Students and Alumni Must Reach Common Ground
Jon Lozano’s commentary on October 2 (“Why Don’t We Just Talk This Out?”) raises arguments that should be fairly considered by all in the Penn State community. I don’t write to weigh in on the “Blue Out” debate; whether or not someone purchases a t-shirt for a cause is an issue that isn’t worth getting upset or argumentative about, regardless of which end of the debate you sit. However, the Blue Out controversy, the recent “Homecoming commercial” issue, and the lingering elephant in the room of Joe Paterno’s legacy and treatment by the University seem to be manifestations of the greater level of disjunction between many current students and alumni.
Simply put: we all need to try to get on the same page, and the first step in this process is creating a mutual understanding.
As Penn State students, few will wager to say that the past year has been devoid of displeasure. We’ve been asked about “the scandal” during job interviews, at Thanksgiving and holiday dinners with family, and during conversations at home with old friends during breaks. On November 5, every Penn State student was thrust into a position to represent our University at all times, at every turn.
We stood in the epicenter of November 2011: we could feel the rumble of the world’s media storming up 322, we could hear the protests from our classrooms and apartments, we could see the now-iconic photographs – of Paterno, of Sandusky, of Curley, Schultz, and Spanier – emblazoned upon newspapers across the nation. It was an unpleasant time which, despite all of our wishes to the contrary, seemed to continue to get worse with each passing day.
But, as much as my fellow students may wish to move forward, to return life to the bucolic existence of October 2011, the storm rages on. Recently, local and collegiate media sources reported that the University has now spent $20 million on scandal-related expenses, the NCAA (as we all know) has fined us another $60 million, now-former assistant coach Mike McQueary has filed suit for an additional $4 million, and some experts say that victim damage figures could reach up to nine digits in total. And, as if the sheer financial burden wasn’t enough, we still remain months away from the criminal trials of Tim Curley and Gary Schultz and whatever judicial matters may lie beyond.
However, recently it seems that this desire to get life back to normal in State College has created an enormous divide between the general student body and the alumni groups wishing to create change in the governance at Penn State. In blog posts, in the comment sections of news articles and commentaries, and in editorials, students and alumni have clashed in their beliefs over how to make the next step.
The one thing we need to remember, though, is that civility in conversation bears a burden on all parties. The outspoken alumni groups have a passion and love for this University that I would place against any other alumni base in the nation. They speak out because they love this place; they wish to show the world that actions of those they never met do not define them, or the institution they care about so fiercely. Their love and passion for Penn State should be respected; it should be a building block to further our conversation about what Penn State is and will be.
On the opposite hand, alumni must understand the feeling of living at the epicenter, of waking up on a Saturday morning in November and developing the sick feeling that things will not be the same again, that something can change our University so drastically, so suddenly, so permanently. We watched ESPN, read newspapers, and heard the vitriol spewed out against our coach, our university, and us. You are frustrated, yes. We are frustrated, yes! But this should not be a point of contention between students and alumni, let this be a lightning rod to unite us.
Alumni must recognize that our precious four years at Penn State (years that, when alumni were students, were unimpeded by such drastic events) have been permanently altered, with absolutely nothing we can do about it. Many students perhaps wish to “move on” (as Penn State’s administration and trustees so frequently tell us) and to serve out the remainder of our time here in as much normalcy as we can create. Meanwhile, alumni groups such as PS4RS see the mantra of “move on” as a shallow cry by the administration to cease further questions, to quiet dissidents; both arguments have their strengths, and it’s possible for both to be true.
The importance in our new conversation is how the arguments are framed – on both sides. Alumni groups quoting off-the-wall, conspiracy-minded websites and blog sources do as little to further our conversation as snarky (or even derisive) student media articles do. We want the nation to hear our story, to understand that Penn State students, faculty, coaches, staff, alumni and fans aren’t the villains that we’ve been depicted to be. But understand that we need to lend ourselves a bit of credence, and it’s vital to work in collaboration to tell it effectively.
I’m not suggesting that we all simply “move on”; it’s an unrealistic notion given everything that both has happened and will continue to happen.
So where do we go from here? Current students have been presented with the most fascinating, unique and (at the same time) horrifying period in the 157-year history of Penn State. Students – from those in student government, to student media, to the typical lay-student like me – must join with alumni and, when available, administrative leaders to define what our conversation is and will be in the future.
We must first establish what we want Penn State to be before we determine how to do it. We stand on the precipice of a new, different Penn State; this is not up for debate. The thing we must all agree upon, though, is that the “new” Penn State cannot be a “worse” Penn State. We must honor those who brought us to this point while, at the same time, writing our next chapter.
We wouldn’t have all come here if there wasn’t something special about this place. It was special in 1950 and 1966, it was special in 1982 and 1986, it was special in October of 2011 and it is still special today. This is a place worth defending, and continual infighting between students and alumni is not the way to best go about it. It may take great effort and potentially the benefit of time, but I’d place Penn Staters against any other group in the nation to succeed.
But, if we do want to succeed, we need to get a little bit closer together first.