Ben Novak, in the eyes of this writer, is the Godfather of Governance Reform at Penn State University. As a former Trustee, Dr. Novak was vocally critical of the Board long before the Sandusky scandal broke in November. Dr. Novak has also questioned how the administration has habitually marginalized student leaders for decades. He authored Is Penn State a Real University?.
We recently sat down with Dr. Novak for a 10 questions interview.
Onward State: Do you believe that the Freeh report was legitimate and fair?
Ben Novak: The Freeh Report was not an investigation at all. It was a prosecutor’s brief. It was not fair and the Board of Trustees shouldn’t have accepted it. The Board should have turned around and sued Freeh for not doing what he was hired to do. Freeh failed to evaluate all sides. Freeh went into his investigation having decided what happened, and cherry picked the facts. It’s an utter farce.
OS: How does Penn State move forward when many alumni and students are opposed to President Erickson and the Board of Trustees?
BN: Move forward by opposing what is wrong. America moved forward in the 18th century by opposing King George III and his agents. Americans declared independence. Today, we should organize the student body and alumni for self-governance.
What we have now is not an effective student government. On July 1, 1970, the Board of Trustees took power away from the student government and Faculty Senate. Then, in 2005, student government was totally abolished. Unfortunately, the administration would only allow UPUA to form as something like a consumers’ union. Today, students have no idea of what an effective student government really could do for them. Similarly, alumni will have to form a new alumni association to act independently from the current Board of Trustees.
Penn State always works best when its parts are self-governing—and not governed by a central administration.
OS: Did Rodney Erickson do the right thing when he consented to the NCAA sanctions?
BN: Absolutely not. He should have stood up and challenged the NCAA. The death penalty wasn’t real. The university should have demanded its procedural rights. The President should have stood up for basic fairness and decency. He should have gone to court. The Sandusky scandal was not about football, it was about a child molester employed by the Second Mile. Our football team and program had nothing to do with that. By accepting the conclusions of the Freeh Report and the NCAA sanctions, the Penn State Board of Trustees is doing the most damage to the University that it can.
OS: What would you do to change university governance?
BN: We need a new dynamic president. The Board of Trustees operates like a committee. An old joke goes, “A camel is like a horse designed by a committee.” The Board of Trustees (to make a metaphor) has made the Penn State stallion into a humpy camel. The current President doesn’t give us any sense of direction or real leadership. We need a president who really leads.
OS: What are your thoughts about Steve Garban’s resignation and will you seek to replace Mr. Garban on the Board of Trustees?
BN: The alumni will elect another trustee next year to replace him. I haven’t decided yet whether I will run.
As to Steve Garban, he has been one of the most effective administrators Old Main ever had. However, he’s never been a leader. Garban has the wisdom to know he’s not an out-front type of leader. When the crisis broke in November, Garban asked John Surma to take over. What’s tragic is that when the crisis happened last November, he just happened to be chairman of the Board. That means the leadership of the Board failed. When he stepped aside, there was no real leader to take his place.
OS: What do you make of Anthony Lubrano’s vocal dissent from the majority of the Trustees?
BN: I don’t believe he’s alone. There are Joel Myers, and Ryan McCombie right beside him. If I were there, I would be, and am, one-hundred percent behind what Lubrano, McCombie and Myers have stood up for. Someone has to stand up for Penn State. The rest of the Board just wants to sell us out.
OS: Should the statue of Joe Paterno have been removed?
BN: I wish it hadn’t been removed, but with all the threats, perhaps it was best to protect it. In any event, I hope that it’s returned one day. Students and alumni should make it their goal to return the Joe Paterno statue to the place of the highest honor at Penn State.
OS: What are your opinions about the changes to the football uniforms?
BN: I am not an expert on that.
OS: What advice do you have for my last year in college?
BN: Well, first, there is a question you haven’t asked me yet.
BN: What about Graham Spanier?
Although I have long been one of the harshest critics and opponents of Graham Spanier, I have to say that this crisis is the one time his abilities were most needed. It was a terrible thing that he was fired at that time. He would have known to handle this. He would not have fired Joe Paterno. He would have stood up for Penn State. When all the media were screaming “cover up,” Spanier would have said “prove it.” The Freeh Report? He would never have accepted such an awful indictment of Penn State. The fines and NCAA sanctions? Without the firing of Joe Paterno and the Board’s acceptance of the Freeh Report, those sanctions never would have happened.
OS: What advice do you have for my last year in college?
BN: I advise the student body to learn how to organize yourselves for effective self government. In my book, Is Penn State a Real University?, I write about the role that students once had at Penn State, and should have again, in the governance of the University. Penn State was founded on the idea that students should create a living democracy amongst themselves.
For example, had there been an effective student leadership, there would not have been a riot the night Joe Paterno was fired. Rather, there would have been forty thousand students on the Old Main lawn holding candles showing that they still loved and honored Joe Paterno. That would have sent a quite different message to the Board, the media, and to the whole country.
It is my dream that one day the students will organize themselves to light up Mount Nittany for Joe Paterno. Lemont is only two miles from campus. Imagine forty thousand students one night just walking over to Lemont with flashlights in their hands, and spreading out along the side of the Mountain. Then at a given signal all turning on their flashlights. Perhaps fraternities and sororities could scout out the side of the Mountain in advance and serve as ushers to get everyone positioned. That would present a picture that people would remember for a hundred years!
OS: An Onward State tradition. If you could be any dinosaur, which would you be?
BN: I don’t know dinosaurs very well.
OS: This Saturday is the “Rally for Resignations.” Do you think it’s appropriate?
BN: There are no mechanisms that tell us what to do when our leaders betray us. Franco Harris and others are saying we’re unhappy with the Board, and that its members ought to resign. I am behind them one hundred percent. There is no other way to say it but to rally every time the Board meets. Forty thousand students and alumni should be letting the Board of Trustees know every time it meets that its members are out of touch.
I am only disappointed that the rally is being held at Old Main, rather than right outside the Penn Stater where the Trustees will be meeting. The Trustees should see the frustration they have caused.