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October 15, 2012


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Jen Kreder

Alfred, I suspect your reasons to not take down the statue or rename the professorship stem from concerns about falsely rewriting history. (Is that a correct assumption?). If so, I share that same concern. But there is a difference between being truthful about past leaders whose horrible deeds come to light to the public and continuing to honor them. Reading about this reminds me of the debates over whether to use the genetic data gathered by Mengele. One victim said that using the data would be akin to building on top of Auschwitz. I see an analogy for your position, but continuing to capitalize on the materiality left behind and continuing to honor the violators fails to send the powerful message of solidarity for the victims. Joe Paterno's role in history is memorialized in many other places. I don't know whether this adds anything new to your thinking about this, but I appreciate the honesty of your thoughts despite my disagreement with them.

Alfred Brophy

Hi Jen,

Thanks for the comment. You are correct that I opposed taking down the statue because it's part of the history of the University. I thought it should have been left in place as a reminder of what people once thought and as a prompt to conversation about how they now think. Also, taking it down facilitated the forgetting of the past. It seems to me that the chair raises very similar issues of remembering the past. But I'd add that I think there's an opportunity to turn the money left by the Paternos to a positive use. There's also a historical aspect to this -- that I'd like to see some balanced maintained in understanding the Paterno family's contributions to the University.

This invites, as I said in this post, more questioning of whether the Paterno Library will be renamed....

Bill Turnier

If we are to apply the "Paterno" standard retroactively we would wind up stripping the names of many buildings, chairs, art collections and the like. I think that it is only our ignorance of history that leaves us unaware of the misdeeds of great figures of the past that lets us get by without doing so. What of all those great slave owning and religiously intolerant leaders of the past to say nothing of the robber barons of the past. Most are probably ignorant of the misdeeds of people such as Leyland Stanford who owned the California legislature but purified his bequest by naming it after a son who had died early in life. Most revered southern politician planters of the pre-Civil War period owned slaves as did Royall and many old line universities in the South and some in the North have buildings built by slave labor. Purity of character does not demand that we tear them down. It seems that if the "misbehavior" was acceptable at the time it was done, it becomes acceptable in the present and into the future. It may also have something to do with the power and wealth of those great benefactors. Perhaps that really has a lot to do with the fact that we currently are ignorant of the misdeeds done in the past by our benefactors who carried them out.

Paterno seems to be providing us with what Rene Girard would characterize as a scapegoat who we can use to assure ourselves of our righteousness in a period of
moral crisis.

Mark Fenster


Can you elaborate on how/ why you disagree with Berube? His essay -- typically for him -- is complex, thoughtful, and occasionally moving, and rightly resists the simplistic. He declares a commitment to his institution, and it is the institutional failings to which Paterno contributed that are the reasons for his stepping down from the chair -- failings that he has done the work to know with precise detail. He also embraces the institutional contributions that the Paterno family has made. This is in some ways a very different dynamic than that facing Janet Halley: here, you have someone whose "sin" was directly related to the institution, rather than providing the wealth for creating the endowment (which is Halley and countless others have noted, is something with which educational institutions must continually struggle). The tone of your second sentence is ambiguous -- are you suggesting that it is simply Berube's personal calculus that you disagree with (ie, reasonable minds can differ), or that it constitutes some larger failing of Berube's to not understand the nature of memorials and chairs, etc.?

I would also ask Bill Turnier to read the Berube piece before implying, quite wrongly, that Berube is among those making Paterno a scapegoat. It's certainly the case that he could have done more, at greater personal sacrifice, than make this symbolic move (and then announce it in the Chronicle), but I think it would be hard to find someone who has wrestled so fully with this issue and with as much sympathy to Penn State and Sandusky's victims.

Alfred Brophy

Hi Mark,

Thanks for this. I actually sort of agreed with the commenter of Berube's op-ed who said (in essence) I'm not really sure why he resigned. To figure out his reasoning I think requires a lot of work on the part of the reader.

I see a number of factors in favor of keeping the chair -- some I've already mentioned -- that the chair represents a historical moment, that when people look at the name on the chair they may be inclined to ask about its meaning and to further think about both the evil and good that happened on that campus in relation to football, that the money for the chair is being used for a positive purpose. I think it's important to keep some balance in how we think about Coach Paterno's involvement in this -- which Paterno acknowledged before his death he'd wished he's handled differently. I agree with Halley's assessment that we should try to use the chair to honor the people whose suffering and labor made the profits that allowed Isaac Royall to have the money to endow the professorship. And in this instance I'd prefer (not that my attitudes make a difference here!) that the incumbent use the money for a positive purpose and perhaps as an opportunity for a lesson about the power and dangers of college athletics.

I'd just like to emphasize again that this issue is raised in substantially greater amplitude with respect to the Paterno Library. I'm wondering if we're going to start hearing a discussion about renaming it -- and as I've pointed out before, I'm against that, too.

Bill Turnier

Mark, I had read the Berube piece when I wrote my comment and it was not aimed at him. But rather how we have come to not engaging in name stripping when the benefactor or historical personage is buried in the dim dark past. Ignorance of that past plus a reluctance to apply a moving standard most likely team up to leave things as they are most of the time.

I must confess that after having read the Berube essay I was perplexed as to why he acted as he did. Obviously he was tortured by renouncing the chair. I hold a chair named after a major pre-Civil War politician who rose so high in the US Senate to have been named President Pro Tem of that body. He was one of those Southern planter politicians who also owned slaves. I never thought of renouncing my chair when I learned of this a few years after receiving primarily because I do not like the idea of applying contemporary standards to figures from the past. Moral standards are ever evolving and I think it best to judge figures from history by the standards that prevailed in their time and social milieu. I have no trouble being introduced with the name of my chair being mentioned or including it on letters that I sign. Perhaps I am hiding behind the ignorance of all but a few when I do so. I know that one problem for Berube is that he would not have shared in that protection that history provides to me and others who benefit from our weak knowledge of the past. I leave it to readers to ponder if this could have been part of what motivated him to act as he did.

I note that even when the standards of the past would find that a historical figure had morally failed, we still are reluctant to erase his name from a monument or building as long as we can rest with comfort in the valley of ignorance of the past that exists for
most of us.

Jeffrey Harrison

Very interesting exchange and I must agree with Bill but perhaps for slightly different reasons. I distrust history. After all, we know who gets to write history and, thus, who gets to leave things out. The damning of people for what we later discover about them seems inconsistent because all we know about the ones we do not know about is just that-- we do not know. The probability that they were less evil is slim. So too with Paterno. The difference between JoePa his contemporaries is more a function of what we know rather than their character. I would be willing to bet that half the big time college coaches have tried to minimize cases of abuse and theft by their players. I have no desire to be assigned the Manson Chair in Criminal Law, the Romney Chair in ethics, or the Madoff Chair in Finance but it would be because of personal embarrassment not a matter of principle and I have reservations about claims to be motivated by principle. Perhaps the issue is whether someone would resign a chair if he or she were the only to know about and would ever know about the misdeeds. FYI, I work at a law school that is named in such a way that some may argue we should all resign.

Jen Kreder

But there are plenty of historic truths, and most of them are not celebrated on monuments and what-not. There is limited real estate. Changing the appearance of a limited amount of real estate doesn't change the past. Monuments just as often distort the past as preserve it.

Mark Fenster

Al & Bill,

Thanks for the responses. I agree with you both that it is hard to pull Berube's precise reason out of the essay, which I perversely think is a strength. There is no absolute right or wrong answer here. It has to come down to a personal weighing of a set of very difficult, unresolvable issues about culpability and the effect of that culpability on the institution and holder of the chair. I think Berube's proximity to the Paternos makes this an extremely difficult and in some ways non-academic decision, and so the kind of considerations Bill was making about anachronistic judging don't really come into play.

Note that it's much easier for someone in Berube's position to renounce the chair. He no doubt had negotiated so that his new chair awaited him, and had PSU told him that he would have to take a paycut, he could probably find another institution ready to snap him up (he's currently president of the MLA). So there's no doubt grandstanding going on in his position and in a piece of this sort -- the kind of grandstanding that is fairly typical of lefty academics (not that there's anything wrong with that!) and academics generally, and there's probably no sacrifice at all. That said, I applaud his public struggle with the issue and his willingness to consider things in very deep shades of grey, which they really deserve. Too often, faculty and administrators view chairs as fungible ways of managing employees and distributing assets. But they have meaning for the donors, and they have meaning for the institutions (as Al has noted extensively), and it's important for chair-holders to struggle with those latter meanings.

Michael Bérubé

Just for the record, I did not negotiate for a new chair. After I informed the dean of my decision, she generously offered me a Sparks professorship (there are 15 in the College of Liberal Arts), and I accepted.

Jeffrey Harrison

It depends on what the definition of "negotiation" is. Can one have an expectation of what will happen if he or she resigns a chair and not be "negotiating." I think so. Does that change Mark's suggestion of grandstanding. Not really. I'd be embarrassed to have the chair but suppose the Dean had said, "The money will come from the same source but we will no longer call it the JoePa Chair." Would that change things?

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