The Perfect Storm: Power, Privilege, and Silence

Reponses to Penn State Scandal

The child sexual abuse case at Penn State University has shocked and disappointed the country. Here we are collecting the reactions and analyses of SPW members, especially those affiliated with Penn State. These responses relate not only to the issue of sexual violence, but also gender and leadership, power, institutional transformation, and more. Responses will be collected and posted as the case and its effects continue to unfold. See “Reponses to Penn State Scandal” to the right for responses posted so far.

By Stephanie A. Shields
November 19, 2011

My original plan for presidential columns was to use each one to highlight  a task force—this time, graduate education—but that plan, as plans often are, was overtaken by events. In this case, the event was the sickening revelation two weeks ago that Penn State football apparatus in collusion with central administration had apparently concealed a pattern of child sexual abuse for years. I am writing this column two weeks after the revelation that a former assistant coach, Jerry Sandusky, allegedly used Penn State football facilities and team travel for sexual exploitation of boys. The boys were enrolled in his charitable foundation, The Second Mile, an organization that was aimed to turn around the negative or absent adult mentoring of troubled boys.

The details of the case are too numerous and complex to summarize here, suffice it to say that despite multiple eye witness and suspicious incidents, dating back to at least 1998,  apparently little or no effort was made to report the wrongdoing to police or to directly interrupt the witnessed suspicious or criminal behavior.

Significantly, in a collegiate sports environment that over time has revealed institution after institution violating NCAA rules by inappropriate gifts and incentives to athletes, up to and including engaging prostitutes and burying sexual and aggravated assault charges, Penn State seemed above the squalor. Much credit was given to football coach Joe Paterno for setting high ethical and academic standards.

Public critique so far has largely been a narrative of the outsized and inappropriate role of revenue-generating collegiate sports, specifically, men’s football. A critical variable has been missing from the discussion, however, acknowledgement of what connects the dots to make the story. Power. All of the key individuals who created and sustained this nightmare are financially comfortable white men married to women, most/all with children. All of them were highly regarded, immediately recognizable as men of status in this community and beyond. It was the perfect storm in which status and power, in a university culture of “chain of command,” rigidly maintained hierarchy and enabled a cocoon of self-protective silence at the top. Ostensibly the university’s operation and reputation were being “protected” by the silence, but as the story unfolds, it is clear that protecting individual power and position were every bit as much at stake. And that self-protective impulse enabled further abuses.

Ironically, the fact that the story is about powerful men’s abuse of vulnerable boys may have one constructive side. It allows no chance to deflect discussion of sexual assault with the usual defenses and red herrings: “What were the boys wearing?” or “It’s just he said/he said” or “Those feminists want to create a victim culture.” We can hope that this case in which there is a bright line of power that separates the perpetrator and his allies from the victims will force public confrontation of the ugly role that power plays in silencing and victim blaming in discussions of sexual violence.

No one, except perhaps some of the students and delusional alums, believed that the football program was as squeaky clean as its reputation. But also no one, no one, would have thought that it could tolerate and even facilitate what many would consider pure evil. The few times I heard or talked with JoePa at university events, he struck me as a genuinely nice guy. He seemed to be the real deal—at least as much as one could be in top 25 football.  He and his wife have donated huge sums to the university and community. There is a Paterno wing of the library, the Paterno Fellows program (an honors entry pathway in Liberal Arts), named professorships, not to mention various scholarships and local charities. It is disheartening to see the outpouring of support for him, but I understand how impossible it seems to square the idealized JoePa—as man and as a symbol of the university—that everyone thought they knew, with the failure of basic moral behavior at a most fundamental level. It is an earthquake of the moral system—everything feels shaken up, wrong, out of the blue, and destroyed. I don’t mean to sound dramatic, but that is the way it feels here and now.

The cover-up is consistent with other events that together draw a picture of the university administration’s unconcern with the relatively powerless or marginalized. A women's basketball coach, Rene Portland, was kept on for years despite her “no lesbians” rule. Why? Not sure, but she was a winning coach. A few years ago several sexual assaults occurred on campus and in town, and the university president at no point spoke out. Penn State is not alone in overlooking prejudicial LGBT statements. Nor is it alone in tolerating sexualized violence as an expected and unreported crime.

The pushback has already started. For example, David Brooks, columnist for the NY Times argued that silence was “natural,” drawing analogies with bystander intervention,  not speaking up when targeted by a sexist remark, and even the Holocaust. He blindly missed the point that in the numerous cases he cites, the potential whistleblower is in danger of retaliation, including loss of job, bodily harm, or death. Save perhaps the assistant coach who first went to Joe Paterno after witnessing a rape, all of those who failed to report this and other sexual assaults were very powerful people within the university and, in the case of Joe Paterno, across the state of Pennsylvania.

As in other sexual abuse cases, there is considerable collateral damage. It is frustrating that this campus of 40,000 undergrads and over 6000 graduate students (as well as an additional 40,000+ undergrads and 8000 grad and professional students at other Penn State locations and World Campus), is now nationally being judged solely on what a closed clique at the top did to protect themselves, football, and the alumni money football attracts. Students and other community members who have experienced sexual violence or systematic harassment in other contexts are reliving those disturbing memories. The community of students, staff and faculty, and local business take the brunt of desire for revenge. My first year seminar students, for example, are being taunted on Facebook by high school friends who chose other colleges and universities. Calls to cancel next year’s football season, abolish state funding (currently just 14% of Penn State’s budget), and other punitive actions do not punish the perpetrators. For example, THON, held annually in February since 1977, is the largest student-run philanthropy in the world. Last year it raised nearly $9.6 million for research and patient services on pediatric cancer. Whatever my personal reservations about a dance marathon as fundraiser, the fact is that it is highly successful and fully engages the students who choose to be involved. One major corporate sponsor of the February event has already withdrawn its substantial annual contribution, even though student groups have redoubled their public commitment to “doing for the kids.”

Structurally, a coordinated feminist response is impeded by the lack of any infrastructure at Penn State for representing a feminist point of view. There is no center for research on women and gender. The Center for Women Students and LGBT center are student service offices. The department of Women’s Studies is an academic department whose mission and limited resources focus on undergraduate education and graduate training. The Commission for Women, as at many other universities, is a large understaffed advisory committee with no independent power. The Women in Science and Engineering center served undergraduates and precollege students…and this semester was closed as a cost-saving measure. Furthermore, in this rigid “top-down” culture, administrators, typically those at the top, make decisions, with faculty input late in the process or not at all. Peggy Signorella, our SPW Treasurer and Interim Director of Academic Affairs at Penn State-Greater Allegheny notes in an email that “Penn State has had a largely male dominated administration for as long as I have worked here, and the few women in positions of authority tend to try to mimic that culture, so the better characterization might be what my colleague in sociology termed the masculinist culture, in which locations outside the main campus have consistently been at the bottom of the heap.” The masculinist culture, as we know too well, is not limited to Penn State.

We know that the Penn State story still has many levels to unfold. It no doubt will get uglier. Though individual faculty may be committed to activism, they do so as individuals rather than as part of a larger, organized campus community. As Peggy observes: “it would be heartening to see the faculty rise up and demand systemic changes in the athletic organization and culture, but I confess I am not optimistic. I do not know how one can ‘support academics’ while perpetuating an anti-intellectual, homophobic, and gender-biased culture.” Whether Penn State will seize the moment to confront its own problematic fixation on maintaining the status quo remains to be seen.


A briefer version will appear as the Presidential Column in the Winter 2011 issue of The Feminist Psychologist, newsletter of the Society for the Psychology of Women. Stephanie Shields is Professor of Psychology and Women’s Studies at Penn State University and current president of SPW.