I was struck by the goal of the NCAA sanctions, which was described several times (in the recent press conference) as “cultural change” within the football program at Penn State. I think that goal is exactly right (if it’s sincere) and necessary. But this raises the question: how do you change the “culture” of an institution? How do you transform the ethos of an organization? Which in turn raises the obvious question: are sanctions a way to generate cultural change? (While posed in a very different context for very different reasons, I think James Davison Hunter’s account of “cultural change” in the first part of To Change the World is actually quite relevant here.)
I don’t have a clear answer to these questions. To consider this, we need to carefully hear the mix of sanctions imposed. I have no expectation that a massive fine, erasing wins, or diminishing the number of scholarships will have an impact on the ethos of an organization. However, note that the sanctions also include new structures of accountability, compliance officers, and more pro-active strategies to effect change. The punishments will feel the most striking and get the most press; it’s the fine print that’s at issue when it comes to actually effecting “cultural change.”
Even so, questions remain. We enter here the dialectical dance between virtue and ethos: on the one hand, an ethos can foster virtue. On the other hand, I think you need agents characterized by rightly-ordered desire to cultivate a virtue-forming ethos. What’s needed here is a conversion of the imagination, a complete re-narration of what the organization and institution is about. I’m not too sanguine that sanctions can bring this about. The institution needs not just new rules, but a new story.