Burch GS: On University loyalty to Joe Paterno ’50

Guest Columnist
Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Recent developments on the Pennsylvania State University campus have raised deep concerns about failures in reporting campus sexual assaults. The vice president and athletic director have resigned. The school’s president and legendary football coach and former Brown football star Joe Paterno ’50 have been fired. Failure to report allegations of sexual assault is apparently not uncommon despite the Clery Act, a law enacted 20 years ago that mandates reporting of sex offenses.

This tragedy has haunting relevance for Brown for two reasons. First, Paterno has long been celebrated at the University, most notably with the annual Joe Paterno ’50 Award for athletic excellence. Second, Brown Director of Athletics Michael Goldberger, President Ruth Simmons, Senior Vice President for Corporation Affairs and Governance Russell Carey and Vice President for Campus Life and Student Services Margaret Klawunn are currently involved in a lawsuit in Federal Court and stand accused in part of refusing to report to police — and covering up — a first-degree rape allegation on their campus.

To be clear, one critical difference between the Brown and Penn State sexual assault cover-ups is that at Brown, the accused is suing the University for numerous civil rights violations. The female accuser’s father, a wealthy alumni donor and a leader of Simmons’ $1.6 billion Campaign for Academic Enrichment, discouraged any investigation into his daughter’s charges. An email in the court records from the alumni-parent to Simmons clearly instructs her to squash all investigations into his daughter’s claims. When William McCormick, the plaintiff in the case, attempted to contact Simmons from his home, Simmons refused to speak to him. In stark contrast, the family name of the alumni-parent is attached to medical school scholarships and a medical school conference room.

What the Brown and Penn State scandals have in common is a willingness to cover up allegations of serious violent crimes to protect university interests. It’s that simple. At Brown, administrators even allowed the student, who stood accused of a violent crime, to quietly transfer to another university. As far as Brown administrators were concerned, they intentionally allowed a suspected violent rapist to roam another university campus unbeknownst to its students. It’s a staggering thought. How does a university defend ousting a student under a rape accusation but refusing to tell the police or another university of the danger such a person might pose? Sounds strangely familiar to the Penn State travesty.

Chairman of the Brown Sports Foundation Artemis Joukowsky ’55 P’87 has already indicated his sentiments on the matter. Joukowsky said he does not want Brown to discontinue the Joe Paterno ’50 Award, according to the Associated Press. Echoing a classic university mantra, he said, “Loyalty means a great deal. You don’t just cut it off because something goes wrong.” Institutional loyalty is serious stuff. Shouldn’t we leave open the possibility that elimination of the Paterno award might need consideration at some point? The renowned Big Ten Football Conference, in which Penn State competes, just announced the removal of Paterno’s name from the Big Ten championship trophy.

The fact of the matter is that none of this should surprise us. Joukowsky’s comments make sense in context. On what moral grounds would Brown administrators be able to discontinue the Paterno award given the sexual assault allegation on their campus that they took extreme measures to cover up and are now being sued for? Joukowsky’s call to remain loyal to Paterno is consistent with how Brown has operated in the past: protect the sacrosanct image of the University at all costs — even human costs.

What’s difficult to determine is whether blind loyalty to Paterno will translate to blind loyalty to the Brown administration. Brown’s president is known for her beloved, grandmotherly reputation and stellar record of achievement, which insulate her from criticism, perhaps with the exception of her profits from her Goldman Sachs tenure at a time when her students’ homes went into foreclosure. She is now a defendant in the courts with mounting evidence against her.

The most important question in all of this is whether Brown students and alums who are critical of Penn State will ignore the analogous situation facing their own administrators. Will students actually demand that the Corporation no longer prohibit a transparent and student-led disciplinary system for the sake of everyone’s safety? If Brown students and alums do not hold their University accountable, it makes one wonder what crimes will be covered up in the future.

Michael Burch GS was the judicial affairs adviser to William McCormick during the University disciplinary process and an assistant varsity wrestling coach from 2001 to 2009. He is a witness in McCormick et al. vs. Brown University et al. He can be reached at