At Penn State, Academics Drive Effort to Hire Child-Abuse Experts


When the Jerry Sandusky child sex-abuse scandal broke, in 2011, professors at Pennsylvania State University were as shocked as anyone else. Then they did what faculty members often do: They set about formulating an academic response to the horrifying incidents, some of which had occurred on their own University Park campus.

The result is a campaign to hire over the next three years a dozen faculty members whose work focuses on child abuse and entails cutting-edge research, clinical treatment, and public education about the problem. The hiring is on a fast track: The university just opened six searches and hopes to have a half-dozen new tenured and tenure-track hires on campus by next fall.

Susan M. McHale, 59, a professor of human development whose research centers on children’s family relationships, is leading the effort. She says earlier research on child abuse tended to revolve around case studies, as opposed to representative data samples involving established measures of study over time.

“We will be hiring people who are serious methodologists, experts at various data collection, and people who have experience with large clinical trials,” she says. Research by such scholars, she says, will help inform work by practitioners the university is also looking to hire, including a pediatric physician and a child psychologist, both of whom will focus on treating abused children.

The job ads for the positions went out last month from the departments of biobehavioral health; human development and family studies; pediatrics; and psychology. And the university is already bringing in candidates, says Ms. McHale.

The “cluster hire” could turn Penn State, scene of some of the most publicized child-sex crimes ever, into an academic powerhouse for research on and treatment of child abuse. Mr. Sandusky, who served as an assistant football coach at Penn State for 30 years until he retired, in 1999, was convicted last summer of multiple counts of sexually abusing young boys, one of them in a Penn State locker-room shower. The scandal led the university to remove both its famed football coach, the late Joe Paterno, and its longtime president, Graham B. Spanier.

Professors worried about how the events might affect the recruitment of students and faculty members, and the job prospects of the university’s own Ph.D.’s.

Penn State established a Presidential Task Force on Child Maltreatment in December 2011 to come up with an appropriate academic response to the issues. The panel recommended the formation of a Network for Child Protection and Well-Being. Ms. McHale is the network’s director. The new hires, as well as about 400 professors at Penn State whose work includes research on some aspect of child maltreatment, will be affiliated with the network.

Ms. McHale says that at first she and others at the university wondered, “Would we have this really dirty, tarnished image so people didn’t want to have anything to do with us?” But, she says, the university’s reputation in the wake of the scandal as a “place that really doesn’t care and would do anything, including covering up, is not consistent with our experiences as professionals here.”

A member of the search committees for some of the new hires is Benjamin Levi, 51, a physician and a professor of pediatrics and humanities at the Penn State Milton S. Hershey Medical Center and the Penn State College of Medicine as well as director of the Center for the Protection of Children at the medical center’s new Children’s Hospital. In 2010, Dr. Levi created the university’s Look Out for Child Abuse Web site, which encourages reporting. He says Penn State’s willingness to put money into the dozen hires shows they are not just a public-relations move.

The university expects to spend roughly $100,000 per hire on salaries each year, plus a one-time expenditure of up to $120,000 in start-up money for each researcher to pay for laboratories and other facilities.

“There are splashier ways to make it look like you are making a response than bringing in people who are experts and pledging decades-long assistance to support them,” says Mr. Levi. “This is a commitment.”

David Finkelhor, a professor of sociology at the University of New Hampshire and director of the Crimes Against Children Research Center there, calls the Penn State effort “a terrific opportunity” to further a field “in need of more committed research centers connected to Research I universities. There hasn’t been enough scientific evaluation of treatment and intervention.”

Source: Chronicle