Many observers have commented that the Penn State scandal reminds them of similar incidents within the Catholic Church, but it takes me back to 1984, when I was a junior at Choate Rosemary Hall, a college preparatory school in Connecticut. That spring, two of my fellow students went to Venezuela and came back with $300,000 worth of cocaine. They were arrested when going through customs at JFK. Upon searching the students and their bags, police found a list of initials and dollar amounts, leading to the expulsion of several more students at the school, just weeks before graduation.
Unsurprisingly, the media went wild. After all, Choate was the alma mater of John F. Kennedy, of Adlai Stevenson, of Edward Albee and Alan Jay Lerner. The press characterized the school as a haven for rich kids, a place where Daddy's little darlings were more interested in scoring drugs than scoring high on their AP exams. It questioned the ethics of a place where scholarship students were recruited by conscienceless kids of privilege to do their dirty work.
But here's what the media did not know then, and a quick Google search reveals that the press did not pick up, at least in any great numbers, on the ethical punch line. Several years later, after all the legal wrangling was over, Choate announced to alumni that it had actually brought the adverse media attention upon itself. Earlier, in the spring of 1984, a teacher had learned about the Venezuela trip and its purpose, and he or she (the faculty member was not named) had gone to the school administration. And what had the administration done? The right thing. They had called police, guaranteeing that the two cocaine-carrying students would be caught and arrested, sealing the school's fate as a headline in The New York Times and a feature on 60 Minutes. Even in 2011, another quick Google search brings up profiles and chat boards where the scandal is mentioned as evidence of the school's failings.
Now that I am a professor at a wonderful university (in Pennsylvania), I see the dilemma Penn State faced in deciding whether or not to call in the cops. Did it want to go down in history as a cesspool where little kids were sodomized by the football coach, or as a great public university where football formed the heart of school spirit? And who would want to be the messenger who would take responsibility for making that report? Surely, that person stood a chance of being scapegoated. And even Mike McQueary, who was brave enough to take his concerns to his boss, did not go to the police when he saw for himself that Sandusky was still on staff, seemingly uncensored in any way.
Even though I can understand the fear that must accompany being in the position of bringing down an admired institution, one that a teacher or a coach has dreamed of being a part of, I am fortunate enough to have been taught an important lesson about courage by what happened at Choate, a lesson about what makes an institution great in the long run. I can clearly remember the beginning of my senior year in high school, with 60 Minutes cameras rolling at Convocation. I remember Charles Dey, our headmaster, telling the student body that, in a way, it was a good thing that this had happened in our community, because it would teach us all something. Individual actions had a ripple effect, he said, affecting not only the student actors but the other students, the faculty, the alumni, the very institution. The conduct of a few students reflected on the school, branding it with a scarlet "C" that could never fully fade. I was 16 years old. Now that I am almost 44, Headmaster Dey's statement is the only one that has stuck with me over time, despite the fact that I have had many, many wonderful teachers, headmasters, deans, and, yes, role models over the years.
When I think of Penn State, I think of how the students' pride in their institution, in their leaders, could have increased enormously had the administration done the right thing. And I wonder how much they could have learned about personal responsibility in the face of adversity had the university only acted responsibly. I wonder if they will understand someday that what makes an institution great is taking the hard road when the chips are down, all for the sake of making it a true place of learning.
This piece first appeared on Dorf on Law.