Universities Are People, Too, II

Sep 16, 2013 | Updated Nov 16, 2013

My last column, "Universities Are People, Too," generated a number of off-line heated responses -- so heated, in a few cases, that they resorted to ad hominem attack. While I appreciate and value school spirit, I believe that in this case it prevented a few readers from reading carefully.

The point of the column was not to single out Penn State as some kind of pariah, or to continue to heap blame on this one institution. The point was to demonstrate -- using Penn State as an example -- that universities adopt (usually unwittingly) distinct cultures, and while an institutional culture can be positive and affirming, it can also be corrupt and corrupting.

The Freeh Report claims that Penn State's "culture of reverence" for the football program is "ingrained at all levels of the campus" and that this culture of reverence is what enabled officials to rationalize to themselves and to others that it was acceptable to overlook Jerry Sandusky's actions. For many in this culture, protecting the reputation of the football program became the highest priority -- higher even than the victims' safety.

And while you may dispute -- as all of my interlocutors did -- this report's validity or fairness, its larger point, that an institution's particular culture can in effect take over and begin to cause people to behave in certain ways and not others, is the most germane to my own discussion.

Big-time college football is only one potential factor that can mold an institutional culture, but because of the substantial prestige and money involved, it is an extremely powerful one -- in some cases, one might say, an irresistible one.

Decades ago, I served on the faculty of a university that prided itself on having one of the most storied college football teams of all time, headed by one of the greatest college coaches the nation has ever produced. This team's all-time record even surpasses that of Penn State.

The culture of that institution was just as corrupt -- if not more so -- than what we have witnessed more recently at Penn State. While no sex scandal rose to national prominence -- in fact, none of the known scandals at the time rose to national attention precisely because of the self-protective culture -- that institution was rife with stories of corruption, including cover-ups of indiscretions by star players, and a host of practices that would make today's NCAA officials blush.

I myself was offered a bribe to alter the academic record of an emerging star. I declined.

The real point of my last column is that like individuals, institutions, as a collectivity, can behave in proper or improper ways. And like individuals, therefore, they should be held accountable.

Whether you agree or disagree with the specific investigations of or statements about the Penn State situation is beside the point. The real point is that we must continue to hold institutions accountable for the behavior of its officials, something that never happened back in the days when bribery and cover-ups were de rigueur.