Notes from the North

I spent ten years of my life attempting to address issues of harassment and discrimination on university campuses up here in Canada. I worked at three different universities with several different titles but, at their core, my jobs always involved attempting to change the culture of the university to address more fairly and equitably inappropriate behaviour (involving faculty, staff and students) and attempting to resolve individual situations in which one member (or a group of members) of the University felt they had been harassed or discriminated against by another member (or group of members).

I was, in effect, the person paid by the University to "speak truth to power". I was the one who was required, as part of his job description, to hold the university and its members, no matter how powerful they might be, accountable for their behaviour.

In all three positions, I tended to be somewhat unpopular with senior administration. In fact, it could be argued that the level of my popularity with senior administration was inversely tied to the level of its unwillingness to address the problems that arose in a fair and appropriate way, putting truth and justice ahead of the (short term) interests (as they saw them) of the University.

The more corrupt the senior administators, the less popular I was for speaking truth to their power.

Why am I writing about this here, in this sports blog? Because I've just had the opportunity to read this article on the website (

I found myself nodding continuously as I read about the challenges Vicky Triponey faced in attempting to speak truth to the culture that, according to the Freeh report, has dominated the Penn State University campus and contributed to the problems that university now faces.

I have experienced this reverence of athletes and coaches myself, seen how it influences university administators in approaching their mandate of leading their institutions and addressing problems that arise.

Now remember, I worked at  schools in Canada, where university athletics are about one-tenth as important to the university and greater community as they are at American schools, especially the major colleges.

If I faced a pitch battle on a daily basis at universities up here in the great white north, I cannot imagine the pressure that had to be brought to bear on Ms. Triponey at Penn State.

I have read comments and articles attacking Ms. Triponey even now, attempting to undermine her reputation even in light of the fact that events have vidicated her completely. I have also read how intensely she has suffered, both in her career and in her personal life, as a result of her commitment to doing her job and holding a mirror to the university she was hired to serve.

I know how hard it must be for Ms. Triponey to find herself vindicated by such tragic events and how, even as she feels at least slightly satisfied that her efforts were both appropriate and worthwhile, she must feel desperately sad that the culture she faced was so incapable of listening to the truth she was speaking and to take steps to avoid the suffering so many people had to endure as a result.

And I know that it must be very hard for people who love Penn State University to accept the truth of what has happened, to recognise that their University can change but only once it (and its many supporters) realise that the problem is real, it is powerful and it is likely to reassert itself once the storm has passed unless significant steps are taken to change it now.

I can recall having sleepless nights, many many sleepless nights, as I racked my brain trying to think of some way to get the powers that be in the university to see the damage they were doing, the moral depravity of the decisions they were making in refusing to acknowledge problems and address them fairly.

I hope Vicky Triponey can rest a little easier now, knowing that the culture of power she faced was, at that point, impenetrable and unyielding. That its failure to change was not a failure of her own.

And I want to endorse the voices that are warning that Penn State University and its football program are not the only ones that have allowed this kind of culture to grow within their communities, that every university in America (and Canada, to be honest) has at least some small version of this problem flourishing on its campuses.

And if we're honest, we'll recognise as well that the problem is not limited simply to athletics: there are a lot of universities out there that treat their top academics and researchers like superstar athletes and coaches, that bend the rules for them as far as they do for a star quarterback or successful coach (if not farther).

Every University should use the Penn State story as a learning opportunity to examine its culture and address its issues. And support the people it hires and pays to hold a mirror in front of it, to speak truth to its power.

July 16, 2012  05:29 PM ET

Good read and good advice.


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