Philanthropy is a moral realm in which both the philanthropist and the recipient of philanthropy can acquit themselves justly or unjustly. Cicero’s On Duties -- one of history’s most influential texts of moral philosophy -- includes an extended consideration of what makes philanthropist just or unjust. In particular, Cicero warns against the “harmful favor” in which the moral failings of a benefactor taint his gift.
The question of Cicero’s “harmful favor” was at the heart of Penn State English professor Michael Bérubé’s published account of his decision to resign the Paterno Chair, a professorship funded by the Paterno family.
Bérubé’s essay is thoughtful, especially in its nuanced assessment of Joe Paterno:
Those of us who live and work at Penn State, and who are most horrified and disgusted by these crimes, might yet be able to try to say that some of what has been said and written about Paterno has been unfair -- even unhinged. And we might be able to say so while acknowledging that his failure to ensure Sandusky was stopped is more than enough to taint his legacy forever. . . . Paterno himself threw his cultural capital into expanding the library because, as he often said, “You can’t have a great university without a great library.”. . . It is inconceivable to me that the man who loved the Aeneid because he considered it the great epic of honor and duty would not have done more when apprised of Sandusky’s behavior than report it up the chain of command.
And yet that “inconceivable” circumstance happened, and Bérubé, upon reading the Freeh report, concluded nearly immediately that he must resign the Paterno Chair. But Bérubé does not argue that the Paterno name must be wiped from the Penn State campus. To the contrary:
[Paterno’s] name remains on the library he loved and supported so generously (as well it should). . . . We are still stumbling, still trying to figure out how to proceed: Erasing the name seems too easy a fix, a simple scrubbing and denial, and yet keeping it seems to say that everything is fine and nothing has changed in Happy Valley. I have made my decision, but the question of how to remember Joe Paterno is far from settled.
Bérubé’s essay disappoints in that does not make clear the criteria by which he judged it necessary for him to resign the Paterno Chair but advisable for the university to retain the Paterno name on the library. But Bérubé nicely argues that neither can Penn State expunge the Paterno name (and thereby exculpate itself from some share of blame for what happened), nor can it simply leave the Paterno name as conspicuous on campus as before last year’s revelations.
Others on campus have concluded that a continued association with the Paterno name is appropriate. One Bérubé’s colleague in the English department, Jack Selzer, heads up the Paterno Fellows Program for high-achieving undergraduates. The program was named in honor of (but not funded by) the Paterno family. On the question of whether the students in the Paterno Fellows Program (PFP) wish to renounce the Paterno name, Selzer told me:
The students in the program are making no such calls; nor are the program’s supporters or graduates. Students remain very committed to the program, which is designed to bring out the best in liberal arts students by challenging them to high achievement and then rewarding them when they meet the challenges. . . . These students are distinguished by their thoughtfulness, ethical commitments, and critical thinking skill. While anything but unaware of recent events and controversies, they have committed themselves to patiently gathering all available information (for new information continues to emerge) and to continuing to reflect carefully before making decisions; the same goes for our supporters. And they are respectful and appreciative of the contributions of the Paterno family members to the PFP in particular and to Penn State and society in general.
The challenge for Penn State is to navigate between gratitude to Paterno for all the good he accomplished at Penn State, in the athletics program and beyond, and denunciation of his role in failing to prevent Sandusky’s further crimes once he undeniably knew of the allegations against Sandusky. Because Paterno’s failure is an indelible stigma on his legacy, Paterno’s legacy at Penn State is a “harmful favor.”
Penn State must figure out how to cope with this. Bérubé’s resignation of the Paterno Chair does not end that professorship; Rodeny Kirsch, Penn State’s senior vice president for development and alumni relations, told me that Penn State will likely fill the Paterno Chair with a new occupant in the spring. I understand both why a faculty member might accept or decline the offer of the Paterno Chair.
The question of a tainted named professorship is certainly not unique to Penn State. For example, the Royall Chair at Harvard Law School was funded in 1815 by the estate of Isaac Royall, whose wealth was founded on the labor and sale of slaves from his estates in Antigua and Massachusetts. When law professor Janet Halley assumed the Royall Chair in 2006, she delivered a lecture on the tainted legacy of Isaac Royall. On thinking of the complexity of the Royall’s mixed legacy as both a visionary philanthropist and slaveholder, she found it was impossible simply to excuse or condemn Royall and his legacy:
Somehow, reading these debates as I struggle to come to terms with my Royall Chair legacy, I find these polarities . . . a little . . . unhelpful. . . . The fact that the funds that established the Royall Chair derived, directly and/or indirectly, from the sale of human beings and the appropriation of their labor -- these are facts. . . . Thinking in binarized terms of condemnation and redemption just doesn’t seem to capture the complexity of this question.
Of course, the question of the tainted or harmful favor isn’t just a matter of that peculiar form of philanthropy that takes the form of named professorships at research universities. Cicero warned about harmful favors because philanthropists, like all men, blend good and bad qualities. The offer of a gift necessarily carries some danger with it to the one to whom it is offered.
None of us who have benefited from others’ philanthropy can avoid, at least occasionally, facing similar questions as confronted professors Bérubé and Halley: for example, as Isaac Royall’s legacy at Harvard is complicated by his status as a slaveholder, the legacy of the Founding Fathers is complicated by their status as slaveholders. All Americans must navigate between deep gratitude to the Founders for establishing our republic and our acknowledgment of their failure live consistently with their claim that “all men are created equal.” And, no doubt all of us can think of occasions in our personal lives when we’ve benefited from a gift that somehow was tainted or complicated by the character of our benefactor.
That’s the moral interest of Joe Paterno’s philanthropic legacy at Penn State. Bérubé was in a public position in which he had to wrestle with a tainted or harmful favor. But all of us must wrestle with this sort of question at least on occasion if we are to be thoughtful recipients of philanthropy.