Penn Staters and the Challenge of Attractive Dissent


OS Old MAin 2Few Penn Staters believe that the actions of either the Board of Trustees or the administration of Rodney Erickson since November 2011 represent clearheaded, let alone great, leadership. The vast majority of the Penn State family, I’d venture to say, continues to feel the pain of the Jerry Sandusky scandal and our tremendously sloppy response to it all. In our worst moments, in the midst of our darkest crisis, our leaders reacted by disavowing our own and implicitly endorsing a report that condemned our culture as sick, when most of us sought to cling to our culture as a safeguard, and as one of honor.

In the two years since the Sandusky scandal broke, the Penn State family has responded in many ways. Most of the prominent leaders within our community, our most visible representatives in the administration and our trustees, have sought to have us “move forward.” This mantra is repeated ad nauseum as if this alone constitutes a strategy. Was our treatment of Joe Paterno a decent one? Was our repudiation of Graham Spanier—our presumption of his guilt—an honorable one? Was our acceptance of Louis Freeh’s conclusions sensible? On and on we ask such questions, and the answer remains the same whenever they are raised for discussion. “Move forward.”

It’s as if the most important questions, the questions relating to our principles and how they apply in reality—in the practical moments of life—are somehow secondary, or even irrelevant. Move forward. Move forward. Move forward.

Yet even the most moderate among us still wonder. Could our best leaders, men like Graham Spanier and Joe Paterno, two figures who crafted the modern University we continue to celebrate as great and strong, have done something as heinous as intentionally cover up child rape? Move forward.

Move forward. In other words: shut up, and get in line. It’s neither a strategy nor a decent way to conduct oneself as a leader. Yet it’s all we are getting from our veteran trustees and administration.

In response, many alumni have sought to express some of the best aspects of our legacy as a means to shine the light of who we are, of who the Penn State family has always been and remains—to recover the truth of our history. This involves a recovery of the truth about Joe Paterno, necessarily, and a sense that our trustees who presided over our era of crisis certainly deserve to go.

Yet there’s a growing problem. These supporters of responsible stewardship in the Penn State family are growing increasingly shrill, and becoming increasingly weary. New trustees have been elected through their efforts—good men and women. Yet it’s not clear these new trustees are being taught to work together, or to organize in any coherent fashion for genuine reform among the Board of Trustees.

Meanwhile, the loudest alumni and supporters in this family of ours increasingly issue demands rather than promote dialogue. The ugly tactics of 1960s organizing—of passionate emotion, of suspicion, of perpetual mudslinging as a strategic and rhetorical device, are forming a picture in our consciousness that isn’t attractive.

Time marches on. We are mortal, and we each will die. Yet the culture we craft and perpetuate lives on. This is why we care so deeply about the truth of Penn State and people like Joe Paterno—because we know which aspects of our legacy deserve to live on despite our own morality.

Yet as the student body changes in the next few years, and as new trustees cycle onto the board, and as a new president takes the reigns in the years to come, what are we crafting and perpetuating as supporters of the truth about the Penn State family?

For those young people who are growing up in or after the scandal’s continuing fallout, what will they know? We seem to be slipping into a danger zone, a dark area where our anger is speaking more loudly than our love—which is a tragedy, because our anger is a surface thing, a lesser thing. We feel anger because first we knew love. If it’s true that we’re one Penn State family then it’s also true that we learned to love one another at some point. We certainly loved Joe Paterno and the principles he promoted in his life.

If our love is true, our challenge cannot be one of issuing demands and speaking with anger. The Board of Trustees, for better or worse—let’s just agree it’s “or worse”—will not act for our honor. Our president will soon change. The time for the correct and decent decisions in the heat of the scandal has passed. We won’t get those moments over again. We can’t take that field through a late-kindled passion.

But we can plan for the games ahead. We can learn to act with a prudence guided by our love. Or to put it in perhaps a less flowery way, we can learn to act in the way those we love would have acted—with humility, and determination, and restraint. And quietly.

We can’t shout about our values, or about those who have failed to act in the best way, and expect to be well regarded. We’ve got to continue to shape Penn State with a future oriented vision. We’ve got to move forward—yet move forward in a way true to the best aspects of our legacy.

We will pass on. Our hopes for responsible stewardship will one day end. What will we work to build before this time passes? What are we spending our time, talents, and treasure building up for the Penn Staters of tomorrow?

Joe Paterno and the Penn State he knew were attractive things. If we truly want to responsibly steward our University, each of us has to learn how to be attractive. A culture of anger, of dissent, of teasing, is not an attractive thing. It doesn’t earn praise, and only has effect in the short term.

Monuments are built by those who recognize that time marches on, and that our chapter in the story of a place is brief. How we use the time allotted to us matters. If we loved Joe Paterno, and believe in a better Penn State family, we’ve got to prove it in a way that will engender the admiration of the students of tomorrow. That’s the only way his legacy will live on.

A few transient administrators removed Joe Paterno’s statue and tarnished his name and implied even worse about the wider culture of our family. They are transient. The Penn State family is forever, because it grows and changes with time across generations. What will we set ourselves to building?

Will we craft new statues with vision and funds of our own? Will we create new scholarships in the name of men like Paterno or even Spanier? Will we forge real relationships with students and learn about their needs and how alumni can meet them? Will we learn to make ourselves as attractive and impactful as Joe Paterno and other heroes of our long history?

Or will we content ourselves with a shrill dissent, and grow increasingly frustrated as those with administrative power ignore demands we make in moments of passion?

As time moves forward, and the next chapters in our story are authored, Penn Staters for responsible stewardship can redeem our culture by embracing a paradoxical truth—the University is each of us within the Penn State family. We don’t need the approval or consent of an unwilling Board of Trustees or administration to ensure our history and values live on.

We simply need to remember our history and our values, and live on.

Tom Shakely is the author of Conserving Mount Nittany: A Dynamic Environmentalism, a book telling the extraordinary story of an ordinary Pennsylvanian mountain. He has written for on The Paternos and the Penn State Family and The Paterno Legacy.


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  1. Hi Thomas,

    I really enjoyed your article entitled “Penn Staters and the Challenge of Attractive Dissent.”

    In your opinion, is there anything that Penn Staters should be doing in order to attempt to change the media narrative that is so widely accepted as accurate? As you probably know there have been many events/happenings that have occured over the last two years that have been completly ignored by the main stream media becuase it doesn;t fall in line with the current narrative. (example: Bob Costas admitting that the Freeh Report makes no sense, Mike McQuery forgetting that year and date of the imfamous “shower incident”, Sara Ganium revealed to have been activly helping the prosecution, Victim #1, Aaron Fisher admits that he doesn’t blame Penn State for what happened to him, Louis Freeh exposed as a fraud, wouldn;t even appear on the Bob Costas show, Mark Emmert’s lack of knowledge on the santions that he issued, etc)


    • Hi Robert — I hear your points, and they’re frustrating for sure. The media narrative, unfortunately, is set in place. Further disgruntled public alumni action will only feed the existing narrative. The opportunity, as I see it, is for the vast majority of us who are genuinely disgruntled to begin working “under the radar” to influence and shape the University community. Imagine as one example 25 super-dedicated alumni establishing a new scholarship fund in honor of Joe and Sue Paterno. These sorts of things don’t require anyone’s permission—we can just go do them, and they’ll have impact for generations. So, I’m less concerned with the media narrative (that’s beyond our ability to shape) and more concerned with the local/cultural narrative, which is very much within our power to shape.

  2. This editorial conveys an excellent message but sadly comes far too late. The window of time for thoughtful discussion with the administration has long since been passed. In fact, that window was locked by the administration before it was even open. At this point, due to the continued misconduct of the administration, the situation has needlessly become a zero sum game between Penn State community and the Board of Trustees Executive Committee and the Office of the President, both of which refuse to act in the Universities best interests.

    • Hi Concerned Alum — I’m not proposing thoughtful discussion with the administration, in fact I’m proposing just the opposite. I’m saying: They’re transient. They won’t be here as long as we will. Let’s ignore them, and do what’s right all by ourselves. We don’t need their permission to do good things for the University, and for students themselves. How many alumni who are so dismayed by how things have played out are actively forming relationships with students? Forming financial aid societies? Mentoring fraternities and sororities? Showing an interest in what students care about and are thinking about? The Paternos did all these things quite actively, and so if we want to perpetuate their memory, all we have to do is start acting like they did—this is how we’ll win.

  3. I agree Tom, so how do you suggest that we attractively engage in dialogue with a board who refuses to participate? Our country was built on fights….nobody likes ’em but sometimes, they’re necessary.

    • Hi Linda — I think the best way we can fight is by working “under the radar” to influence the University community. Our side possesses very little leverage to force the hand of the board and administrative leadership, and once the new president comes in next year, our time will have definitively passed in terms of outright demands—though he/she might be more open to dialogue than Rodney Erickson. I think the dialogue has to happen within our own alumni ranks, deciding what we can build ourselves without getting the permission of those presently in power.

      An example: many alumni have bemoaned the student leadership’s adoption of the “move forward” language of the board/administration. Imagine how much good will and applause it would create if 25 alumni got together to endow a permanent “student leaders scholarship” fund to award a stipend to the student body president every year? This might sound merely “nice” (without strategic worth), but remember that the administration functionally buys the loyalty of student leaders at a much “cheaper” price (letters of recommendation, etc).

      No one cares for the student leaders in this way—alumni who care about the University in a time of crisis could show they care, and earn the support of students in the process, who would say, “Look at these alumni—they aren’t simply frustrated and angry, but they’re doing good things for the University even when they’re being ignored and beaten down by the administration. They’re the ones we like.”

  4. Thomas,
    Your last sentence is a rule to live by as you go on in life. What matters most is how you view yourself and you can be the best judge of whether or not you did your best.

    However, as an alumnus, I can’t stand idly by and watch Penn State be wrongfully smeared. I had to act and do what I could to right the wrongs.

    While you are correct in stating the BOT will never stand up and admit they were wrong, they can instead attempt to mount a vigorous defense when they are charged with crimes. Law enforcement is closing in.

    What’s the truth that must be embraced? That PSU has been run by a very bad element for over a quarter of a century and their time is coming to an end.

    Justice will be served.

    • Hi Ray — I understand your point, specifically that the Board of Trustees have not been properly discharging their responsibilities for many, many years even prior to the Sandusky scandal. If justice/law enforcement is closing in for whatever set of reasons, then that is what it is. In other words, 99.9 percent of us are not competent to speak or act in the field of criminal law, so it’s not something we can become involved in. If trustees are brought to court, their vigorous defenses will occur in court—a sphere of action beyond our control or competency. The great body of Penn Staters need ways to express their affection for the University in tangible ways in the meantime. That’s what I’m trying to get at.

  5. Tom:

    Thoughtful and well done piece. Just a couple of my own for comparison’s sake.

    1) The actions of our leaders offended even the most basic sense of fairness, due process, and decency. It is tough to move on and leave that pile of rubble behind.
    2) Most students have a very different view…until that day they graduate and become an alum. My full understanding of Penn State did not come to fruition until years after I left.
    3) We hear various classifications of the voices of the alums as being a minority, etc. We need to get real. After speaking to probably close to 250 alumni over the past 2 years, I am yet to meet the first who thinks that we should move forward, and that things were handled well.

    Dave Ritter

    • Hi David — I agree 100 percent, especially with your point that most of us don’t appreciate the impact of our University until years after we leave. Make no mistake: I’m not suggesting we forget the disastrous situation we’re in and move forward blind to the disgraceful actions of our present leaders. What I am suggesting is this: We are moving forward by virtue of the fact that the clock ticks every second—we’re “moving forward” whether we like it or not. And as a new president comes in next year, what will our strategy be? We’ve got to be as attractive and bright as the youthful students of campus if we want to impact the University and recover the reputations of Paterno, Spanier, et al.

  6. While I agree that the time may have passed to employ specific tactics to remove the tarnish from the reputation of PSU, Joe Paterno, and everyone or everything associated with Penn State, what are we to do? Standing quietly by while the BOT constructs unreasonable and ridiculous rules for asking questions at Board meetings has not worked. Forming websites and sending letters, emails and calling the PSU admin and Board members has not worked. In fact, playing the entire “politically correct” game has gotten us absolutely nowhere. Now where do we turn?

    While I am in no way advocating violence, I believe the time has come for peaceful, yet well thought out social dissent. Impeding the progress and purpose of a Board that has zero interest in our thoughts or concerns is now mandatory. Making ourselves heard, loudly and clearly through any means possible is an absolute must.

    The time for talking and having tea and cookies is long past. The time to act in a manner that is dignified yet will garner a tremendous amount of attention to our cause(finding the real truth and restoring PSU’s reputation) has arrived.

    So, do we continue to sit on our hands and whine about why nothing is happening, or do we stand up, in unison, and demand that something be done?

    Personally, I despise tea and cookies…..I do love the song “Sweet Caroline”.

    • Hi Cliff — I don’t think anyone is advocating tea and cookies. Allow me, if you will, to point out that your “new” strategy is identical to the “politically correct” strategy that you and I both agree has failed to this point. The Board of Trustees (the governing body of the University) certainly has “heard” our dissent. The problem, for us, is that they don’t care. A “new” strategy of whose goal is the same (“making ourselves heard”) will, I believe, have the same effect—that is, there will be no effect. So what I’m proposing we do instead is ignore the Board of Trustees almost entirely (since we know they won’t act for the honor of the University) and instead start building real, positive institutions, scholarships, community events, and relationships all by ourselves. We don’t need their permission to strengthen the University community. Our challenge is that it will require the development of real, educated, full-time leader-scholars among us to do this work. And I think this sort of challenge sounds a lot funner than coming up with more impressive methods of conveying disdain.

  7. This is a laudable attempt to bring some reason and balance to the topic. I respect the author’s view. However, the shrill tone of the debate is a direct consequence of an arrogant Board. Their arrogance derives not from any accomplishment as Booard members, but more simply from their regard of their own opinions.

    I agree the debate should remain civil, even though the incompetence of the majority of this Board is stunning in scope and length.

    The remaining Alumni Trustees from the old regime will be kicked out next year. The Legislature may next need to be more heavily engaged.

    Until the majority of this Board is ousted, their damage to PSU will continue.

    Ask yourself one question. On what other Board would a decision so important as the NCAA sanctions never even come up for a formal vote?

    • Hi Steve — I generally agree. Do you know, though, of any specific strategy that’s being developed to deal with the “ousting” of the majority of the Board of Trustees? Alumni control, at most, nine of the 30+ seats. If we want to continue to focus on board reform at the highest level, we’ll need new strategies beyond focusing on just the next three trustees in the spring.

  8. A postscript more neatly summarizes why the struggle continues:

    A further comment – if you were at the Legislative Hearing earlier this year, you would have seen one of the most incompetent performances by representatives of a major institution in legislative history. Broadhurst and Masser were unprepared and in some cases incoherent.

    They are therefore either incompetent or convinced that they can do as they like. I am not sure which is the more alarming conclusion.

  9. I certainly agree with ist if what you say. But our work and our mission will not be finished until we vote out the remaining Alumni Trustees from 11/9/11 and the Governor that led the assault on our pride and traditions. Some, unfortunately, are shrill but most of us a simply determined.

    • Hi Gary — Unfortunately we cannot vote out the remaining trustees from November 2011. Alumni control only 9 of the 30+ seats through direct voting. So I think we need a broader strategy that can provide a meaningful, attractive role for alumni involvement in building up the University than we have at present.

  10. Tom,
    Great article. I have managed to speak frequently about some of the many errors perpetuated by Louis Freeh, Mark Emmert, and the media without the need to attack any of the Trustees or the administration personally. I feel strongly that “moving on” based on the apparent fictions initiated by the Freeh Report and extended by the NCAA would leave us with a “history” that is simply not based on truth. We need to pursue opportunities to examine rationally the accusations made by Freeh (without documentation, witness support, or other evidence), which were then used by the NCAA to punish the University in an unprecedented manner. The willingness of the Board, the Administration , now some students (see the 9/23 editorial in the Daily Collegian) to advocate “moving on” without any close examination of the facts, moves us in the wrong direction. As you have eloquently stated, we have a rich tradition of success with honor that is a huge part of our tradition. We should not abandon that simply in order to get this era behind us. Those who worked so hard for so long to establish that reputation deserve better.

  11. Great article and thoughtful responses, Tom; thanks. Perhaps PS4RS could take the lead in building goodwill and establishing such endowments.