soccer or tennis – was a good one.)

    That said, I did feel like trading one endowed chair for another, at the same institution, seemed like a sort of six of one, half-dozen of another sort of a thing. Do I think that he should have to sacrifice his way of life to take a stand? No. But I do wonder at what is really achieved, if his problem, at least in part, is how the administration handled this issue, by just switching titles. If Penn State handled things in an unethical or inappropriate way, how does switching chairs at Penn State send a message?

    Point is: Berube did what he had to do, as president of the MLA, in writing an essay about his decision; in terms of the decision itself, one can quarrel with whether he should be lauded or derided for it. I don’t think, however, that it’s fair to beat him up for an essay that he pretty much had to write, and an essay that carefully considers the confluence of issues that come into play surrounding this particular case. (One can disagree with the way that he considers those issues, obviously. I’m just saying that one can’t dismiss his take out of hand.)


  20. I think people at Duke U. would be surprised to learn that lacrosse teams are never subjected to scrutiny in the way that big football programs are. But in any case: the reason football programs are subjected to more scrutiny and public attention is that 1) college football players have been accused of rape more often lately than players of any other sport, and 2) the money in this so-called “amateur” sport explains public interest in it.

    Hell, if volleyball coaches were paid millions of dollars a year, if there were such a thing as big-money pro volleyball, and college volleyball matches were on the teevee all day on Saturdays, then we’d doubtless hear about abuses and crimes committed by the coaches and players on those teams. But it’s not like that for volleyball–it’s only like this for two men’s sports.

    My point is that it’s weak and defensive to say “but but but consider all of the other teams out there who *might* have pedophiles on their staffs! Let’s investigate the Dartmouth crew team and the Wellesley tennis team!” Sure! If there’s credible evidence of rape and coercive sex, absolutely. It too should be national news. But does the possible existence of rape and sexual abuse in every college sport really mean that there’s no meaningful, special connection worth considering between big-money NCAA football and sexual abuse? To make that argument is willfully to misunderstand how sexual power operates in our communities.


  21. Yes, some members of the MLA were wondering whether Berube would retain the Paterno chair, but I also agree with the early comments that the essay was a bit long and did not clarify his reasons sufficiently. And the defensive tone didn’t work very well given everything that has come out about Penn State’s role in the events. I think when an institution screws up, it’s better to take responsibility, apologize, and think first about those who were hurt.

    I read Berube’s essay on the same day that Victim #1 went on 20/20 and spoke at length about his experience. This kid went to school officials with his mom, and the principal told them to “go home and think about it.” The school system, the police/DA, and Penn State were reluctant to go after Sandusky because he was such a big man on campus – and that university has a lot of influence in the area. A lot of institutions failed, and it speaks to the inability of a community (perhaps reflective of society at large) to deal with the issue of child abuse. I just think this conversation needs to start and end with child abuse. It’s unfortunate that people have talked so much about Paterno because it deflects focus from the systemic issues — and everyone else who didn’t want to or know how to respond to this situation.

    Hi Historiann.


  22. Hi, RadReadr! I’ve been wondering about how you’re thinking about all of this, but now I know: “I just think this conversation needs to start and end with child abuse.”

    Yes. This is what was buried under compliments for the Paterno family and under aspersions cast on anyone who has problems with big-time college football. Berube benefited directly from a system that condoned the rape of children for decades. This is a morally and politically uncomfortable situation to find oneself in, I am sure, especially someone as thoughtful about profound issues as Berube has been in the past. I appreciate that he sees more complexity (particularly w/r/t the small-town, tight community he lives in) in the football program’s and university administration’s conspiracy to conceal Sandusky’s crimes, but do your warm feelings for Mrs. Paterno or your ressentiment for people who send their children to liberal arts colleges that remain astonishingly free of athletic team rape scandals really matter by comparison?


  23. I think the essay *was* very clarifying, though not in the way Bérubé intended. Two things stood out for me. One Historiann already pointed out, about the stubborn refusal to see that yes, college football culture *is* relevant to what happened. The second, though, was his decision to sneer in the general direction of Vicky Triponey.

    A woman who did, in fact, stand up against that culture. Did you know that no one really liked her? That everybody, just everybody, that she was a phony? That none of the right people ever thought she was anybody atall?

    God, all he needed to add was that if only her TONE had been different, then, maybe then, people could have taken her screechy complaints seriously.

    This was a totally unnecessary part of the essay, given its manifest purpose. But wow did it betray a lot of latent content: yep, that’s totally how those sick patriarchal situations flourish for years.


  24. @Lady Metroland, I agree. The comments about Triponey were not only unnecessary but misguided considering the demographics of the major players in this scandal at Penn State. I suspect that one reason the system could not be self-critical about its own collusion with Sandusky (or possibly even realize what was happening) was that it was an old-boy network. The one woman who stood up to them was (if I remember correctly) driven out.

    And another matter, getting beyond my “it should start and end here” comment…we need to point out the complete and embarrassing failure of certain upper-level administrators to protect the president and even the university’s beloved football program. Why spend all that money on athletic directors or executive vice presidents (one of the guys was named Curley) if not to look out for those whose main job is elsewhere. In other words, once the matter went up the chain it was Curley and Mo’s job to blow the whistle. But easier said than done when faced with the (for many people) incomprehensible sickness of pedophilia and its effects on the kids. It’s not always going to be the guy in the trenchcoat at the park — sometimes it’s grandpa or the nice man who runs the Second-Mile charity. It was too close to home, and they didn’t want to face it.


  25. And I am sure B. knew already which named chair he would get to switch to when he resigned. Indeed, he may have hesitated to resign whilst negotiating.

    It always amazes me when people are sure of stuff they know nothing about, and then proceed to talk about it on the internets. (There has been a great deal of that throughout the Sandusky case.) No, I did not know if another chair was available, and I did not negotiate for one before resigning. I simply asked for a meeting with my dean and told her that I had to do this. In response, she offered me one of the various Sparks chairs in the College of Liberal Arts (right now there are 15 of these — I don’t even know whether that is a fixed number).

    EngLitProf has it right … I never expected anyone to think I’d made some kind of sacrifice, nor did I see that one was necessary. And Dr. Crazy (hi!) understands the position I was in, as well … there was no possibility of resigning the chair quietly, not as MLA president. Of course, I could simply have retained the Paterno title, taking it off all my correspondence and other forms of professional identification. That way I could avoid angering the Paterno family and thousands of alumni, while continuing to dodge the press … and I simply would never say a word in public about the scandal that has kept Penn State in the news for a year now. I just didn’t see that as an ethical thing to do.


  26. And Historiann, the problem with talking about the “rape culture that dominates many college and professional football teams” is that when you do, you assimilate the Sandusky scandal to scandals in which football players rape women (as in the case of the University of Colorado a little over a decade ago). That’s a category error, because here, football players did not rape women. (You speak almost as if they did. You are not alone in this.) What happened was that a football coach founded a charity that would give him access to an endless stream of at-risk boys who would be (a) susceptible to “grooming” by an older, trusted male figure and (b) very unlikely to be believed if they told people that Goofy Loveable Old Jerry was raping them. That is why the Sandusky scandal is more like the Boy Scouts, the Catholic Church, or the BBC’s Jerry Savile scandal than like other rape scandals involving football (none of which, to my knowledge, have involved pedophilia).


  27. Thanks for your further comments, Michael. I abs. see your point (made by others too) that your role as MLA President put you even more in the spotlight on this. (I didn’t know about this, not being a member of the MLA, until I got a bounceback email that mentioned it when I replied to your email last week.)

    As for the rape culture: I reject the notion that child rapes are utterly and completely disconnected to the extent that writing about the Sandusky criminal conspiracy as connected to the rape culture of football in general is a “category error.” The feminist scholarship on rape, not to mention the sociology and psychology of FLDS communities, suggest that all sexual abuse is linked. (FLDS are communities in which teenaged girls’ and women’s bodies and their labor are conscripted and exploited by high-status men, and children’s bodies–male and female–are conscripted by lower status young men.

    As Rad Readr suggests above, it’s important to understand the sexual privileges granted to some high status males, especially men who are successful in rising to the top of all-male hierarchies, can easily become abusive. And beyond that, all-male organizations can be conscripted into covering up crimes, whether they’re against adult women or children.

    For example: See Sharon Block’s Rape and Sexual Power in Early America, especially her concept of “manufacturing consent.” Then review Sandusky’s characterization of his relationship with the boys he raped. Rapists retain an enormous amount of power to make their experience of the relationship the public understanding of the relationship. This is a privilege Sandusky retained only until the past 11 months. This is how rape works.


  28. Oh, I agree that sexual abuse exists on a continuum, and what’s more, I would agree that Sandusky’s enablers worked very much the way rape culture works with regard to women. I just think that a lot of people reacted to this scandal as if it were a matter of football players sexually abusing women. (I can’t see how else to read your aside about Mourdock — surely the hideous Mourdock/Akin/Christianist justifications for rape don’t apply to the rape of children, even in their own twisted minds?)

    And not that you or LadyProf have to understand anything about the context in which I resigned, but if you’re curious someday, you can check out the outraged PSU alumni on this thread from our online alumni magazine:

    (Last and least, there is some injustice in the pushback to my blog post about Secretary Clinton’s 2008 campaign in Pennsylvania. I have never said a sexist word about Sec. Clinton, or indeed about any woman. That would be Keith Olbermann and Chris Matthews you’re thinking of.)


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