Memo to Penn State Board of Trustees – Please Pass it Along

Apparently Penn State’s Board of Trustees is scheduled to meet this weekend to ratify the university’s agreement with the NCAA. Yahoo reports that the Chairwoman of the Board of Trustees told her fellow trustees that they were leaders of the university, and that they needed to lead. That would be nice. And in case they plan to act on the need, I have a memo for them. It is a workable outline. The details can be filled in if they are willing to think on these lines.

To: The Board of Trustees, Pennsylvania State University
From: The guy who writes the No Consensus Here blog.
Subject: Center for the Study of Corruption in College Sports (CSCCS)
In the wake of all that has happened since the Sandusky tragedy, there are a number of levels at which the university must respond. One of these is to take a forward looking, thoughtful, intellectually rigorous approach to being able to understand the circumstances and culture which led to the tragic events on your campus. The still unfolding tragedy is one of a number of tragedies associated with college sports in America. The easy part of the analysis is to understand that these tragedies are cultivated on ground fertilized by incredible amounts of money involved in college sports, and watered by the jingoistic, emotional investment of alumni and other well wishers who want to see their institutions victorious in stadia and sporting arenas. The more difficult part is to tease out the causal financial, social, and power relations that lead to unwanted outcomes in college sports. This memo proposes a start in that direction. It proposes that Penn State University establish a Center for the Study of Corruption in College Sports.

What Will the Center Do and How Will It Do it?
This memo is not the place to outline all that is wrong and corrupt with college sports in America. Suffice to say, among the things that college sports can be charged with are that it is exploitative and ethically challenged. Different aspects of these two ‘Es’  can be studied from the perspective of many an academic discipline including economics, ethics, law, medicine, politics, and sociology. This is precisely what the center should do.

It isn’t very difficult to put the infrastructure into place. The center can start with a core group of 20 people – a Director, eight other faculty, eight post-doctorate positions, and three secretarial staff. Clearly this core group will collaborate with interested folk across the country in developing a research program. While it is difficult to predict the path that academic research will take, it clearly must be to understand different aspects of the seamy underbelly of college sports in America. The more structured mandate of the center will be to establish academic and outreach programs in a number of areas related to college sports.

What About the Finances?
I haven’t crunched the numbers, but it seems to me that If the university was to pledge $60 million (symbolism matters) then the program will be well funded. An endowment of $60 million should conservatively generate a working fund of about $3 million – a decent sum to start the ball rolling. Part of raising the money will be Penn State’s way of putting its resources where its apologies are, as it starts to dig itself out of the nightmarish circumstances in which it finds itself. Also, I think if Penn State takes this step, there will be a number of folks who will be willing to contribute to the project. I can already see the outlines of a proposal that can go to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation!

And Where Will You House This Center?
A fitting place to start will be somewhere in Beaver Stadium. As the center grows over time, it may outgrow Beaver Stadium, and may need a building of its own. In fact, ideally, over time, one can hope that the center does such a good job of understanding and changing the culture of college sports in America, that it no longer needs to exist. However, we all know that is not going to happen soon.

So instead of worrying about how to end the story, I request that you do the needful to establish the Center for the Study of Corruption in College Sports (CSCCS).

The Jonah Lehrer Tragedy Hits Home

Another one bites the dust!

I see a pattern! Joe Paterno and Penn State football; then Rajat Gupta; and once again I write about a fallen hero – Jonah Lehrer.

Jonah Lehrer was seen as bright, cool, young, and hip. Malcolm Gladwell’s blurb in the jacket of Lehrer’s latest book IMAGINE: How Creativity Works says, “Jonah Lehrer’s new book confirms what his fans have known all along – that he knows more about science than a lot of scientists and more about writing than a lot of writers.” To be honest, I disagreed with Gladwell’s estimation of Lehrer, understanding it to be a sop to a fellow writer to help him sell books. Unfortunately every once in a while, an act of you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours, misfires. Important note to blurb writers, be careful how and whom you praise.

Lehrer’s book has been recalled by its publisher as a result of his being exposed as someone who made up quotes and attributed them to Dylan (as in Bob), and then lied to cover up his fictactious (fiction parading as fact) ways. Click here to read the article by Michael Moynihan in the Tablet which exposed Lehrer.

One wonders why people think they can get away with plagiarism and fictactation in this day and age where search is so easy, and the probability of getting caught is so high.  Lehrer is not the first person to get caught making up stuff – remember Stephen Glass, James Frey, Greg Mortensen – and I suspect he won’t be the last. I simply cannot explain why they do it.

Interestingly Lehrer was booked by the college where I teach to come and present a convocation to incoming freshman on, I imagine, how creativity works! As can be expected on an academic campus, where I suspect matters of intellectual dishonesty are viewed more seriously than elsewhere, Mr. Lehrer made people rethink the invitation to him. After what I imagine were very thoughtful deliberations,  the college has canceled his appearance and made alternative arrangement to help students reflect on matters of creativity and ethics when they come here in a couple of weeks. These are never easy decisions and I am glad that I don’t have to make them. But for what it’s worth, I sent my (now rejected) recommendation to the powers that be.

What I suggested was,

 “… However now that he has been invited, and given what has ensued, I wonder if Lehrer can be requested/persuaded to speak/reflect on what he is going through now. While I agree that we should be clear about our rather absolutist stand on academic integrity, I also think there is much that our students can learn from how successful people mess up and how coming clean is the best next act after messing up. I’d also tell Lehrer that we will not pay him for his appearance on campus, but would be happy to make a contribution to a mutually acceptable worthy cause.”

 What’s in it for him? A respectable avenue to start rebuilding his trust.

I can think of many reasons why the college did not follow my suggestion. I’d like to reflect on why I think this would have been another reasonable path. I think it is important to give those who mess up, a place to reflect in a meaningful way on why they did what they did. I think we can all learn from the careful reflections of those who were held in high esteem for acts that were considered praiseworthy, but who were all too human. We seldom hear from people who are capable of being thoughtful, who mess up. If we have to understand the meaning of being human, it is as important for us to hear from those who have fallen, and from those who are mediocre, as it is to hear from those who rise above the rest of us. To be clear, fallen, and mediocre are not synonyms. There can be mediocre people who have not fallen, and fallen people who are exceptional.

I’m not looking for a mea culpa, or an apology. What interests me is an explanation. I hope Jonah Lehrer will offer one someday. If he does, I hope he publishes it somewhere prominent that I can read it. If not, I hope he sends an email to someone at the college where I teach with a request to post it on the Faculty listserv.