volume 42, number 2
Temple UniversityFaculty Herald

What Would You Do if You Were Peter?  The Bible, Penn State and Temple

By Michael Sirover, Professor of Pharmacology


    The Christian Bible is a document of unparalleled religious and moral influence not only to the faithful who regard it as Gospel, but also to others who consider the events depicted as illustrative of human conduct, fair or foul, and as instructional in nature. Thus, the story of Peter and his Denial of Jesus from the Christian Gospels may be understood and applied on several levels. For the purposes of this article, it is a tale of human weakness and frailty at a time when one’s faith is put to the test. Although he acquitted himself well later Peter failed that test, opting to deny his faith, thereby saving his life.
    What is the relevance of this tale of human cowardice to the events which have occurred at Penn State, and what can the Temple community take from the scandal? In discussing that tragedy, much is being made of the failure of Mr. Michael McQueary, then a graduate assistant, to “do the right thing” and report to the police the alleged crime he witnessed. He has been the subject of scorn, derision and righteous criticism. How could he remain silent? Why didn’t he call the police? Why didn’t he call the parents? Why was his relating the incident to Mr. Paterno the only action he undertook? In the face of great risk or blow-back, would those of us in the Temple community fare any better?

   If you were one of the individuals who asked, or thought, such questions, consider the following: How many of you would have the courage, as a lowly junior person, to confront such a powerful figure in such a powerful organization? Remember that Mr. Sandusky was Mr. Paterno’s right hand man, thought by many to be his successor.
    Accordingly, in assessing the situation, what would you have been willing to risk to right the wrong which you have seen? Would you imperil your position, your career or your life? Would you risk the wrath of legions of avid Penn State football fans should you pursue a course of action which would cast negative aspersions on the “deities” of that program? Would you be able to survive the aspersions, the personal attacks and the excommunication which would inevitably occur? How many of you would have answered truthfully had you been Peter?
    The answer is probably not many. For years, junior individuals have been silent with respect to the peccadilloes of their superiors. Although this has changed somewhat over the last few years, it may be stated with relative certainty that senior individuals may still conduct themselves in a manner which would not be tolerated were they not in their authoritative power positions. Such abuses may be financial, psychological or physical, i.e. “Rank has its privileges.”
    Why are they not challenged? The simple answer is that human history is not kind to whistleblowers or to those who advocate ideas which threaten the status quo. In America, there is a long record of antipathy to the former who risk their financial, psychological and, at times, physical well being in their quest to answer the call which Peter could not.

   One could only imagine the stress which Mr. McQueary would have endured had he filed a complaint with the police, had he notified the child’s parents, or had he taken the case to the newspapers. It is necessary to remember that Penn State (as well as Temple and other such institutions) are not now the kindly, old Alma Mater that many folks remember. Instead, they are state, national or multinational corporations which exhibit the administrative philosophy characteristic of such business entities.
   One needs to remember that such corporations would not have taken kindly to Mr. McQueary’s action had he gone outside the chain of command. Consistent with their current administrative structure, it is more than likely that they would have circled the wagons and used their inherent power over a junior individual to induce him to recant his testimony. If the reader doubts this assertion, he/she need only consider the response of his/her superiors to such an action.
   How does this affect us here at Temple University? Temple, as with other similar institutions, is undergoing severe financial stress with imminent changes on the horizon. As it is a corporation, planning is now underway within the administration on changes which its corporate officers feel need to be implemented considering the current economic situation.
   Temple’s history does not bode well for those who seek to question the validity of its corporate administration. From the cover-up of a significant radioactive accident to the persecution of those who questioned administrative policy, Temple has a record of not tolerating dissent. Thus, those without tenure may be reluctant to critique administrative policy or to suggest alternative measures. Those with tenure may be somewhat braver but will need to endure the financial and social consequences of their actions. What would you do if you were Peter?•

The author is a Professor of Pharmacology at the Temple University School of Medicine, a past President of the Medical Faculty Senate, a former Secretary of the University Senate and has had the privilege of serving as the Chair of a National Cancer Institute Special Emphasis Panel on Cancer Prevention.