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Jim Sleeper

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Why Yale Fumbled Its Quarterback's Rhodes Scholarship Pass

Posted: 02/ 6/2012 12:02 pm

Only two weeks ago Yale star quarterback Patrick Witt's decision of last Nov. 13 to decline a Rhodes scholarship interview, in order to lead his team against Harvard in New Haven on Nov. 19, the only day Rhodes was willing to interview him in Atlanta, seemed the result of his straightforward reckoning with a real dilemma.

In a years-long quest for gridiron glory Witt had transferred among several high schools and from the University of Nebraska to Yale, a record that makes his Big Decision of November seem over-determined. It seemed even more so when The New York Times reported on Jan. 27 and more fully on Feb. 4 that "The Rhodes Trust had informed Yale on Nov. 1 that it was suspending Witt's candidacy" because of a complaint of sexual assault against him by a female fellow student and that the Trust had informed Witt directly by phone on Nov. 4.

"Suspended" is "a very reasonable characterization of what happened," Rhodes official Eliot F. Gerson told the Times, exploding Witt's insistence that the paper's account had been wrong. Only if Yale had decided to reaffirm and re-endorse Witt's Rhodes bid would the interview have remained an option. There was no chance of that. Yale had just weathered the embarrassment of having to fire his own Yale coach and mentor, Tom Williams, for claiming -- falsely, as it turned out -- that he, too, had once chosen a football game over a Rhodes interview.

And when we consider that the sexual-misconduct complaint had been lodged against Witt in September, before the deadline had arrived for Yale to submit his Rhodes application in the first place, we do have to wonder how all this has been handled.

But what's really troubling to some of us who teach at Yale and other old colleges is that Witt's and Yale's bumbling reflect what has happened to certain qualities of character -- can we still call them virtues? -- that those colleges once instilled and rewarded more reliably than many people now want to recall. Believe it or not, Yale did it even in the ways it invented and played American football, as I'll show in a minute.

Yet Witt's dilemma feeds a large, perverse appetite these days for exposes of Ivy colleges' inherently elitist, racist, sexist past and of their more colorful, polymorphous-perverse present. It's all-too easy to forget something in these old colleges that is still worth cherishing and emulating at other institutions.

There's no need to romanticize or obfuscate what's been wrong to find what's invaluable to a republic and, arguably, to democracy's fragile global prospects. Witt and Yale have fumbled this pass from the past in ways that suggest that neither understands this mission. For that we can't blame Witt, but we do have to take a closer look at Yale.

Let me try to get at what's missing by drawing what might seem an unfair contrast between Witt's nationally hyped "honor" and an older, humbler instance of the real thing by citing a missive more than a century old:

"Dear Mr. Peabody: Your letter came today and you don't know how sorry I am that anyone should get the idea that I was what is commonly known as a 'dirty' football player," begins a letter dated October 27, 1898, from Yale freshman F. Gordon Brown. He is responding to a note from his old Groton School headmaster, Endicott Peabody asking about a complaint that had reached him about Brown's moves on the field.

Football, invented 20 years earlier at Yale by Walter Camp as a muscular Christian rite of passage to civic leadership and statesmanship, had captured the national imagination, not only in the games themselves but in wildly popular exploits of the fictional Yale football captains Dink Stover and Frank Merriwell, the latter an exemplar of "square and manly dealing" and civic uplift, as Lewis Lapham once put it with only a slight smirk.

Frank Merriwell's creator Gilbert Patten intended his character's very name to signal frankness, good humor, and good health, and it's fair to characterize Yale students of those years as neither iconoclasts nor autocrats but what Isaiah Wilner, in The Man Time Forgot, portrays as American boys who prided themselves "on being good teammates and knowing how to win. Believing success was virtuous, they respected and rewarded dedication and 'grit,' ... Valuing tact and consideration, they subjected their personal interests to those of the group."

So, too, did the students at many of Yale's feeder schools, including Groton graduates Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Averill Harriman, Dean Acheson, McGeorge Bundy, and other future framers of the American Century. They'd all had to play football at Groton, in something like the spirit that Lapham and Wilner describe.

Small wonder that in his letter, Gordon Brown -- who would later help to found the Boys Club for poor youths that still stands opposite the northwest corner of Manhattan's Tompkins Square Park, where I've sat writing part of this column -- meticulously recapped his moves on the field and insisted, "It is very unfair thing to say of Yale that she sacrifices her honor to win. If she can't win by good, fair, straight playing she does not want to win at all ...."

Although Brown was probably channeling Merriwell, then at a peak of popularity, he could just as well have been anticipating (unwittingly, of course) Garry Trudeau's renderings, in Doonesbury three-quarters of a century later, of the more laid-back, ironical, yet stoical Yale quarterback "B.D.," drawn from the real Brian Dowling of my own Class of 1969. The moral fortitude shown by Merriwell and B.D. in adversity had little in common with Witt's forfeiting a chance at a Rhodes for a chance at football.

To understand what's really at stake in this comparison, suppose for a minute that there had been no sexual-misconduct complaint against Patrick Witt and no suspension of his Rhodes candidacy. It would still have been a mistake to lionize Witt for choosing only the rite of passage, football, over its intended outcome, the civic leadership cherished by Cecil Rhodes and, once upon a time, by Yale. Even when Witt's choice seemed credible, it got Merriwell's and B.D.'s priorities backwards.

Worse still, Witt's conduct reinforces a growing perception that administrations at Yale and other once-venerable colleges handle students' crises of character with the soulless, self-protective legalism of business corporations that are interested only in defending their brand names and market shares. College administrators have lost the grace and conviction they really did show more often decades ago as they struggled to balance humanist Truth-seeking with republican Power-wielding and capitalist Wealth-making, all in order to deepen their undergraduates' liberal education and, yes, character development. That required an inter-generational dedication, not an obsession with legal liability and image-protection.

Thanks partly to their insularity, the old Ivies did produce some FDRs and other Platonic guardians, men who would fall on their swords to defend the republic: Richard Nixon's Attorney General Eliot Richardson, who resigned rather than help cover up Watergate, or Secretary of State Cyrus Vance, who resigned rather than countenance Jimmy Carter's raid into Iran, come to mind. So, for me, does Thomas Lamont II, an Exeter and Harvard student whose short but exemplary life and death I rediscovered and reprised here in 2006, when his nephew Ned was running an anti-Iraq War campaign against Senator Joe Lieberman.

Not that most football-playing young gentlemen at Groton and Yale proved themselves worthy of Tommy Lamont or Franklin Roosevelt. Many wound up as dray horses of the financial and legal establishments, lapping up highballs at the Yale Club across from Grand Central Station before taking the 7:07 home to Darien. A character in Owen Johnson's novel Stover at Yale derides them as products of a college "beef trust, with every by-product organized, down to the last possibility."

Yet something in the old Yale College did also produce or at least provoke a Dwight Macdonald, John Lindsay, William Sloane Coffin, Jr., William F. Buckley, Jr., Garry Trudeau, John Kerry, Howard Dean, and thousands more guardians of the republic -- most of them unsung, like F. Gordon Brown and like some who are reading this column.

Can we say the same now of colleges that have turned themselves into career-training centers and cultural galleria for a global elite that no longer answers to any polity or moral code?

The new elite drapes itself in a raiment of a "diversity" that might have no honor at all had not the old American civic-republican arts and disciplines sustained the early Civil Rights movement and the colleges themselves: At its 1964 Commencement Yale presented an honorary doctorate to Martin Luther King, Jr., who, fresh out of jail, wasn't yet popular with most white Americans, including some Yale alumni. The college helped King to open the hearts of northern WASPs whose own Puritan ancestors had made history out of the same Exodus myth that King was invoking in the South.

And now? Last week Yale released -- fortuitously, amid the Witt controversy, but also under the pressure of a federal investigation -- its first "Report of Complaints of Sexual Misconduct" in response to complaints of a "hostile sexual environment on campus" filed by 16 students' in 2011 under Title IX of the Education Amendments Act of 1972. Almost inadvertently, the report opens a six-month window on a decades-long train of sad, unsavory attempts by the university to shunt serious complaints into hushed, non-disciplinary proceedings.

Such abuses were almost never challenged at all in the old Ivy league, of course, but today's procedures have left more than a few of the complainants feeling cheated and even violated by the universities as much as by the subjects of their complaints. While many of them do prefer confidential mediation to the harrowing risks of litigation and publicity, college administrators often swoop in quickly to play on those fears, hoping to keep things quiet for their own corporate, institutional reasons.

That strategy may have backfired now thanks not to any reckoning more noble on Yale's part than on Witt's, but thanks rather to complaints that prompted the federal investigation and Yale's report, and perhaps also to Witt's complainant, who -- presumably aroused by the litigation and dissatisfied with her own experience of the confidential process -- met the editor of the Yale Daily News and perhaps breached the confidentiality agreement in other ways.

The point to remember is that the Witt saga and similar debacles show how foolish we would be to look down so smugly on F. Gordon Brown and old Groton and Yale, from what we fancy is our much loftier moral position. By heralding Witt's choice of football over Rhodes, Yale and the news media tried to capitalize on all that should be admired in the Frank Merriwell/Platonic guardian tradition, but they wound up corrupting that tradition in what is becoming an agonizing downward spiral of deceit and cynicism.

Yale's handling of the Witt saga even has some affinities to General (now Yale professor) Stanley McChrystal's mishandling of the death of Pat Tillman, another football star, who enlisted patriotically in the Army after 9/11. Tillmann was killed in battle in Afghanistan -- not by enemy fire, as McChrystal let Americans believe when he authorized the posthumous award of a Silver Star, but by friendly fire, in circumstances the Army obscured for months with a tenacity worthy of Yale's.

"A seminar is like a team," McChrystal wrote in block letters on the blackboard his first day of class at Yale. Few Yale seminars have ever been like "teams" in any military or corporate sense, even back when almost everything else at Yale was. Yet McChrystal's dictum seems almost an improvement over the ethos described in a Yale Daily News story of 2009, "Is Yale U. Starting to Run More Like Yale, Inc.?." It noted that some university vice presidents referred to students as "customers" in memos and in meetings with at least one astonished faculty member I know.

Now a long-intimidated and dispirited Yale faculty is stirring to focus and voice its resistance to the mindless marketization of everything from Yale's dubious venture to start a new college in Singapore to its proliferating centers in national-security studies that displace scholarship with strategy by "professors" McChrystal, former National Intelligence Director John Negroponte, and even Tony Blair. Worse still, the hearts and wallets of conservative alumni have been opened to fund programs that pretend to restore the great humanist tradition by enlisting the likes of Thucydides in the American grand-strategizing for the "Global War on Terror."

The challenge facing the old colleges is to open their doors wider without failing to deepen students' civic-republican commitments. It is to throw out the dirty bathwater of elitism, sexism, and racism but not the arts and disciplines of leadership-training that instills public virtues our society so desperately needs.

Those virtues involve more than prowess and teamwork. They require an ability and an inclination not just to sacrifice oneself for a group but to enhance and, if need be, to challenge a group's goals and rules, in deliberation with others about its most vital national and global interests.

Cultivating such abilities and inclinations is hard. It requires a liberal philosophy and pedagogy that the old colleges sometimes sustained and would have to regenerate in themselves now. To do it, they would have to understand themselves not as business corporations, although they have that side, but as conservators and rejuvenators of a public mission that neither armies nor bottom-lining companies adequately nourish or defend.

They might even have to re-engage their founders' conviction that the world isn't flat, as neoliberals think, but that it has abysses, and that students need a civic faith strong enough to plumb them and face the demons in them and in high places.

Patrick Witt's detractors will dismiss him as just another by-product of the college beef trust or an ornament to the new, global retail-market university that has displaced it. But the real casualty is not Witt but any college that celebrates its Witts and McChrystals as if they were F. Gordon Browns or Pat Tillmans.