Michael Bérubé, an incisive observer of the American campus scene, observes the Penn State scandal from an extraordinary perspective. Berube is not just a Penn State scholar, he holds a professorship endowed by Joe Paterno. He has discussed Moby Dick with JoePa, and disability issues with Paterno’s wife — a longtime supporter of the Special Olympics.

And as Bérubé noted in yesterday’s New York Times, PSU has stood for decades as an exception to the collegiate rule that athletic excellence had to come at the expense of academics, and it has done so in no small part because of Paterno himself:

Joe Paterno — author of the “Grand Experiment” that sought to uphold academic standards in a major football program, the English major from Brown, the coach whose favorite poet is Virgil and who said, after his first national championship, that Penn State had to improve its library because “you can’t have a great university without a great library.” He and his wife, Sue, led the capital campaign that quadrupled the library’s size; the new wing bears their name.

Mr. Paterno and three university presidents — Bryce Jordan, Joab L. Thomas and Graham B. Spanier — were determined to compete with their counterparts in the Big Ten off the field as well as on.

Bérubé decries Penn State’s status as a “top down” university in which decisions were made at the highest levels rather than by a community of scholars, and suggests that a commitment to shared governance might have stopped Jerry Sandusky earlier: “Perhaps if a faculty ethics committee had been informed about Mr. Sandusky in 2002,” he offers, “one of us could have advised administrators to inquire more aggressively into the case instead of circling the football program’s wagons.”

But as worthy a principle as shared governance is, there’s little indication that it would have saved Penn State, or Sandusky’s victims. Given that the administrators who covered up Sandusky’s crimes did so in the face of a legal obligation that they inform the police (as well as, you know, the fact that they were letting a child rapist roam free) it’s hard to imagine that an ethics committee’s guideline’s would have swayed them.

So what can we do to keep something like this happening again? More on that next week.