Gender, Power, Athletics and Academics

By Margaret L. Signorella
December 7, 2011

The current crisis at Penn State has been an opportunity to examine troubling issues at both the University and in higher education in general.  Scholars as well as popular writers have targeted big-time sports as having a corrosive influence on the academic center of the university (e.g., Murray Sperber, Beer and Circuses, 2000). English professor and blogger Margaret Soltan's University Diaries regularly highlights the all-too-frequent news of out-of-control spending on an enterprise that does not seem to be aligned to the intellectual core mission. The top story today on University Diaries links to an op-ed piece by an Ohio State University faculty member, who comments on the $4 million per year contract given to the new OSU football coach: "After a year of unprecedented scandal in college athletics, the show will go on - bigger, brasher, and gaudier than ever!" (Conn, 2011). At the same time that spending on athletics continues unabated, the current economic difficulties have universities looking to cut academic programs in response. As Penn State is in the middle of such a review, there have been rumblings about reexamining programs such as Women's Studies and African American Studies.

At the December 6, 2011 Penn State faculty senate meeting, there were some positive signs that the faculty and possibly the new president are questioning the sports emphasis along with other aspects of the culture that may have led to the current crisis. It is crucial that this reexamination include a consideration of how gender, race, sexual orientation, and social class play into this situation. For example, it has sometimes been argued that the entry of women into athletics would produce multiple positive outcomes, yet we saw at Penn State, as Stephanie Shields described, a female basketball coach known throughout her career for homophobic comments, who was supported for most of her tenure by the Penn State administration.

This issue can be illustrated by favorite quote from my dissertation adviser and pioneering Division 35 member, Carolyn Wood Sherif. In her autobiography published in O'Connell and Russo's book on women in psychology (1983), Sherif described being pressured to take a job in 1944 that supported the war efforts.

I was offered [a job] in the RCA plant at Lancaster….I refused it because the problem I had to work on was how to reduce absenteeism and job turnover among the rural women who worked in the factory, which appeared to me to be related to family issues that RCA had no intention of ameliorating. The women appeared to need child care and family support facilities, not propaganda or improved placement practices (Sherif, 1983, p. 284).

The solution to replace one individual with another while keeping the same structure is rarely effective. There needs to be serious consideration of the many organizational and cultural factors that led us to the current disaster.


Dr. Signorella is Professor of Psychology and Women's Studies and Interim Director of Academic Affairs at Penn State-Greater Allegheny. She is also SPW Treasurer.