Penn State at the crossroads: Which direction will it take?
Penn State president Rodney Erickson, right, gives his opening remarks Wednesday during a town hall forum organized by students at the university's main campus in State College. With him are T.J. Bard, president of the University Park Undergraduate Association, and Peter Khoury, president of The Council of Commonwealth Student Governments.
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Every so often, a prominent university faces what Sister Margaret Carney, president of St. Bonaventure University, calls "the Winston Churchill moment."
On her campus, it followed revelations in 2003 that the Catholic school in western New York bent academic rules so a transfer student with only a welder's certificate could join its Division I basketball team. The school's then president who approved the transfer resigned, and the campus was embarrassed nationally, but the ordeal also offered an opportunity -- one the school did not miss -- to muster resolve for a painful self-look that yielded governance reforms and a modified view of the role of athletics in the school's identity.
A similar window of opportunity is opening at Penn State University, a much larger institution reeling from a child sex abuse scandal of epic proportions.
In recent days, amid continuing national headlines and a flurry of investigations, some on campus have talked of a crossroads and asked if nothing short of a cultural change will be needed.
Will a school that for decades let its national brand be shaped largely by "Joe Pa" and Nittany Lion football be forced to choose between competing images of itself as a world class research hub and a sports powerhouse?
Have the oft-spoken words "We are Penn State" come to say as much about hubris as school spirit? Could the university have grown so inwardly focused that stopping acts as horrific as a child sex assault on campus would take a back seat to protecting the school's reputation?
Though what happened at St. Bonaventure was on a different scale, Sister Margaret sees parallels between what her school went through and what Penn State now faces.
"When an institution that prides itself as we did and as Penn State certainly did, on having an honorable program and an ethical face to the world, when you're stripped of that publicly you are really forced to choose," she said. "You can either simply go to damage control, spin doctor, or you can dive deep into the fundamental values of the university. Why do people cherish your institution? Why do they feel betrayed?"
Sister Margaret, a Pittsburgh native, said her school's leadership chose the latter approach, publicly vowing to never again let athletic glory subvert the school's core integrity and taking aggressive steps to bolster trustee oversight.
The school created an office of ombudsman that reports directly to the board chair. That way, said Sister Margaret, "The whistle-blower knows where to go."
And leaders resolved to put the visibility of academics on a closer par with sports. "At the end of the day, it's our fault if we don't promote academic programs as vigorously as athletics," she said.
It's not yet clear what direction Penn State will choose. What is obvious is the raw mix of anger and grief felt across the university of two dozen campuses and 96,000 students.
It was on vivid display at a town hall meeting for students Wednesday night when a woman who declined to be identified took a microphone inside the HUB-Robeson center and addressed campus leaders seated on stage about what had befallen members of the Penn State family.
"I feel shame," she said, breaking into tears. "What do I do with those feelings?"
Since the Nov. 5 arrest of former assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky on charges he sexually abused at least eight boys over a 15-year period, the university has absorbed the firing of beloved football coach Joe Paterno, the resignation of president Graham Spanier and the arrest of two other administrators on charges of perjury and failure to report sexual abuse of a minor.
The departures came amid growing outrage over the school's failure to alert law enforcement to allegations that Mr. Sandusky sexually assaulted a boy in a campus shower in 2002.
Charles Dumas, a professor in the school of theater, has heard students vent their emotions in class. He said some seem almost to have experienced "a collective death," as the university to which they entrusted their futures became almost overnight a symbol of pedophilia and a target of scorn on network TV.
"When you start becoming a joke on 'Saturday Night Live,' and Jon Stewart is saying stuff about you -- we've been on 'The View' three times, good grief," he said. "I'm glad Thanksgiving came when it did."
But he said he's also seen hopeful signs amid the scandal that those on campus are pulling together. He and his wife, J. Ann Dumas, a lecturer in the college of communications, are working with two classes to create a play with dialogue about the scandal and reactions to it.
During a program on Penn State's WPSU radio, intended as a campus self-examination, one in-studio guest spoke of the flip side of an identity that long has served Penn State well.
Many out-of-state students choose the university "not because we have a fifth- or sixth-ranked English department or a No. 1-ranked anthropology department, but because they associate the place with football and with school pride in a more general way," said Michael Berube, who is the Paterno Family professor of literature and director of the Institute for the Arts and Humanities at Penn State.
He told listeners there is a lesson to be learned about the down side of such a strong emotional tie to football, and he wondered whether the campus esprit de corps can be channeled toward academics on a campus known in everything from cutting edge scientific research to excellence across the humanities.
Hearing chants of "We are Penn State" inside 107,000-seat Beaver Stadium -- or even during campus admission tours -- no doubt evokes warm feelings on campus. But it can sound far less benign to those removed from the university and its rural setting.
Damon Sims, Penn State vice president for student affairs, told the radio audience that he sometimes hears the chant wafting through windows in Old Main. "The charm of it is usually there, but there are days when it becomes so repetitive and sort of empty that I wonder about it," he said.
Some people have told him the words sometimes reflect "hubris" or "a lack of humility."
On the main campus last week, some conversations turned to the looming mid-December final exams and holiday plans. In a shift from the days immediately after the shocking grand jury report became public -- when many students were in public expressing themselves through rallies, riots, prayer vigils and organizing of donations to child-abuse awareness groups -- daily reflections on the scandal and its effects are now in some cases more subtle.
"It's almost pretty sensitive now -- do you bring it up?" said 19-year-old sophomore Alison Shapiro, a McLean, Va., native studying journalism. "We still have plenty of opinions, but people haven't been as vocal."
The "Joe Knows Football" T-shirts boosting Mr. Paterno still can be seen, though the giant ice-cream scoop at the campus creamery with a plaque bearing Mr. Spanier's name sparked one young woman to remark softly to her friend, "That's awkward."
In interviews, students repeatedly said they were upset by how their school was portrayed in media accounts. "The actions of a few have overshadowed other things on campus," said Emily Cirillo, a senior from Philadelphia studying journalism, during a forum on news coverage of recent events. "Anyone who wants to criticize should remember that we don't support Sandusky. I felt that we as students were under attack."
One of those attacks came from the governor, who described as "knuckleheads" the students who knocked over a news van and light posts the night Mr. Paterno was fired. But by last week, it was a far different atmosphere as students filled an auditorium to address administrators, with several positing how the school can remake its image. Administrators replied that they will aim to seek a new emphasis on their academics, while also raising awareness of the horrors of child abuse.
"We're an academic institution foremost, and a really good one, and we need to make sure that message comes through to everyone loud and clear," the school's newly named president Rodney Erickson said after that forum. "We're a world-class institution. We will learn from what has happened here and we will emerge a better and stronger university."
Junior Nicole Lord, 20, a communications major, said those on campus didn't know what to do with their emotions at first, a task complicated by the general affection felt toward Mr. Paterno. She described him as "the example of what Penn State is."
"I just don't understand how harsh they were on Joe Paterno," said Ms. Lord. "Those of us here in State College, we know they're generalizing. But why are we going to condemn a man and bury him?"
What drew her to Penn State was a "family aspect," describing the community as loyal, hard-working and caring.
"I've seen that more, in the way that we're now focused toward the victims and not toward football," she said. "[The administration] needs to clean it out, but they need the help from the students to keep calling for change."
Amid the school's diehard defenders are others like senior Eric Malone, who say they've ignored much of the response to the controversy. He's focused on finals, not what administrators are or aren't saying.
"I just heard about it too much, because I didn't do anything," said Mr. Malone, 23, who is completing degrees in music and biological science. "I don't think that's going to affect me -- it was five people. Penn State is awesome at sciences. It doesn't change that fact."
He has had one question pop up in his mind as he passes the library building bearing Mr. Paterno's moniker: "I do wonder when that's going to change," he added.
Talking with administrators at last week's forum was difficult for Charles Ferrer, 20, who said the discussion "was kind of like reliving" his conflicted initial reactions.
His first thoughts were of his own future and how others would be viewing his relationship with Penn State. But that early mix of emotions gave way to a feeling of solace, he said.
"There's a grieving process, but part of that process is to move forward," said Mr. Ferrer, a junior geography major from New Jersey. "I believe the Penn State pride and tradition won't be tarnished in the long run, though it is going to take time for the school to restore trust."
That has been one of the pledges of the school's new president. Mr. Erickson has promised among other things to "raise the visibility of ethics to a new level" and said he will appoint an ethics officer who will report directly to him. He also pledged transparency, though he's already getting mixed reviews by some on campus about how committed he and Penn State are to doing that.
On one hand, Penn State appointed former FBI director Louis Freeh to head what trustees pledge will be an independent, no-holds-barred campus investigation. Officials have pledged to make the results public.
But the trustees did not heed faculty calls last month for a campus investigative panel with a chair and majority of members who have no ties to Penn State, choosing instead a panel made up entirely of trustees and others associated with the university.
One of the first questions Mr. Erickson fielded at Wednesday's town hall meeting was whether the school in light of its pledge of openness would give up the near-absolute exemption it now enjoys from Pennsylvania's Right-to-Know law. Mr. Erickson did not commit to doing so.
The questions now being asked in light of Mr. Sandusky's arrest about where Penn State is and where it's going are the sort that a rapidly growing school might not otherwise have an opportunity to address, said Terry Hartle, senior vice president with the Washington-D.C.-based American Council on Education, a college organization.
Mr. Hartle said he sees less of a need for campus re-invention than a solution to a very specific breakdown in the system.
Just the same, he said, Penn State will be forever changed by what has transpired. "When the school's final history is written, this will be a significant chapter."
First Published December 4, 2011 12:00 am