When Breaking News Breaks Your Heart

“Let the highest truths and values guide everything you do.”
–Quaker admonition

Working in higher education means that when national news revolves around campus scandal, we will be even more absorbed in the story than we might otherwise have been. No one talked too much about Herman Cain at work today. Everyone had something to say about Joe Paterno. It is considered a kind of professional courtesy not to jump into the public fray too quickly, pointing fingers at other institutions. When a student dies of alcohol poisoning, when a campus sexual assault turns out to have been mishandled, when a college is fined by the Department of Education for a policy that doesn’t quite meet the federal guideline, we can find ourselves thinking, “I could be that (insert campus title) standing in front of the camera.” And we refrain from public posturing. This story is something entirely different.

I’m guessing we’ve all been paying attention – if not, just google Paterno and you’ll begin to learn the horrifying details. A lot of words have been used to describe what took place between a coach and the vulnerable children he was supposedly mentoring. More have been used to discuss the criminal lack of judgment displayed by members of the Penn State administration. I don’t have any that wouldn’t seem cliche at this point. Instead, I want to talk about the ease with which we can stray from the very values that give our lives meaning.

These coaches were famous for their values. For teaching them, for speaking them, for living them. For mentoring young people to become adults of strong character. By all accounts, these were the hallmark of their careers. I can’t speak to the values of the university officials also involved in these events, but I have spent my life working with higher education administrators. The values of our shared roles and professions as educators can be expressed in a myriad of ways, but at the core are generally recognizable: lifelong learning, development of well-rounded citizens and whole persons, the common good, to name a few.

How, then, does anyone stray so far from their professed values that they could be complicit in creating the culture of cover-up and self-protection so evident as the facts of this case have become known? I suspect the usual culprits: fear, money, cowardice, hubris, and plain old poor judgement. I would also like to suggest that our unwillingness as a society to engage in self-reflection, to practice quiet, to ask ourselves the hard questions, played a role here as well. When everyone becomes caught up in our “brand” or our image, as opposed to who our actions say that we are, abuses of power happen. When fear causes us to lose the values at our center, we often find ourselves pushed into behaviors we wouldn’t normally condone. Finally, I sometimes wonder if we place anywhere near enough value on the idea of vocation – what am I called to do with my life as opposed to how will I make money?

I don’t know about you, but in my job I am faced almost daily with situations big and small about which I am asked to decide the right course of action. I can never be 100% certain that the decision I come to, the action I take, is the most ethical, most right. However, what I can do is ask questions, get input from others I trust, then take the time to consult my own inner voice. If I ask, it will tell me if cowardice or conviction is behind my choice. Most important, I can never allow myself to forget that I am charged with a sacred trust as an educator. Sacred isn’t a word used very often, I’m afraid, in cultures like the one that developed at Penn State.

What has happened has happened. Nothing any of us, or the pundits, or even the courts say or do can change that now. The choices were made, from the heartbreaking violation of trust between Sandusky and his young victims, to the heartbreakingly apathetic (or cynical or criminally negligent – take your pick) response from those who could have done something about it. The only thing I can do in the aftermath of this horrifying chain of events is look within. I can reaffirm that I need to do the right thing, not the easy thing. I can take the extra minutes to search my soul before choosing an irrevocable course. I can practice speaking the truth when doing so is less risky, so that I am ready to do it when it feels like my job or more might be on the line.

Finally, I can remind myself regularly that my work isn’t just about collecting a paycheck or having a positive reputation. It isn’t about politics or creating plausible deniability. It isn’t about protecting my company’s reputation or brand or revenue stream above the people whose lives are impacted by what I do. My work is a sacred vocation, and what I value should be crystal clear from how I behave within that work.

“Before you tell your life what you intend to do with it, listen for what it intends to do with you. Before you tell your life what truths and values you have decided to live up to, let your life tell you what truths you embody, what values you represent.”
–Parker Palmer

3 thoughts on “When Breaking News Breaks Your Heart

  1. Amen sister – I have watched this story unfold and my heart breaks for the poor victims that have an entirely different perspective on life, trust and authority from now on – I can not judge the cowardice of the school as well as Paterno – that is for the Lord to decide – I wish for the sake of the victims someone would have spoken up and handled the situation but we can’t go back – but hopefully others like yourself (in education and elsewhere) will take this as a teachable moment as you have – not for acting so that you will not be fired or lose your status – but because it is what we are called to do!

  2. Thank you, Jen. Beautifully written and the most thoughtful response to these events that I’ve read. Thank you for framing this for me in a new light. You are a wonderful educator and your community of students and colleagues is lucky to receive your guidance.

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