Doc Strauss: It is Time to Combat Systemic Abuse
The article highlights key components of systemic change to combat abuse of power through addressing Doc Strauss and sexual abuse of male wrestling students at Ohio State University:
Yet another report on gross misconduct by a physician against students at a university, as part of a larger picture of general serious misconducts at major universities: Penn State and Sandusky, Michigan State and Nassar and Strampel, University of North Carolina and academic misconduct in the athletics department and 5 UNC women suffering sexual assault/ rape with institution minimization, and now Ohio State University and Doc Strauss. What all of these institutions have in common is that they are state universities. What the general public may not be aware is that state universities benefit from sovereign immunity, which means there is a limited range of misconducts that these universities can be held responsible for; that private universities, for example Duke, do not have that protection. The serious problem with sovereign immunity is that is necessarily results in a culture which feels itself unaccountable for many types of misconduct. In essence universities become Whitey Bulger institutions, free from accountability hence able to engage in many forms of misconduct with no fear of being held responsible. Their behavior can descend into being essentially organized crime syndicates or religious cults, where the only real misconduct/crime that is important to them is silence breaking. In recent years other state universities have also engaged in cover-up of sexual misconduct, so these 4 are far from alone.
In the focused problem with all state institutions, there is a straight-forward solution. All state universities should have removed from them sovereign immunity: immunity allows for the grossest forms of misconduct. To paraphrase: absolute immunity corrupts absolutely. I am 100% certain there are worse examples out there even than Nassar. The Trump administration had enacted the Veteran’s Administration Accountability Act one year ago to address this very issue in the VA system, which had also benefited from sovereign immunity and hence lack of accountability. It is time for this to happen with state institutions.
This sovereign immunity had been imposed by states on their citizenry as an effort to limit the expense states may have to experience from legal action. Understandable at some level, but as with many similar type arrangements, the end results can have corrupt consequences. This can be addressed by having the senior administrators at these institutions also on the financial hook for their misconduct, and not just the institution, so the public does not have to be solely financially responsible for the misdeeds carried out by individuals in a university. Now to generalize the subject. Many pundits, and also victims (including recently one of the sexual assault victims at UNC), have described the need for systemic change. But similar to the quote from Mark Twain, ‘a lot of people talk about the weather, but nobody is doing anything about it’, no one has proposed what this means. This is what has to be done for systemic change: perpetrators and senior administrators covering up misdeeds have to be treated as one group: perpetrators.
Four steps are needed:
1) the perpetrators need to be publicly called out
2) they have to experience financial penalty (often by legal action)
3) they have to be fired
4) a number have to do prison time
Many of these steps were enacted at Penn State, but apparently not at the other institutions. So what do these 4 steps mean? The first step, whatever the legacy that the perpetrators felt that were going to enjoy: chairman, dean, president of organizations; their legacy then becomes they were perpetrators of crimes, and that then becomes their legacy. Financial penalty is obvious, greed is a quality that most senior administrators who engage in bad behavior share. They should experience the shame of being fired. Ultimately, the fact that perpetrators at one center were sent to prison, may be the greatest deterrent on potential perpetrators, or perpetrators-in-making, at other centers.
Time magazine honored silence breakers as their people of the year in 2017. What is unfortunate though is that all these silence breakers were victims. None of the silence breakers were individuals who spoke up on behalf of victims (bystander silence breakers). In the same vein, the Catholic Church and sexual abuse of children, no silence breakers as insider bystanders. 60,000 children victims in Australia of sexual abuse, apparently no silence breakers who were bystanders. A great number of entertainment and political miscreants, yet no bystander silence breakers. We look back in retrospect with the benefit of not having been in that situation and wonder why more Germans did not hide their Jewish neighbors from the murderous Nazis? Is there any surprise when we compare it to the lack of bystander silence breakers in our era? What is the down-side for bystander silence breaking for all the above mentioned abuses today – losing your job? What was the downside of shielding your Jewish friends and neighbors – your murder and that of your family. There is no comparison between these down-sides.
We all recall the forlorn plea of the Olympic gold medalist gymnast, Aly Raisman: “if one adult had listened or had the character to act, we (her and Nassar) would never have met”, and we ourselves as the viewing public cannot understand why. It seems so obvious that a caring adult would speak out to prevent future children from being victimized. This is especially true, when we think that for essentially all the abuses of power and cover-up (and some retaliations), for many years many people were aware of the wrongdoing and did nothing. How could this possibly happen?
Well this is how it happens. The reality is, up to the present time, all bystanders intuitively know, and they are correct, if they point out that gross misconduct is occurring that involve senior individuals who are either the ground level perpetrators or the cover-up perpetrators, the people who will be fired and have their careers destroyed are the silence breaking bystanders themselves, and not the perpetrators. This is essentially always the case until or if the villainy of the perpetrators make head-line news. In some of these cases of abuse of power and cover-up, the perpetrators are eventually forced to admission. Here are classic ones: The Australian Roman Catholic Archbishop, after thousands of victims to Catholic priests and higher level figures came to light, stated: “This is a shameful past, in which a prevailing culture of secrecy and self-protection led to unnecessary suffering for many victims and their families”. The Australian Anglican archbishop Dr Philip Frier stated, after the thousands of victims of the Anglican Church misconduct in Australia came to light (we apologize for) “our failures and by the shameful way we sometimes actively worked against and discouraged those who came to us and reported abuse”. These eloquent apologies are essentially the identical apology that all these other above-mentioned institutions have or will eventually make.
But these after-the-fact apologies are hollow and are not deserving of receiving forgiveness. They all knew better, and should have been thinking these ethical thoughts while the misconduct was going on, and not after their wrongdoing has been found out. Institutions engaged in the path of misconduct, cover-up, are fully prepared to terminate bystander silence breakers, but also destroy their reputations, and cause them huge financial injury. The institutions do need to have reasons for termination, and these reasons are invariably phony and dishonest. They are virtually all of the same type, but perhaps the most famous recent terminations on phony charges is a major American bank that terminated employees who objected to the credit card and bank account set-up scams. We have also learned from some of the above-mentioned abuses, of the existence of companies that can be hired to dig out irregularities in the past of silence breakers, or concoct falsehoods, to destroy their reputations. Part of the huge financial loss of bystander silence breakers is extremely high legal bills if the victimized bystander pursues legal action against the perpetrators. The costs for legal action are in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. On the other side, institutions have virtually unlimited funds, which will be public money if they are state institutions, used to not only protect the institutions but also the perpetrators.
At the present time, the scales of justice are weighted such that the university and perpetrators are a 4 ton elephant on one scale, and on the other scale the silence breaking bystander is a 6 ounce mouse. As this situation presently exists, ofcourse there will never, or almost never, be bystander silence breakers. Many people may have the integrity of knowing right from wrong, but extremely few have the courage to face the overwhelming onslaught of dishonesty and mistreatment that wealthy individuals or institutions can wage against them in their retaliatory zeal. The victims of university efforts are not just the silence breaker, but the entirety of their family as well. It is unlikely that significant systemic change can occur until it is more than just the victims that speak out. It has to also include bystander silence breakers, and for the most common serious offence: sexual assault against women, it has to include male bystanders who speak out.
It is a powerful first step though that the victims have been emboldened to speak out. The explanation for the majority is the noble cause: “the No. 1 reason they do report is to protect others, to protect their community,” (Strength in Numbers, Rebecca Mead, the New York Magazine, April 2, 2018). The critical next step is for bystander silence breakers to step up to put themselves at risk to achieve this very same goal.
For bystander silence breakers to speak up, as with the victim silence breakers, there needs to be a land-mark case of a bystander silence breaker causing the 4 steps above to occur because of gross misconduct, cover-up, and retaliation by a powerful individual or major institution. This will serve as an ice breaker for others to gain the courage to speak up – for men to protect women against assault, for physicians to protect patients from misconduct at institutions. This is how it started with female victim silence breakers: Gretchen Carlson spoke up and was successful, and other cases followed. An ancillary change is that whistle blowing cases must be also handled on a contingency basis, as personal injury cases are, as very few individuals can afford $200,000-300,000+ in legal fees. The legal expense even alone is an enormous and prohibitive deterrent, especially as there are no guarantees in life no matter how clear-cut things are, as we all know, especially when political cronyism is in play. The other
requirement is for other knowing bystanders who have been fearful and silent, to eventually speak up and speak the truth, that also has the effect to defend the silence breaking bystander. The silent ones must understand: ‘evil happens when good people do nothing’, and from Martin Luther King jr: “the time is always right to do what is right”.
We also must rethink leadership. Most leaders in universities have been chosen by a selection committee, but clearly they are often selecting for the wrong qualities. Often some form of cronyism and sycophantry have been paramount qualities, perhaps mixed with some form of political success in societies or the institution, which themselves usually are based on cronyism and sycophantry. Academic success also counts. None of these though relate to the individual’s morals and the presence of an ethical core. Leaders should be selected on the basis of having done positive, selfless acts to benefit others – such as documented evidence of the courage to speak up in the face of gross misconduct or injustice. Academic accomplishments should remain as a recognized quality.
There has to be an overwhelming judgment against an unethical individual or institution brought on by a bystander silence breaker, as happened for Gretchen Carlson, for the tides against covering up serious misconduct to solidify. A precedent that other bystander silence breakers at other institutions can utilize in the future. Bystanders must also break silence so that prevention of victimization and protection of victims become permanently ingrained in our culture.