Cheating As A Rule

The possibility of a cheating scandal at one of the nation’s most prestigious universities has raised concern in many circles. So a recent story begins:

STANFORD, Calif. (AP) — An unusually high number of students at Stanford University are suspected of cheating during the most recent term, putting faculty members and administrators of the prestigious institution on alert.

University Provost John Etchemendy sent a letter to faculty members highlighting what he called “troubling allegations” that stem from “a smattering of concerns from a number of winter courses,” the San Jose Mercury News reported Friday. Etchemendy said the students are cheating themselves and risk severe consequences.

When I taught at the University of Rhode Island years ago word came down to our department that a copy of someone’s logic final had gotten out. We all had to come in a 5:00 AM and write a common final exam that would be given to all students, even though there were five of us and we all taught the course differently. It was a nightmare and most students badly failed, I’m sorry to say. The innocent were punished along with the guilty. Later, it was learned that a plastic overlay from the mimeograph machine (remember them??) had been pilfered from the trash and was being used to sell copies of one of the finals at one of the fraternities. In any event, students lined up to buy the exam though someone eventually blew the whistle. We had no idea whose exam it was, and that’s why we all had to come up with a common exam. The administration knew which fraternity was involved, but that fraternity was never disciplined because the university “didn’t want a scandal.”

Cheating is not new, of course. Just recall Tom Lehrer’s wonderful song long ago about plagiarism and those who cheat, graduate, and are “forgotten with the rest.”  We have learned what universities will do to “avoid a scandal” — The Paterno scandal comes to mind. It seems that not only in athletics, but in the university climate as a whole the possibility of a scandal leads administrators to do strange things to “cover up.” That, in itself, is a scandal since the universities are supposed to lead by example and this is a very poor example indeed. But it appears to be the norm. The common defense is: hey, I’m just  doing what the others do — which seems to the cornerstone of this culture’s ethics  — so we should not be surprised.

Anyone who has taught at a college or university is familiar with the drill involved to check on the sources of student papers and watch carefully during exams to see that no one is looking where they shouldn’t be. It’s commonplace, though it most assuredly should not be.

So we have a perfect right to ask why and wish that it were otherwise. Stanford University has strict rules about cheating and that’s a good thing. Let’s hope those who are caught with their fingers in the cookie jar are appropriately punished. The notion that an action is perfectly right if others are doing it is the most shallow, even cynical, sort of ethics. Cheating is wrong. It may be widespread, but it is wrong — not only in universities, but anywhere.

A Dialogue

In reading about the State of Pennsylvania’s recent decision to take the NCAA to court to force that group to rescind the sanctions brought against Penn State University for the Sandusky scandal I was going back and forth on the issue, which engendered the following dialogue:

PRO: I think the State has every right to take this action. As they have said, it was a criminal action that Sandusky was duly tried for and the University (and the state which contributes $200,000 a year to the university) should net be penalized for that man’s actions — especially since he has been punished.

CON: True, but the football program at the University is culpable since they were clearly aware of what Sandusky was doing and chose to look the other way. In addition, not only the head coach knew what was going on, but apparently the Administration knew and also chose to look the other way. Furthermore, the board of governors needs to take responsibility for what is going on in the university and should never have allowed Joe Paterno to have as much power as he obviously had.

PRO: Yes, but the NCAA has entirely too much power. They ran the AIAW out of business back in the early days of Title IX  and were slow in recognizing the importance of women’s sports, and they effectively have rendered the NAIA irrelevant. They are really the only game in town, which raises the specter of anti-trust. In this case they acted without full knowledge of the events and handed out a very harsh punishment that affects the entire student body and players who were not involved in any sort of cover-up and should not be punished.

CON: True, the NCAA is a very powerful body but it fills a need. Can you imagine what intercollegiate sports would be like without a watchdog like the NCAA keeping an eye on things? The corruption we see now would be ten times worse without a group like the NCAA playing the role of watchdog. In this case they may have acted peremptorily, but they knew (as we all did) that blame went all the way the chain of command at the university and how else were they supposed to act if they didn’t punish the football program and the university as a whole? If they have the power to hand down sanctions, as they do, then they have the power — and the right — to punish the football program and even the university itself with fines and the reduction of scholarships.

And so it goes. Back and forth. I do know one thing: the NCAA’s attempts to throw up a red herring by saying that “[this action] is an affront to all of the victims in this tragedy – lives that were destroyed by the criminal actions of Jerry Sandusky” is hogwash. It suggests that the NCAA lawyers know they are on thin ice and are attempting to divert attention away from the central issue, which is whether or not the NCAA acted in accordance with its own rules. If the state of Pennsylvania wins its case it will severely hamper the ability of the NCAA in the future to hand down sanctions for breach of its many rules. If it loses, the power of the NCAA which is already tremendous, will grow exponentially. And this for a group that already takes in $845 million a year in non-taxable revenue and seems determined to increase that amount in any way it can.

What do you think?

Paterno As Scapegoat

In the wake of the massive penalties levied against Penn State by the NCAA there was shock and dismay in State College recently. An astonishing number of people still cannot accept the fact that Joe Paterno was part of the cover-up of his assistant coach’s  attacks on young boys. A reporter for ESPN mentioned that a number of people he spoke with regard Paterno as a scapegoat who is being made to take the blame for errors in judgment by those above him.

Apparently they haven’t been paying attention: they haven’t read or heard about the Freeh report in which is was made clear that the man not only knew about Sandusky’s behavior as early as 1998, but was unwilling to report the behavior to his superiors upon first hearing of it because it was a Friday and he didn’t want to disturb authorities on the weekend!  And he continued to stonewall as boys continued to be attacked in his own facility which he ruled over with absolute power.

There is such a thing as denial, and this may simply be such a case: group denial. But there is also such a thing as stupidity and I suspect this is closer to what we have here. I understand it would be hard for those who held Paterno in very high regard to admit that he is guilty as sin — not because they believe he was above suspicion, but because it would mean that they were wrong about the man. We have more trouble assimilating this sort of shock when it’s about ourselves, and those who thought Paterno was a Saint (yes, that’s what has been reported) must have suffered quite a shock to their reality principle as they were very wrong.

For years I sat on a committee at my university that heard student appeals after they had received poor grades and were dismissed for academic reasons. Students had the opportunity to try to convince a committee of fellow-students and faculty that there were extenuating reasons for their failure and some of them were at times given another semester to get their grades up to par. One of my close academic friends on the committee was an economist and we often looked at one another in dismay as we heard about dead grandmothers, broken promises, sick girlfriends (or cats), and a host of other excuses that the students tended to fall back upon with remarkable regularity. One of the most common lines of defense was the argument that the student had a learning disability. Students would usually appear in front of the committee with the head of the “Learning Resources Center” who would attest to the student’s inability to read and write because of this supposed “learning disability.” Some of them had legitimate disabilities and we usually took pity on them. But one day after hearing this excuse for the umpteenth time from a student who was clearly grasping at straws my friend looked at me and said “stupidity is also a learning disability.” He was right on. There are legitimate learning disabilities, but there are also hollow excuses. And once you have heard a few you learn to recognize them. There is such a thing as stupidity.

We believe what we want to believe and we insist those things are true that make us comfortable. This seems to be human nature and we are all a bit guilty of this tendency. Instead of looking at the evidence and working through it with our critical faculties, we jump to the closest comfortable conclusion and cling to it for dear life. It’s hard to let go. But at some point it is just plain stupid to continue to deny the plain truth when it is staring you in the face.

Joe Paterno was involved in the Sandusky scandal up to his bushy eyebrows and thick spectacles. And while we can understand how difficult it is for those who held him in high regard to admit it, we must wonder at their unwillingness to succumb to a truth so glaringly apparent. There is denial, which is to be expected. Then there is learning disability, which is legitimate in many cases. And then there is just plain stupidity.

The Statue

You have probably heard they removed the statue of Joe Paterno at Penn State and put it in “a safe place” somewhere:

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. (AP) — Penn State University will remove the famed statue of Joe Paterno outside its football stadium, eliminating a key piece of the iconography surrounding the once-sainted football coach accused of burying child sex abuse allegations against a retired assistant.

I must confess I have been of two minds on this issue for some time. I recently wrote in a blog that the statue should not be removed because its removal would be a falsification of events: it is a rewriting of history. Like it or not, Joe Paterno spent the best part of his life at Penn State and had a tremendous impact on countless lives –both positive and, as we now know, negative. His football teams were a model for the rest of the country, or so it seemed. But in light of recent events and the pivotal role Paterno played in the fourteen-year cover up of his assistant coach’s attacks on young boys, I now think the President of the University is making the correct decision.

I was persuaded by an outstanding editorial in a recent issue (July 23, 2012) of Sports Illustrated that reminded me of something I said in print a number of years ago: the purpose of a university is not to promote football (or sports in general) it is to educate young people. As I said in an article in The Montana Professor: The tail wags the dog at the Division I level. Sports play a disproportionately large role in the university in our day. Perhaps this was a wake-up call to restore instruction to its proper place at the center of the university. In the case of Penn State and its football program, the editors of Sports Illustrated put it very well:

Why not instead [of cancelling the football program] have Penn Staters create the program they always claimed to have? Football is supposed to enhance the academic experience at Penn State as part of Paterno’s Grand Experiment. The school can stop selling the idea and implement it. Use football for a more concrete cause: Profits from the coming season could be diverted to create a facility to study and destigmatize child sex abuse.

I had suggested in my earlier blog a monument to the children who suffered at the hands of Jerry Sandusky, but this is an even better idea: a living reminder of the atrocities that man committed on that campus in memory of the young boys who were the victims. And a program such as the one mentioned here could do immeasurable good in the face of the many terrible events that occurred repeatedly in the last fourteen years on that campus.

Football should never have been allowed to take the place of honor it took at Penn State. No coach should have been allowed to have the power and influence that Joe Paterno had in State College. But as horrendous as this scandal was, we all know this is just the tip of the iceberg. So much money is involved in NCAA Division I football that corruption is rampant on college campuses all across the country as football is given pride of place and education is forced to take a back seat. Let me give you a tiny example of the kind of disproportionate place football has on a college campus, in this case a small university campus involving a small football program with little or no money at stake.

When I was named men’s tennis coach at the University of Rhode Island many years ago I was approached within days by an assistant football coach who informed me that they would be sending their players to my classes from then on so I could “take care of them.” I didn’t know what to say, so I just stared dumbly and smiled. These memories percolated recently when I read the comments made by the janitors who witnessed Sandusky sodomizing a young boy and were afraid to speak up for fear of losing their jobs. In my case, the issue died, fortunately, as I left the university soon thereafter. But I felt the kind of pressure any young person would feel in a large institution when his job is in jeopardy. One can imagine how the faculty feel at a large university where the football coach is king and members of his team are the privileged few. The tail does indeed wag the dog.

It makes sense to remove the statue of Joe Paterno from the Penn State Campus. But  it also makes sense not to deify the football coach on other campuses across the country and not to allow the football program to be the focus of what is going on at that university. We have not heard the last about the scandal at Penn State. As I write this the NCAA is preparing to levy strict penalties against this particular university, to make an example of it as it were. But there are potential scandals aplenty “out there” on other campuses and levying penalties and removing statues — while entirely appropriate — are hardly more than small steps toward restoring the proper order of things at our universities.

What You See…

In addition to the famous statue of Joe Paterno on the Penn State campus, about which there is considerable controversy these days, apparently there is a gigantic mural downtown featuring Joe Paterno’s image. That image was recently retouched in light of the Freeh report placing Joe Paterno at the center of a giant cover-up that went on for fourteen years and involved the agony of numerous young boys whose cries fell on deaf ears.  A recent story on-line tells us that the picture of Paterno on the mural had a halo painted on it which the artist recently erased. In addition

Pilato [the artist] added a large blue ribbon, instead, on Paterno’s lapel symbolizing support for child abuse victims, a cause the artist said Paterno had endorsed.

I had to read the story, and especially that sentence, twice because I couldn’t believe what I was reading. To place a halo over the head of any ordinary person, no matter how highly we regard them, is what the medieval mind would regard as blasphemy and I would regard as presumptive arrogance. But to paint a blue ribbon on the man’s chest  signifying that Joe Paterno “endorsed” support for child abuse victims — after the recent allegations came out in the Freeh report — beggars belief, as the English would say. This is beyond hypocrisy.

I don’t doubt that Paterno did indeed wear the blue ribbon. I simply question how he could have done so knowing what he clearly knew about one of his own assistant coaches and what the man was doing in Paterno’s own back yard. It tells us something about the man that we might not want to know. Joe Paterno had immense power at Penn State and could have simply said “no” at any point during the fourteen years and the attack on young boys would have stopped. But it would have damaged the reputation of the football program and of the university itself. Ironically it would have embellished the image of Paterno himself as the coach who “did things right,” an image his family and former players are so eager to protect after the fact. However, by ignoring those boys and attempting to protect his empire Paterno compounded the problem and guaranteed that his reputation will be forever tarnished, as it should be, and the university and his former football program will take years to recover.

To make matters worse, it appears that as the Sandusky scandal was breaking Paterno managed to arrange a “sweetened retirement contract” between himself and the university worth $5.5 million that would guarantee him a comfortable retirement at the end of the year — had he not been fired.  While Rome was burning Paterno fiddled — and made sure he would be taken care of, regardless of what happened to Sandusky, the football program, or Penn State. His family will enjoy the benefits of that contract following the man’s death from cancer: the university does not plan to contest it.

The man was not what he seemed, clearly. And it is a warning to the rest of us not to “buy into” the public image of the larger-then-life men and women built up by the media. We are all fallible humans and we make mistakes. Some of those mistakes are large indeed. And while it seemed at first as though “Papa-Joe” was taking responsibility for his failure to act when he said “I should have done more,” it now appears he was faking it even as those words were coming out of his mouth. He failed to act for fourteen years.

The halo is gone from Paterno’s portrait and there is a movement afoot to remove the statue of the man from the Penn State campus — though the Trustees recently said this would not happen, at least for now. There has even been the suggestion (In USA Today) that the entire football season should be cancelled for a year so the university can come to terms with what has happened. None of these steps seems to me to be appropriate, however. For one thing, they would involve a distortion of the truth. The destruction of the statue would be much like re-writing history in order to make people feel better about themselves. It is a vengeful act.

But a suggestion I heard recently that I would endorse involves the building of a monument outside the P.E. facility dedicated to the young boys who were attacked and abused in the building coupled with a fund to support groups that will help see to it that this sort of thing does not happen again in the future. What happened in this place is difficult to grasp. It is not only the campus that must come to terms with what has happened, it is all of us.

Sit-Com Philosophy

My wife and I wait eagerly each week for the newest version of “The Big Bang Theory.” In the interim we watch re-runs that we have stored on the DVR, so much so that we can say the lines with the actors. Very funny stuff! It has some of the cleverest writing I have come across on TV and Jim Parsons is the best comic actor I have ever seen. He makes a humorless, self-absorbed character almost likeable. Almost. And when they bring in Laurie Metcalf as Sheldon Cooper’s mother it makes our day. She is perfectly cast as the spiritually certain Texas mother of the brilliant theoretical physicist Sheldon Cooper.

The episodes often provide food for thought as well, and Sheldon is a wealth of information, much of which his friends find boring (as do many in the audience, I dare say). But it is remarkably well done. One such episode struck me as worthy of extended comment. It appeared at the beginning of a new season when Sheldon and his three friends return from the North Pole where they have spent three months doing research to substantiate one of Sheldon’s theories.

Sheldon is walking on air as they return to the apartment because he is convinced the data prove him right and he has already announced his triumph to the scientific world  and he now awaits the inevitable Nobel prize which will give his life new meaning. But, as it happens, the data that “proves” his hypothesis was provided by the three friends using the static produced by the electric can opener. When Sheldon finds out, he is humiliated and furious. He is disgraced in the eyes of his peers and must write a detraction which, for him, is a gargantuan task. In a giant pout, he quits his job and returns to Texas and his mother.

During the entire episode, Sheldon’s attempt to put the blame for his humiliation on the shoulders of his three friends raises questions about his willingness to take responsibility for his own actions. It is true that they provided him with flawed date, but he is the one who spread the word about his latest scientific triumph. It never occurs to him that he is in any way responsible for the public humiliation one could say he brought upon himself. He didn’t have to shoot his mouth off! To make matters worse, his friends seem willing to accept the blame, though this is a comic device that makes the episode funny. If they confronted Sheldon with the fact that he is the one responsible for his own humiliation, it wouldn’t get laughs. And I dare say the character would deny it: he’s very good at that. But it would be true. One hears echoes of Todd Blackledge’s attempts to shift blame for Joe Paterno’s recent behavior at Penn State to the media when Paterno refused to take action upon learning that his assistant coach was seen abusing a young boy in the team showers. Only this episode is funny, Blackledge’s rationalization is borderline absurd. But the point is the same: actions have consequences, though we want to deny it.

In the end, we really ought to focus in on the fact that the freedom we prize so highly brings with it a responsibility to accept the consequences of our free choices. You can’t have freedom (even as we understand that term) without responsibility. And vice versa. They are two sides of the same coin. In this comic episode, Sheldon has made his bed but he refuses to lie in it. That can be funny when his friends go along with his dementia, but it sends the wrong message. Sheldon is a study in asperger’s syndrome, a condition that renders the subject unaware of the effect he is having on other people. He is so immersed in himself he is barely aware of others at all. As his roommate Leonard says Sheldon is “irony impaired” — a characteristic of this type of personality. (Leonard, by the way, is played by Johnny Galecki who is, unfortunately, talent-impaired in an otherwise gifted cast.) Sheldon must learn “social protocols” constantly just to muddle through a quasi-normal public life. That makes for terrific humor when handled by the likes of Jim Parsons. But it is just possible that we all share Sheldon’s condition to a degree in our self-absorption and our inability to acknowledge responsibility for our actions, not to mention the urge to find someone else to blame for our own mistakes.