I said I wasn’t done talking about sexual assault on college campuses but I didn’t expect to be writing about it again so soon.
But this time I was trying to be a normal, obnoxious Spartan fan during rivalry week. I searched Google for more evidence that analysts were over-estimating the University of Michigan in next weekend’s (american) football game with my alma mater, Michigan State University. This UofM v. MSU matchup is the most highly ranked ‘Paul Bunyan Trophy’ matchup ever: the teams are ranked 6th and 8th nationally!
Jon Vaughn caught my attention, instead. Vaughn alleges former (now deceased) UofM athletics doctor Robert Anderson assaulted him in 1988-’89; over 2000 complaints have been brought forward about Anderson, who retired in 2003 and died in 2008. You all can read more about it, here, or even more here.
Vaughn is camped in front of the university president’s residence on campus, demanding a meeting with Mark Schlissel and the board of regents. Vaughn and his supporters have seen President Schlissel coming and going, never acknowledging them. Campus police (to their credit) have been cordial and the student union at UofM has been supportive. In fact, a university spokesperson has said many of the ‘right’ things. There’s a mediation process in progress and admins want to “respect that process”. I reckon they are doing what administrators do too well: avoid outrage without providing anything satisfactory, either.
You’re making (an) apology for a man, for what a dead man did to several people, but you’ve never apologized or taken responsibility for what the university did to not only empower him, but enabling him and then covering it up~former UofM Running-back, Jon Vaughn
I respect him; I’m a fan. My previous allegiances can’t supersede that.
High Priest of Apathy
We throw around the term “good Samaritan” colloquially, as if it were someone performing random acts of kindness. I think I’ve got a Levantine insight (of course).
Kindness is contexual. Jesus told a story about a man who gets robbed and assaulted (and left for dead) on a narrow canyon road between Jericho and Jerusalem. It’s a parable– it never specifically happened as told but it generally happens constantly (y’know?). Before the Samaritan comes and offers generous help, a priest walks by and pretends not to see the wounded man. The priest’s selfishness is relatable: the bandits could still be around.
What we tend to forget is that the priest had an excuse: he needed to be ceremonially clean to perform his duties: the beaten man was bloodied and might die. Dirty. That situation didn’t just put a priest’s compassion in competition with his fears– it was priestly duties versus radical hospitality. To help the injured traveler, the priest would need to exercise compassion and love greater than his sense of duty to his tradition. He needed an empathy quotient (EQ) he didn’t have. Conveniently, being ‘holy’ let the priest be a coward without bothering his conscience.
President Schlissel is faithful to a tradition of being ‘professional’ that allows him to be callous without bothering his conscience. He’s not an evil admin: he’s a typical one. He’s not entangled with a blackface photo from a party thirty years ago or an asinine remark in a DM. To the contrary: I’m sure Schlissel’s correspondence is impeccable and his history is free from any compromising materials. His robes must be blindingly white and that’s why he got a 3% pay-raise for slinking around like a guilty teenager instead of behaving like an adult. That’s our culture: optics supersedes substance; prestige supersedes humanity.
To be clear: I don’t want to be a petty Spartan, throwing the UofM president under the bus with glee. The more I read about him, the sadder all this makes me. Schlissel has tried to make the university more accessible to lower-income families, yet he’s still being asked to step-down in two years. On the other hand, he’s certainly not low-income. When someone makes almost a million dollars a year, they can and should find a way to shake hands and dignify legitimate protests without capsizing the mediation process. A mediation process shouldn’t be that fragile (I used to work with mediators, so I feel confident saying that). If he’s stepping-down in two years anyway, he ought to be thinking about his legacy as a person.
Three Heads, Same Hydra
Vaughn has been joined by survivors of Nassar’s abuse at MSU and of Strauss’s abuse at Ohio State. The optics of these scandals are different but all three schools have an iteration of Dr. Predator. In ignorance, I looked at myself in the mirror and wished I’d gone to UofM instead of MSU. Now, I know better. And OSU isn’t better than the ‘brother schools’ in Michigan. These three are roughly equivalent in important ways.
They all have elite administrations who find it too easy to hide behind the normal boundaries of professionalism in extraordinary situations. Each institution has had its ‘priestly’ moment on a narrow canyon road. Being humane might stain their robes, after all: the endowment, public image, etc. They make their public relations departments do the work of hedging for them.
Admins have low EQs, in other words. Their grasp of empathy is so weak, they don’t understand that there’s a point at which professionalism must cede to more humane impulses. They find it too easy to compartmentalize other’s trauma when restitution is at stake. Assaults won’t stop happening until admins care more about ending exploitation and violence than sustaining donations and revenue. Is it so radical to place kindness and honor ahead of money and prestige?
Err on the Side of Compassion
I could go on and on (I have… I had to trim it down because I was being redundant…)
Shake Vaughn’s hand. Meet his gaze. See him with the survivors from MSU, OSU, and the community. Meet with them. Listen to them. Be seen with them. Restore relationships and let the lawyers do their jobs afterwards; mediation processes should be robust enough to afford dignity to everyone affected.
It didn’t make me feel better to see that the rival schools also had predators on their payrolls. I’m not one to hate sports programs for being well-funded (I just ask that the arts not be neglected so much). This is not a problem with athletic programs– it’s a problem with university administrations. Sports just happens to be the cash-crop. MSU’s disgraced former athletic director was not acting in the interests of his athletes. It’s more than negligence: it’s corruption.
We want to get better than our rivals, not learn that our rivals are just as bad — rivalry is the pedestal we begrudge our opponent. It acknowledges the worthiness of the opponent with a challenge, rather than praise, but it loses luster when rivals don’t aspire to the highest standards
There must be a way to acknowledge the survivors and dignify their stories without upsetting their precious mediation process. I don’t want to see anybody get fired for what a dead man did; I’m not a proponent of cancel culture. I want Vaughn to have his meeting. I want a high-profile university president to set a new precedent. I want Mark Schlissel to get his robes dirty and be a Wolverine we can celebrate throughout our athletic conference…
…and in that spirit, I won’t be taunting anyone this week nor after this weekend. There’s no pleasure in this rivalry until the whole conference is free from assault and corruption.