Saturday, November 12, 2011

More Notes on a Scandal: Cultures of Compliance (the Penn State/Berkeley comparison)

The other week, my university's Chancellor sent out a message encouraging people to respect each other's differences - be they cultural, political, religious, academic, etc. 
It's the kind of thing administrators generate to look like they are doing the right thing. It's also the kind of thing that makes 'doing the right thing' look easy. As if difference - being different, feeling differently, living differently - was reducible to a matter of taste. The actual aim of that message was to discourage students from raising their voices. The memo's central purpose, in other words, is to minimize conflict.
That same week, at Berkeley, campus police wedged their batons into student bellies. Some show of respect. 

Dave Zirin said something a lot of us were thinking when he contrasted Penn State students with Berkeley's - one set rioting at the firing of a coach who failed his community by burying accusations of child abuse, the other peacefully asserting their right to demonstrate in support of the #Occupy movement - and beaten by the campus police for doing so. (Penn State students also "rioted" at the announcement of Osama Bin Laden's death - so, this seems to be their default mode.)
Sneering at jarhead Penn State fans is a little too easy. It's close to the flipside of the knee-jerk, smug righteousness of the fans themselves - who decry the defilement of the abused in the same gesture they flip a news van and set it on fire. These things feel related to me - the macho posturing that wraps itself around the idea of protecting innocent children, coming from the last people one would actually trust to know what it means to support a healthy sexual culture.
In any case, both situations express a crisis in the integrity of university culture. And it does feel like this problem goes coast to coast. 
There is a growing gap between what students want from their universities and what those campuses are giving them. They want an education. They are being given lessons in compliance - comply with the corporate culture or get beaten for resisting it.
It's a miracle that California students haven't started burning down their schools. The entire system has been raped and pillaged by the selfish class. It's that simple. Administrations collaborate, making deals with the "1%" by selling bad debt - what is the difference between a shady mortgage on an overpriced home sold at the edge of a bubble, and dramatic rises in tuition that can only be paid with loans that will enslave students with outrageous "unsecured" debt for most of their adult, underemployed lives?
The brutal realities of this are perhaps nowhere more evident that in the Golden State, which once boasted the best public education system in the world, but now can't afford to give its students desks and textbooks. Tuition escalates beyond a working person's reach. Families lose their homes and kids are caught between paying for school, or helping mom and dad with the mortgage. Everybody is losing.
Students should occupy their campuses - they need to unite in their grief and outrage, and they'll find plenty of staff and faculty willing to pitch their tents alongside them. But it's their campus. We work for them.
Turning to Penn State: I can't fathom making a martyr out of Joe Paterno, and there's no crowd that makes me more uncomfortable, feel more "unsafe" than college football fans.
But: I can imagine being very suspicious of Penn State's public sacrifice of its father-figure.
The atmosphere at Penn State has been described to me as "cult-like." That intense attachment to the campus, secured through its football program and its symbolic Father, is what most universities are aiming for: Rather than build the campus up from the ground with good teaching, resources for research, support for student learning - they are trying to create a corporate brand, administrations want students to have not an education but an "experience."

The myth here is that this nostalgia for "the college experience" will fund public education. For a handful of colleges it might, but at what cost to them, and to the rest of the system?
University executives now want former students to look back on their education with uncritical nostalgia, with the same set of feelings they might have for their first pair of Nikes.
If I send a check to Rutgers, it isn't because I think back on my "college experience" and feel wistful. I think about how the education I received - which was pleasurable, challenging and sometimes soul-rattling - changed my life. Enabling that in the classroom is hard work. It isn't pretty. It is a hard sell.
The Penn State students who rioted clearly drank the campus Kool-Aid. But I can imagine being a student there, and seeing the big round of dismissals as a hollow gesture. Given how long this abuse is supposed to have gone on, given how many years people continued to work with and support Sandusky after they learned about the now infamous shower incident, who doesn't bear responsibility to the alleged victims here? Ushering these guys off the stage with the directive "don't talk about anything" doesn't feel satisfactory. But what would? Something is rotten in the system. 
But what system? How is it rotten?
As I wrote in an op-ed piece for The Guardian this week, it's more, and more complicated, than football and big-time sports.
I remember the sex scandal that rocked Princeton in the late 1980s, when a distinguished male professor in the English Department was accused of rape by a male graduate student. (See the NYT Magazine article, "Arms and the Man: A Sex Scandal Rocks Princeton.")
The story was awful - the professor's behavior before and after the incident was disturbing. Those who came forward were treated badly by the university. They were feminist, anti-racist and anti-homophobic scholars tired of the climate cultivated by the Princeton administration's passivity vis a vis discrimination and harassment. Confronted with a university that dealt with a credible rape accusation by offering the accused professor a golden parachute, four left - including Emory Elliott, a distinguished American Literature scholar who was my senior colleague at U.C. Riverside.
At my own campus, three women came forward in the 1990s and filed a complaint about systemic harassment and discrimination in the History Department. The pattern of behavior was jaw-dropping - ranging from overt discrimination against women faculty with children to a rape charge filed by a female student against a male professor. It was bad enough to become a scandal within the academy. (The story was reported in a May 1999 story for The Chronicle of Higher Education: "A History Department Implodes Over Sex-Bias Charges and a Suicide.")
The women who came forward on my campus paid a heavy price for doing the right thing. If that department is now a good place to work, we can thank those scholars. But even now, I see little sympathy from senior colleagues about the crap they went through and how that might have impacted not only their scholarship, but their relationship to the institution.
I recall these stories to point out something easily forgotten: academic administration contains more than a few atavistic holdovers from the days when universities were run by and for white men.
An English Department, a History Department will (hopefully) have been forced to work through this stuff by virtue of the integration of women and feminist scholars into their ranks - the Humanities are ahead of the ball on this point.
Athletic Departments like Penn State's are nursing fantasies of the gold old days when men were men and women knew their place, and nobody rocked to boat or talked about anything.  
The bizarre thing about this is that athletic departments are actually forced to confront the matter of gender equity much more directly than academic departments. It is (apparently) hard to force a Physics department to hire as many women as it does men - but it isn't hard to force a campus to at least try to offer equal opportunity to women athletes.
That should mean that there is a greater awareness in athletic departments about all the issues that come with sex/gender equity - but instead we see a national pattern of football programs especially endorsing rape culture, women's sports programs engaging in shitty forms of gender policing (Penn State was sued by a female basketball player who was harassed by her coach over her 'unfeminine' appearance), a total passivity about homophobic behavior towards male and female athletes, and a resistance to owning up to the responsibilities that campus administrations bear in letting this stuff go on, and on, and on.
As we bear witness to this national wave of sympathy for the victims and at the massive, totally justified outrage at the cover-up, let's entertain the following possibility:
If people felt half this sympathy for the women who've been raped by football players in the past forty years, or half the outrage regarding the systemic cover-up of those assaults - perhaps we wouldn't be in quite this situation. Perhaps the guys at Penn State would have been raised to do the right thing, even if that thing was really hard.
To circle back to my opening paragraph - If I'm uneasy about comparisons of the Penn State student riot with the Berkeley student protest, even as a study of contrasts, it's because campus administrators don't see a difference. They see both as crowds to be controlled, and send them both the same memo.

What we want on our campuses is an environment in which people can speak hard truths - truths with consequences. We want students to be able to express themselves when they are angry and confused. We want an environment in which people will at least be heard. Whether they utter their truth as a shout, or a whisper.

1 comment:

  1. I always think of this:

    I just can't believe in this day and age this is still the case.



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