Saturday, November 12, 2011

Penn. state football hides child rapist

Note: this is not a gently written post, it may be upsetting to some.  I also link to the grand jury document which will be upsetting to all.

I care about academic institutions because I am a graduate student and I plan on competing for a faculty job one day.  I care about education in general because it can be a great social good, and I care about education as the parent of two small children.  Before starting my current degree program I also worked in a number of labs which made important societal contributions.  In many ways it's a good "business" to be in and very satisfying, but I also have no illusions about the institutional politics of the Academy.  People in academia do unethical things and one of the downsides is that they're all quite good at rationalizing it.  It's that kind of environment, we select for it.

After a grand jury investigation, three men have been charged with either committing child rape or hiding it.  An assistant football coach, Mike McQueary, witnessed the rape of one of the boys and only reported it internally.  Then the otherwise highly respected football coach Joe Paterno also only reported the incident internally.  After these men realized that the internal process didn't reach its appropriate conclusion, neither chose to go to the police independently.

There is a lot in this story to be angry about.  First of all, in 2002, McQueary had the option of stopping the rape and calling 911.  He had the option of calling 911 and having the police intervene.  It was a basic failure of ethics on his part that he could not muster himself to any meaningful action.  His second chance came later, after he (must have) realized that there were no serious consequences for the rapist.  He had at least seven years to consider this possibility, but never made the right decision.  McQueary (after consulting his father!) reported the rape to Joe Paterno the next day (!) and McQueary was involved in a further meeting with perps #2 and #3 from the above grand jury investigation (Curly and Schultz) where he again related his account of the rape.  The consequences to the rapist were minimal (no locker room key for you Mr. Rapist Sandusky!) and the rape was never reported to the police.

In the end it was the original victim who, years later, relayed the story to his mother.  She notified the school district in 2009, the district notified the police, which led to the grand jury investigation.  It turns out that the mother and the victims who were willing to speak to the grand jury were quite brave.  The rest?  Cowards.  Men in power, three of them at the core of a sport which glorifies testosterone and aggression, completely lacking cojones and drifting through life without a functioning moral compass.

It also makes me angry that I can imagine the meeting McQueary had with Curly and Schultz.  I don't know if he was inclined to report the rape to the police before the meeting, but I'm sure soothing words were deployed about taking care of the "situation" internally and quietly.  Like in other big institutions, it's quite easy to get blacklisted in an academic setting.  People like McQueary work for years to get into the sort of career they want, all the while assiduously avoiding making enemies.  Once you've made that sort of investment it's hard to decide to risk it on your morals.  The investment itself is corrosive.

You might have months or years where the worst you witness is somebody stealing pipette tips from your lab, or trashing your paper in review only to publish first on the same topic.  Sooner or later something real will go down with you in the middle of it, and when it does, please remember that keeping your humanity really is worth risking your PhD/grant/reputation.  Consider it as an extra incentive to network broadly.

After stewing on this for a few days, I discovered that Jon Stewart put it quite succinctly, and is quite effective at conveying his anger as well.

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