Monday, January 29, 2018

The Questions that the Michigan State Affair (and Others) Raise

Penn State.


Michigan State.

The Sandusky affair, the blatant disregard for sexual assault and the blatant disregard for sexual molestation and assault are stunning, troubling and horrifying.  Imagine, also, if your kids were the victims.  How would you feel?  And, if they're not, how do you feel?  Why should this type of behavior be enabled, tolerated and covered up at these schools?

But there are two other compelling questions that must be raised.  Are we na├»ve enough to believe that these are the only institution with these problems?  Are we now cynical enough to believe that every institution has this type of problem and that there are two types of colleges -- those that have been caught and those who have not?  Which school is next?  And what will the Michigan State do to amateur athletics, college athletics, high school athletics and college administrations in general?  Is the Michigan State affair just the tip of a huge iceberg that is about to surface and ram itself into each and every college?

The second question, equally compelling, is why these patterns of behavior seem to go on an not get hit head on with a sledgehammer and stopped?  Why don't people want to stand up and take on the odd behavior of a Jerry Sandusky, the sexual assault culture at Baylor, the molestation/assault culture at Michigan State?  People saw the behavior, they saw the signs, they knw things were going on and yet, they did nothing.  Or not enough.


I have given this some thought and posit that it takes a lot of courage to stand up because of a few factors.  First, you don't know if you will be believed.  Second, you don't know if you will be retaliated against (look into what happened to Mike McQueary at Penn State) or whether you will be committing career suicide, because who wants to hire a whistleblower?  Third, you don't want to risk losing all the trappings of your job -- the 401(k) or 403(b) match for your retirement funds, the defined contribution that a university makes to your retirement account, the tuition support for your kids' tuition, your tenure and rank at the institution.  Or you think that taking a stand is above your pay grade -- it is for someone else to do.  Or you think that others must know and are looking into it.  Finally, most people hate conflict, like going home to their comfortable chair, big-screen television and ice cream at night.  They like being comfortable, and raising an issue this serious is very uncomfortable.  And for some, there is no safety net, no safe landing space. 

All of these factors are plausible.  Many institutions try to build in mechanisms for people to raise complaints.  Hotlines can be very useful if people feel uncomfortable to raise questions in real time and in person.  But hotlines have some baggage -- the reporter at times only wants to go so far and many times does not want to meet with the investigators.  As a result, incidents reported on hotlines can be unsubstantiated, especially if they occur in isolation.  That said, were Michigan State to have gotten numerous reports about Larry Nassar, the odds would have increased dramatically that Michigan State had a Larry Nassar problem and that Larry Nassar had big problems.  Have one person make a claim that investigators cannot substantiate, and, well, it's an unsubstantiated claim.  Have ten people make claims in a concentrated period of time, and most likely there are enough dots to connect and dominos to fall that the likes of Nassar get outed, fired and prosecuted.

There are many great minds in higher education and law enforcement, and they need to partner to figure out solutions so that these affairs do not happen again.  There will be occasional bad incidents -- it is hard to avoid them -- but the goal would be to knock out patterns of behavior before they come patterns and tsunamis of crime to occur before they even become a two-incident trend.  Cultures must change; the money must not corrupt an institution and institutions need to realize that they need to hit incidents head on to protect their reputations as opposed to avoiding them because no one wants to deal with a scandal.  Deal with an incident head on and dispatch with it, and you'll get a reputation for an accountable institution that does things the right way.  Let things go because you don't want to do the right thing or bring embarrassment to the university, well, look at Michigan State right now.  Their brand is damaged, their proverbial ship is listing mightily.  And why?  Because despite many opportunities, no one in authority did anything.  And no one -- not Tom Izzo, not Mark Dantonio, not Larry Nassar -- should be bigger than the institution.  And in this case, MSU let Nassar and his "global" reputation become bigger than the institution to the point where no one would believe that such a legendary figure could be such a predator.  Everyone is accountable; the bigger the name, the higher the standards they should be held to and hold themselves to.  Why?  It's called leadership.  It's called accountability.

So how much of this remains out there?  The examples are not limited to pedophilia and sexual harassment, either.  For example, before privacy laws came into effect in the U.S. regarding healthcare, employers had free rein to examine which employees were biggest users of their healthcare plans, who had AIDS, and who suffered from mental health issues.  My guess is that the landscape is littered with busted careers because those who ran companies -- through their human resources departments -- scanned these records.  After all, who wanted someone making $40,000 a year in a clerical job using up $200,000 a year in AIDS medicine or who wanted a nut case working for them because the company knew that the rising star went to see a psychiatrist and might have gotten a prescription for a sedative?  I wrote the previous lines pejoratively, because, needless to say, that type of managerial behavior was deplorable.  Lord knows the billions in damages people suffered -- not to mention the damage to their reputations -- because of the speculation that must have swirled about them because of the peek into the healthcare records.  The privacy laws ended those "look ins" but the damage was done.    The AIDS patient was not evil, and neither was the person who was aware enough to get some help for his mental health issues.  Oddly, the evil was in the acts of the management, who wanted to sanitize anything and not give one rat's rear end about others' lives or a sense of community.  Compassion?  That obviously was for someone else. 

My guess is that Penn State, Michigan State and Baylor cannot be the only ones.  North Carolina and Louisville had scandals regarding phony classes and strippers/payments to players, respectively.  The laws that require the reporting of sexual assaults on campus can make any parent worry; it stands to reason that more reports of systematic neglect and aggressiveness against victims will surface, big-name coaches will be involved, and whole administrations might continue to fall.  Put different, the odds are that similar scandals are brewing at between 15-20% of the schools in the Power 5 conferences.  Which means, then, that there might be half a dozen more schools that have serious issues. 

I used to comment on these pages that I didn't want my kids to go to a college where any coach makes more than the university president.  My reason for saying this is that I want the schools to have their priorities in order -- not the bread and circus that can mollify the masses of students that go to the big places -- but an emphasis on learning, community and skills needed to graduate with confidence and become a productive member of society.  While I like sports, I could care less whether the schools' teams win the majority of their games or whether the school has to expel a star because despite what he means to the team he committed an act of violence.  Yes, as the Duke lacrosse debacle taught us, everyone is entitled to a defense, and I don't want to paint athletic administrations, coaches and players with a broad brush, but schools need to deal with acts of aggression or molestation -- against any student, not just an athlete -- with compassion and dispatch.  The accused must be afforded their rights too -- we cannot go overboard with trials by media or angry student groups because an incident happened the night before and tensions are running high.

Lastly, the NCAA is not the organization to deal with this issue.  Oh, it will jump in the way it did against Penn State because there was a huge public hue and cry and because the powers that be -- including the now-questioned Mark Emmert -- figured that they had to do something.  I am not sure that the NCAA has jurisdiction or that it should step in.  Law enforcement seems to be all over the case, as it should be.  That said, I think that the powers that be in the State of Michigan should realize the huge culture problem they have in East Lansing and take decisive measure to change the culture and make sure that they have their priorities in order. 

Something went really, terribly, horribly wrong.  My heart aches for all the victims and their families.  This is a huge crisis, and Michigan State must turn it into an opportunity, so that no person who walks on the campus walks in fear or walks concerned that if she has any concerns about her well being, that she will not be able to raise them and get a good, fast response.  That should not be too much to ask, but, apparently, on many college campuses, it is right now.

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