Issue Theme

Stray Thoughts: When Bad Things Happen

It’s a famous truism that bad things happen to good people. What isn’t so clear, sometimes, is that bad things also happen to good institutions.

 This thought came to me recently as I contemplated the black-on-black cover of the latest issue of the Penn State alumni magazine—about the terrible scandal that has rocked that university to its core—and thought about another, very painful situation closer to home: the work authorization dilemma that in recent months has left many here at Pomona feeling saddened, disillusioned or angry. (If you aren’t familiar with this situation, I suggest that you visit www.pomona.edu/work-documentation before reading on.) After a great deal of thought, we at PCM have decided not to try to cover these events hurriedly in this spring issue of the magazine, but to wait until the summer issue, which we plan to devote primarily to the issues surrounding immigration and borders here in the U.S. and around the world. However, as I was considering what I should do in this little introductory missive, my thoughts kept turning back to why bad things happen to good institutions.

 Besides costing 17 longstanding Pomona employees their livelihoods, the chain of events unleashed by a complaint to the Board of Trustees last year has plunged us all into the midst of a divisive political issue, strained the College’s relationships with important segments of the College community, generated a range of conspiracy theories, threatened the College’s reputation for inclusivity, driven many to tears of sorrow or anger or frustration, and raised legal and moral questions to which there are no easy answers—or, at least, no answers that satisfy everyone. When must complaints be investigated? What do our immigration laws really require of us? Must we always obey those laws? Can anyone commit an entire institution to a path of civil disobedience? Who can we blame for the bad things that happen in our midst?

 Few today take the Medieval view that bad things happen as a judgment from God. Still, when we hear about bad things happening to presumably good people, our sympathy is sometimes leavened with judgment. Lung cancer? Must have been a smoker. AIDS? Probably promiscuous. Auto accident? Careless driver. At heart, we may understand that sometimes bad things really do happen to people for no good reason, but it’s more comforting to think that they somehow invited it. It’s easier to sleep at night when you believe that character is synonymous with fate.

 Maybe that’s why, when bad things happen to good institutions, we’re so quick to assume that maybe they weren’t quite as good as we thought. Or even that there was something sinister going on behind the scenes. An assumption of ill will simplifies matters. It makes it easier to believe that if we had been there making those decisions, things would have turned out differently. We would have been wiser, better, braver, more perceptive, more compassionate—more something.

 It’s much less comfortable to imagine good, smart, caring, thoughtful people agonizing over intractable problems without the benefit of hindsight and making hard choices from a range of painful options, knowing full well that their actions will have a ripple of consequences only some of which they can predict but for which they will always be judged.