Here is the lesson people want to learn from the Penn State scandal: There are some smarmy folks out there who, through a combination of mindless groupthink and fear of antagonizing important people, will do unimaginable things, like not reporting child abusers to the police; perhaps there are other "Penn States" out there or possibly there even are people at our own institution who are hiding seriously dirty linen about which we know nothing. The one thing we know for sure is that we never would act the way those people did.
That’s the wrong lesson. Here’s why.
In the 1960s, the late Stanley Milgram did a series of studies while a faculty member at Yale University. Although the initial studies are old, they have been replicated many times since, across time and place. Milgram would have two study participants enter a room. One would be assigned, seemingly at random, to the role of learner and the other to the role of teacher. Unbeknownst to the teacher, who was a naïve subject, the role assignments were rigged and the learner was a confederate of the experimenter's.
The teacher and learner were informed that they would participate in an experiment on the effects of punishment on learning. On successive trials, the teacher would read to the learner a list of words to be learned and the learner would repeat back the words he remembered. When the learner made a mistake, the teacher would use an apparatus that would deliver an electric shock to the learner.
The apparatus was designed so that each successive shock would be heavier than the last one. Shocks on the device were arranged in increments of 10 volts, ranging from just 10 volts up to 450 volts. The switches at the high end, near 450 volts, had labels like “slight shock,” “moderate shock,” “extreme shock,” “danger: severe shock,” and at the top of the scale, “XXX.” The teacher was given a sample 45-volt shock to show him that the apparatus really did deliver shocks and that they were painful.
Once the experiment started, the learner began to make mistakes. So the teacher shocked him. (In the initial experiments, participants were male, but later experiments involved female participants as well.) After a while, the teacher heard the learner groan, later scream, still later complain about his heart, yet later demand that the experiment stop, and finally fall silent. It might seem that the teacher would stop delivering shocks once the learner started to protest, but the experimenter would reply, when the teacher indicated he wanted to stop the experiment, with responses ranging in a graded sequence: "Continue please”…. "Go on" …. "The experiment requires that you continue" …."It is absolutely essential that you continue" …."You have no choice."
As you may know, the experiment was not really on the effects of punishment on learning but rather on obedience. Psychiatrists asked to estimate what percentage of subjects would administer the maximum level of shock estimated that it would be less than 1 percent. In fact, it was roughly two-thirds.
When I have taught introductory psychology, I have asked my 150 or so students how many of them would have gone to the end, and typically, only one or two jokers say they would have. The rest of the students strenuously deny they would have administered the maximum shock. Yet, roughly two-thirds of them would have gone to the end of the shocks, even though they cannot imagine they would have. They do not yet realize the harm of which they are capable. We all are susceptible to believing that only other people act in ways that are heartless, cruel, or indifferent, and then possibly rationalizing them as humane.
Fortunately for the learner in the Milgram experiments, the shock machine was a phony and, as mentioned earlier, the learner was a confederate and a trained actor. The experiments as originally conducted never would pass muster with today’s ethical requirements because subjects could not be adequately debriefed. No matter what the debriefing said, roughly two-thirds of the subjects in a typical running of the study left the experiment knowing that they might have killed the subject had the shocks been real.
The usual interpretation of the Milgram experiment has been that people are remarkably obedient and that it is because of this typically unrealized potential for obedience that horrors like the Nazi or Rwandan genocide or the brutal reprisals in Syria could take place. In the July 2012 issue of Psychological Science, Stephen D. Reicher of the University of St. Andrews and his colleagues have suggested that “agents of tyranny actively identify with their leaders and are motivated to display creative followership in working toward goals that they believe those leaders wish to see fulfilled.” In other words, people don’t just passively obey; they behave proactively to curry favor with their admired leaders or role models. Sound familiar?
In a related demonstration, Philip Zimbardo, formerly a professor of psychology at Stanford, randomly assigned college students to one of two groups: prison guard or prisoner. He placed them in the basement of the Stanford Psychology Department and then observed how they acted. To his dismay and the dismay of anyone who has since learned of the study, the guards rather quickly started acting like sadistic prison guards and the prisoners started acting in ways betraying learned helplessness — they were essentially browbeaten into submission.
In yet another study, published in 1973 in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, John Darley and C. Daniel Batson found that even most divinity students on their way to give a lecture on the Good Samaritan failed to help a person in obvious distress if their other priorities, such as arriving on time for the lecture, were more important to them at the moment. The study showed that intense ethical training provides relatively little protection against bad behavior in an ethically challenging situation. Since that study was published, episodes of horrendous abuse of children at the hands of clergy, while other clergy in the know stood idly by, have reinforced this lesson in gory detail. Really, no training offers ironclad protection.
If there is one thing that social psychologists have learned over the past decades, it is the enormous but often hidden power of situational pressures. The lesson of the Penn State tragedy is not that there are heartless bureaucrats out there who are willing to sacrifice the well-being of children for the sake of the reputation of the university and its athletic teams. Almost certainly there are. However, the real lesson of the Penn State tragedy is that, given certain situational constraints, virtually all of us could behave the way those administrators allegedly did. These circumstances include severe pressures to conform accompanied by fear of punishment for noncompliance, desire to please or curry favor with one or more persons in a position of power, rationalization of one’s actions, and what I have called "ethical drift" — one’s declining ethical standards in the face of group norms whereby one is not even aware that one’s standards are dropping.
To be clear: The power of situational variables in no way excuses bad behavior. Rather, such variables should help us understand, in part, why such behavior occurs in certain situations, why we are all potentially susceptible to it, and most importantly, what we can do about it.
How do you avoid falling to the trap of ethical drift? First, you need to realize that almost anyone, including yourself, is capable of behaving abysmally under certain circumstances. Second, you need rather regularly to ask yourself whether situational pressures are leading you to behave in ways that once would have seemed totally inappropriate and wrong to you. Third, you need to ask yourself whether you are rationalizing behavior that once would have seemed unacceptable to you. And fourth, you need to be willing to take a stand and do the right thing, realizing that although there may be serious short-term costs to acting ethically, you are willing to accept those costs so you can live with yourself and others over the long term.
One last thing: You may still be thinking that although other people may fall prey to ethical drift — or even a sudden drop off the ethical cliff — you would never succumb to situational pressure to conform. For example, you may just feel you know you would not have gone to the top of the shock apparatus or have let a child abuser continue to abuse children, regardless of the situational pressures placed on you. You may be right, but research has not found any personality characteristics that reliably predict who will succumb to such extreme pressures and who won’t.
Put another way, we all have to be in the situation to know what we would do. So you may wish to reserve judgment for now. When, sooner or later, you are in an ethically challenging situation, as the Penn State administrators were, you then will have an opportunity to learn something about yourself. If you resist succumbing to the temptation just to go along, you then will be able to feel pride in yourself, as would we all. As for me, I find what happened at Penn State absolutely abhorrent and cannot believe that I would have acted in the way those administrators appear to have, but I know I cannot be absolutely sure of what I would do unless I found myself actually in such a situation under comparable pressures.
When crowds of fans shouted, “We are Penn State!” they did not realize just how right they were. Potentially, at least, we all are Penn State, both in its best aspects and its worst.
Robert J. Sternberg is provost, senior vice president, Regents Professor of Psychology and Education and George Kaiser Family Foundation Chair in Leadership Ethics at Oklahoma State University. He also is president of the Federation of Associations in Behavioral and Brain Sciences, and past president of the American Psychological Association. The opinions expressed in this article, however, are entirely his own.
Now that a little time has passed since Louis Freeh issued his report on the Penn State debacle, I’ve been reflecting on both the Penn State and U.Va. affairs. Reading the coverage, it seemed as though journalists and bloggers were observing a seesaw whose riders could not find equilibrium. When commentators compared the two state universities, they wrote about the relationship between presidents and trustees. The problem at Penn State, that argument ran, was that the trustees didn’t check up on the administrators. Instead, they participated in a culture that glorified football and the men associated with it. The problem at U.Va., that argument continued, was that the trustees stuck their noses in academic affairs, a place "where angels [should] fear to tread" – unless they truly understand online learning, MOOCs, hybrid courses, and perhaps even the contrast between close readings and the digital humanities.
Finding equilibrium is indeed a problem, but it is not the problem. The problem is corporatization. Not only trustees, but also politicians and administrators have bought into the current ideological assumption that higher education may once again thrive if it only becomes more business-like. The call to rationalization is not new. Nor are the characteristics of the people who are making that call. At many universities, the boards of trustees have much the same occupational distribution today as they had 30 or even 100 years ago, when in The Higher Learning in America, Thorsten Veblen wrote of how "captains of industry" were imposing their view of the world on universities.
Today’s situation seems so different, because after World War II, there was a “brief shining moment” when trustees, administrators and politicians deferred to faculty. Dedicated to leading the world in research and discovery, intent on expanding national productivity by educating the youth of the middle class and even the lower-middle class, government and corporate officials recognized professors as people who knew their stuff – as professionals who could decide which research was worthy of funding and publication and which topics were important to teach and learn. They also gave at least lip service to notions of shared governance – although it is also clear that those with a business orientation found the more idealistic liberalism of professors to be problematic. (Recall: Studies have found that people who become professors are more liberal than are the academically talented folk who enter other industries.)
Sometime in the 1980s, priorities began to shift and universities discovered that the supply of their previously preferred students – white males between the ages of 18 and 22-- was waning and the number of white women and people of color among high school graduates was growing larger. George Keller famously warned about this "revolution" in his classic 1983 book Academic Strategy. To fill the seats of classrooms and increase funds, at least some colleges and universities would have to expand their clientele. One way to do so is to accept nontraditional students, who today make up the bulk of the college-attending population. Another is to swipe undergraduates from other states and to charge them more. At Penn State’s University Park campus, in-state students pay $648 per credit and out-of-staters $1,161.
But supply, demand, and revenue streams were not the only issues. After all, to cite a waning supply of preferred students as a problem, one must be prepared to think about universities in terms of supply, demand, revenue streams, and marketing. After World War II, professionalism had been de rigueur, but corporate concerns personified as branding and marketing were to trump professionalism. Universities were to adopt facets of the institutional logic of the corporate world, as they competed for students, research money, reputation, philanthropic donations, and eventually even championship bowl wins. Instead of viewing higher education as an activity that contributed to the public good, corporate leaders, politicians, and even university administrators began to speak of it as an industry.
After drowning myself in news stories and commentary, I have come to think that Penn State and U.Va. share a common corporate concern with industrial competition, including branding. Both boards seem obsessed with risk, not in the old sense of the dangers faced when attempting to climb Mount Everest or dive off a platform 10 meters above a swimming pool. In those old examples, one faces risk by being brave. Today, like other corporatized organizations, universities face risk as what Michael Power has identified as "organized uncertainty" in his book of the same name. Sometimes you just can’t anticipate the results of even the best academic plans and organizational strategies. "The best-laid plans of mice and men" … and all that. As true of auto manufacturers, law firms, and insurance companies, the new corporatized universities care about risk as something to be managed, something that they can hope to control in order to ward off disaster. Like corporations they have departments dedicated to risk management.
The Freeh Report notes that at Penn State the Office of Risk Management "identifies and manages potential risks throughout the university related to financial, physical and reputational loss." The report states that "most of [the office’s] work centers on assessing contract-based risks," but even the inclusion of "reputation loss" is noteworthy. Supposedly, a university’s reputation contributes to the number of applications it receives and to its yield rate. Since the scandal began, applications to Penn State have risen by 1 percent and the number of donors has increased. Maybe these statistics mean that what matters is getting your name in print, as public relations specialists once assumed.
The U.Va. board's firing and rehiring of Teresa Sullivan also involved risk management. But the U.Va. Board of Visitors and the faculty cared about different risks. Apparently, members of the Board of Visitors feared that other prestigious universities would pass them in the race to become identified with online higher education; they are said to have worried that U.Va. wasn’t changing fast enough. Among the faculty the concern almost harkens back to the 1960s and 1970s: If the members of the board have so little regard for a president whom we respect and so little regard for our own professionalism, the occupationally mobile professoriate at U.Va. seemed to ask, is this a place where I want to be? Sullivan put it more directly: she worried that the actions of the Board of Visitors would encourage talented faculty to find jobs elsewhere. Not all professors can easily jump from one job to another. James Duderstadt was probably thinking of distinguished professors, like many of those found at U.Va, when in A University for the Twenty-First Century, he wrote that holding on to one's faculty can be like trying to keep frogs from leaping out of a wheelbarrow.
The Freeh Report on Penn State mentions risk and avoiding potential disaster by talking about how administrators engaged in what can be called a cover-up to protect "their brand." The Nittany Lions is more than a football team and its mascot. It is a university. Similarly, U.Va. has its brand. I don’t mean the plume-hatted cavalier whom I’ve seen swagger around at basketball games. I mean the glorification of academic integrity supposedly inherited from Thomas Jefferson, the founder of U.Va. If Joe Paterno and the Nittany Lions had personified Penn State, Thomas Jefferson’s faith in the search for knowledge as truth has symbolized U.Va. Both representations are a brand.
Penn State, U.Va. and their governing boards messed up as they entered the fray of corporate competition. Neither university could find its balance on what commentators have described as a seesaw or balancing act. Each was so intent on glorifying its brand that key people forgot that education is not a competitive game. Penn State hyped football; U.Va., its status as the first public university and a leader in higher education.
Governing a university is not a matter of balancing the concerns of the board against those of the top administrators. A university is not a seesaw. Routinely, both presidents and trustees invoke "stakeholders" to show their understanding that many groups of people feel they have an interest in a university's future. Many strategic plans mention stakeholders; Helen Dragas, chair of the U.Va. board when it moved against Sullivan, referred to the participation of stakeholders in her June 21 statement about the challenges facing the University of Virginia. But, too often, when they make key decisions, trustees and presidents ignore the pretty sentiments etched in their plans and official statements. They return to the seesaw model.
A good solution to failed risk management at each of these schools is a return to shared governance. Many professors at Penn State had decried the power of the department of athletics. Many professors at U.Va. know much more about digitization than members of the Board of Visitors. Universities boards and administrators might want to recognize that professors are a resource, not just a nuisance to be audited and held accountability for their productivity and economic contribution to their employers.
Gaye Tuchman is professor emerita of sociology at the University of Connecticut. Her books include Making News: A Study in the Construction of Reality and Wannabe U: Inside the Corporate University.
Experts often cite escalating revenues and spending in athletics as a driver in the culture that, according to the Freeh report, helped enable the Penn State scandal. But don't look for the cash flow to slow any time soon.
Faculty union says university proposal would effectively let administrators get rid of tenured professors any time a budgetary shift takes place. Administration says it respects tenure, but needs "flexibility."
As colleges have cut their budgets and eliminated positions, the impact has been felt in many college towns, The Wall Street Journal reported. College towns are losing tax revenue and seeing housing prices drop -- while those who have lost jobs move away.
Brother James Liguori resigned Thursday as head of Fordham University's Westchester County campus after he was accused of sexually abusing a teenage boy in 1969, The Poughkeepsie Journal reported. A statement from the university said that "Brother Liguori passed a criminal background check in fall 2011, when he was hired by Fordham. University officials began investigating immediately [after reports surfaced of the accusation], and on Friday, July 20, Brother Liguori submitted his resignation, effective immediately." Brother Liguori was formerly president of Iona College. Brother Liguori could not be reached for comment.
Trustees learn some rules:
“Keep noses in -- fingers out!”
Do we know they work?
In June, Visitors
Of U.Va. put all their
"Fingers in" -- quite fast.
July came ‘round and
PSU’s board took the stage
“Noses out” -- quite far.
Sad -- the rules proved right
As the boards got them so wrong --
Q.E.D. times two.
Richard Kneedler is president emeritus of Franklin & Marshall College and a consultant and operating officer with Ann Duffield & Colleagues, a firm providing strategic counsel to college and university chief executives and boards. He previously served as interim president of Rockford College.
In the spring of 2009 the Italian football (soccer) club Juventus – as wealthy and powerful a club as exists in Europe – was forced to play a game with no fans in attendance because the crowd at a game had been racially abusive to another team’s player.
During the 2011-2012 Dutch soccer season, AFC Ajax – one of the two dominant clubs in that nation’s athletic scene – played a match in an empty stadium after a fan ran onto the field and attacked a visiting team player.
This spring, the Italian top-level football club Genoa was required to play its final two home games “behind closed doors” because of crowd violence at a previous match.
Latest Penn State Developments
With NCAA poised to announce
penalties against the university
Monday, campus officials take
down Joe Paterno's statue outside
the football stadium.
All around the world, the penalty for toxic sport culture is the same: teams, rich teams, poor teams, powerful teams, unknown teams, are required to play games in silent, empty stadia, often without television as a local option, denied income and in-house support, while the fans hopefully learn – the hard way – that there are things more important than athletics.
Now, we, in American higher education, have a good reason to learn from the planet we share but hardly ever actually interact with as equals. When the culture of sport is the issue, attack the culture of the sport by cutting off its oxygen supply: remove the fans from the scene of their crimes.
There is no doubt that the “culture of reverence” (the words of the Freeh report) for Penn State football created the conditions in which the cover up of Jerry Sandusky’s crimes could not only occur, but go on for 14 years. There is no doubt that the culture of football worship – and Joe Paterno worship – in State College, Pa., allowed decades of crimes to occur in silence: the sexual harassment and discrimination by the university’s former women’s basketball coach Rene Portland for one, the many reported but unprosecuted crimes by Nittany Lions football players from 2002 to 2008 exposed by ESPN for another.
And there is little doubt that it is a culture unchallenged at Pennsylvania State University, which, since the scandal broke eight months ago, has put no sanctions on its football program, has crowed about continued donations, has sent the team off to a bowl game, and has, frighteningly, suggested as its one action, that the showers and locker room at the Lasch Football Building be renovated lest Penn State football players "feel uncomfortable."
Allie Grasgreen’s article last week on Inside Higher Ed, Must Penn State Cleanse?, dealt with the need for a “grand gesture,” such as shutting down the football program for one or more seasons. “I can’t see any other action that shows that great intersection of wanting to do better -- introspection, remorse, pain, leadership, humanity, empathy -- in its real sense,” said Dan Lebowitz, executive director of Northeastern University’s Sport and Society program. “If they’re hoping for football to return to prominence, wouldn’t they want it also under a cleansed brand?”
“The board has an imperative to take strong, demonstrable action to both rein in and possibly even punish the football program itself, as it would other renegade programs within the institution,” the article quote former University of Michigan president James J. Duderstadt as writing. But Grasgreen also pointed out the many “too big to fail” excuses for why Penn State football must march on, almost all of which are related to the financial consequences of broken contracts or the perception that innocent athletes are being punished.
So, if march on the Nittany Lions must, let them march on in silence behind the padlocked gates of Beaver Stadium for the next four years, or long enough to break, conclusively, that culture of reverence. Let there be no “Paternovilles” (by any name), let there be no more embarrassing moments of faux piety as we witnessed during the Nebraska-Penn State game last autumn. Allow the players to play, insist that Penn State pay its contractual commitments, allow the Big Ten to have its right number of games televised everywhere but the State of Pennsylvania, but send an unmistakable message that Penn State exists for some reason other than to provide Saturday afternoon entertainment eight days a year.
Throughout my watch of Penn State since the Sandusky arrest I have been privileged to be in communication with a very important member of the Penn State community, Matt Bodenschatz, a “non-traditional” student who immediately began challenging his university’s response to the scandal in November of last year. “I have something unpopular to say,” Bodenschatz wrote bravely on November 13, “I see everywhere -- in your editorials on your social media pages, in your subversively-written chalk messages printed all over campus -- your desperate insistence that ‘We are still Penn State.’ And each of these that I come upon creates in me a feeling of isolating sadness and emptiness. It reinforces in me what I have long felt – that the realities of victims and the realities of observers are worlds apart.”
Then he adds, “Because my community -- the survivor community, the victim community -- doesn’t get to boast of being unchanged.”
Since that day I have watched Bodenschatz work – through his group Voices4Victims– to educate his peers, his classmates, his community, his university, even his alumni association on the horrific symbolism of Penn State “moving on,” “getting back to normal.”
For if Penn State is allowed to casually return to “normal” this September, its Saturdays filled with crowds tailgating and cheering, the band playing, the party atmosphere, neither Bodenschatz nor any other victim within the Penn State community gets a true chance to heal. “It’s easy to get over this,” we’ll be saying. “See, a few months and it’s all in the past.” To allow that to happen would be a violation of all that it truly means to be an educational institution.
In a comment on Grasgreen’s article, Sanford Thatcher, the distinguished former director of the Penn State University Press, insists that, “There was no attempt by anyone in athletics to pull its programs away from "core values" of the university and embrace a "commercial culture" instead.” And he asks, incredibly, “Exactly what "university mission" was abandoned in favor of football?”
It is for Mr. Thatcher, and the students of Penn State, that this teachable moment must be embraced. We must teach all that the mission of any university, the mission of any educational institution, the mission of any educated person, includes the obligation to serve and protect society – especially society’s most vulnerable. That our mission includes the obligation to behave honestly and ethically, and that it includes an obligation to demonstrate, and to teach, humane and appropriate behavior.
The teaching of this cannot take place in the course of business as usual in State College. That gap Bodenschatz speaks of, between the realities of the victims and the realities of the observers, is clearly too vast to be bridged five days a week if on day six we argue, as loudly as possible, the opposite.
We can’t shut down Penn State football? Fine. Let them play. But let them play in silence while the business of education goes on.
Ira Socol is a research and teaching assistant at Michigan State University.
The University of Illinois Board of Trustees on Thursday killed a major contract that had been criticized as a conflict of interest, The Chicago Tribune reported. The contract was to an architectural firm partly owned by the husband of the administrator who oversees campus construction planning. Christopher Kennedy, chair of the Illinois board, said, "We don't want any more ethical issues associated with the university. We get public money and we have to hold ourselves to a higher standard."