Students and Alumni Must Reach Common Ground

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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.

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  1. Good stuff.
    I think it’s a bit simplistic to frame this as alumni vs students, because there are students and alums on all sides of the issues, but it does seem to break roughly that way.

    I don’t know if there is really as much division in the community as we see on the internet. The internet seems to draw the most extreme opinions. I try to take a pragmatic “middle” position on all of this stuff and, as a result, I have been accused of being a Paterno cultist who has “drunk the blue Kool Aid” and also accused of being brainwashed by the BOT and the media and drinking their Kool Aid. (Personally, I find Kool Aid to be too sugary.) Neither of these accusations are a remotely accurate characterization of my position. Too many people insist on seeing the world as sharp black and white, for
    us or against us, and that’s simply not how it really is and the end result result of these kind of asinine “debates” is that sensible people just get sick of it and check out.

    I’d suggest a few things to keep in mind when discussing this or any hot button issue.

    1) Don’t accuse somebody of “just accepting the media/PSU/BOT/Paterno/ESPN propaganda.” Just because somebody doesn’t agree with you doesn’t mean they haven’t thought it out for themselves. Further, when reading the work of an actual journalist – be it in The Patriot News or ESPN.com – you cannot legitimately assume they’re lying just because you don’t like what they’re reporting. Educate yourself on the difference between opinion pieces and reporting.

    Sometimes writing will have a bit of both. The Freeh report, for example, contains a lot of facts. It also contains a lot of opinions that may or may not (usually not) be supported by those facts.

    Also, accusing somebody of “just being brainwashed” or whatever is not a legitimate argument. Not only is it obnoxious, it’s logically empty. Dismissing one’s debate opponent as just brainwashed (or similar) is to say that anyone who disagrees with me is, by definition, wrong, and therefore there is no evidence that could be presented, even in theory, that could prove me wrong. A position that is unfalsifiable is logically empty and meaningless. Look up Karl Popper to learn more on that.

    B) Before spouting off your opinion, ask yourself: Am I getting into this argument because I really believe what I have to contribute can help the community somehow? Or am I just arguing to prove I’m right? I have violated this rule myself often and I regret it. But I’m trying to stop that.

    C) Related to that: I don’t think we should just forget everything that’s happened, but I do strongly believe the community needs to think pragmatically. And that means realizing that the past cannot be changed but that the future is what we make it. So I’d implore everyone to think, before they get angry or propose something be done (be sue the NCAA or shut down football or ask the BOT to resign) ask themselves: Is it realistic, based on the relevant facts, to believe that this idea, if enacted, would actually help the community? What are the practical real-world steps that need to happen to make this situation better? Do I have all the relevant facts to support what I’m proposing?

    For example, just saying that the BOT should all resign might “feel good” (and I certainly agree they haven’t handled all of this as well as they could have, to put it generously) but it’s not worth much unless there’s a realistic plan to replace them with a better BOT. As it is, if everyone resigned now, the people that replaced them probably wouldn’t be any better. So we have to sort out specific realistic changes to how the board is elected and how it operates. I don’t see anybody in the Lugbrano/PSFRL/Harris camp doing this.

    Anyway, that’s what I’ve learned from all of this. I hope it helps.

    • Agree on all points. While I do admit it is a tad simplistic to suggest that Penn Staters – in this case, students and alumni – fall hard and fast on one side or another, it would really be impossible to accurately synthesize the full opinions of everyone involved with any notion of accuracy.

      But I completely agree with the remainder of your points: we all know better than to resort to intellectually lazy (or even dishonest) arguments, ad hominem attacks, or arguments driven by emotion rather than reason. It’s something that can take an incredible amount of restraint and tact, but I think it’s vital to look at this entire issue with a rational eye versus an emotional one. And that goes for those on both “sides”, so to speak.

    • Interestingly, George Takei is appearing in a new musical play (Allegiance) that explores the rift among Japanese-Americans who were wrongly interned during WWII. Some Japanese-Americans (predominantly the JACL) were in the “pragmatism” camp while others were in the “no-no boy” camp. It seems like a timely examination of how a group of people respond when they are wrongly vilified by the media and politicians. Some will just swallow it and “move on” while others will fight for their honor. In the end, who do we respect more?

    • It helps emphasize why I feel so much differently than you.

      1) When I read a piece by an actual journalist I frequently can and do decide if the article is truthful. I do that regardless of whether it is opinion or reporting. Your use of those two words isn’t clear to me. It’s almost as if you’re saying opinion may or may not true but reporting is always true. It’s not necessary for a journalist to be lying when writing something that’s false. As many have done.

      When someone disagrees with me I like to know why they disagree and why my opinion is wrong. I have not read any evidence that Joe Paterno covered up crimes of Sandusky for ten or more years. I have not read anything at all that justifies the actions of the Board of Trustees. The SeptembNational Law Journal has a piece by Ty Law
      Or of Corbett. Do not forget Corbett.

    • You do help, Reed, but you help explain why I feel differently than you. When I read a piece by a journalist I frequently can and do decide if the article is truthful. I do that regardless of whether it is opinion or reporting. It’s not necessary for a journalist to be lying when writing something that’s false. As many have done.When someone disagrees with me I like to know why they disagree. I have not read any evidence that Joe Paterno covered up crimes of Sandusky for ten or more years. I have not read anything at all that justifies the actions of the Board of Trustees. The September 10, 2012 edition of The National Law Journal has a fine piece by Ty Law (an Alumnus)”Lessons from Happy ValleyPenn State’s missteps offer four important lessons for any organization that finds itself involved in a criminal investigation.”Please read it if you haven’t done so already.
      I am not ready to move on and I do not accept there is nothing we can do. We can try to correct the wrongdoings especially of the Board and the NCAA. And of Corbett. Do not forget Corbett.
      Never give in–never, never, never, never, in nothing great or small, large or petty, never give in except to convictions of honour and good sense. Never yield to force; never yield to the apparently overwhelming might of the enemy.Sir Winston Churchill, Speech, 1941, Harrow SchoolBritish politician (1874 – 1965)
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    • You do help, Reed, but you help explain why I feel differently than you. When I read a piece by a journalist I frequently can and do decide if the article is truthful. I do that regardless of whether it is opinion or reporting. It’s not necessary for a journalist to be lying when writing something that’s false. As many have done. When someone disagrees with me I like to know why they disagree. I have not read any evidence that Joe Paterno covered up crimes of Sandusky for ten or more years. I have not read anything at all that justifies the actions of the Board of Trustees.

      The September 10, 2012 edition of The National Law Journal has a fine piece by Ty Law (an Alumnus)
      “Lessons from Happy Valley. Penn State’s missteps offer four important lessons for any organization that finds itself involved in a criminal investigation.”

      Please read it if you haven’t done so already.
      I am not ready to move on and I do not accept there is nothing we can do. We can try to correct the wrongdoings especially of the Board and the NCAA. And of Corbett. Do not forget Corbett.
      Never give in–never, never, never, never, in nothing great or small, large or petty, never give in except to convictions of honour and good sense. Never yield to force; never yield to the apparently overwhelming might of the enemy.Sir Winston Churchill, Speech, 1941, Harrow SchoolBritish politician (1874 – 1965)

  2. What alumni groups quote “off-the-wall, conspiracy-minded websites and blog sources?” Can you cite a specific example?

    • While not directly commissioned by alumni groups – and I use PS4RS as my barometer because of its size and influence – the seemingly widespread belief of many in that group in the findings of the “Second Mile Sandusky Scandal” blog operated by the user “aurabass”, as well as the credibility given by some to Greg Bucceroni’s account of an enormous mafia-affiliated conspiracy does little good for anyone.

      While my implication wasn’t meant to be that PS4RS or any other group provides funding or official support for the above-listed sources, I frequently see these accounts referenced as being credible sources. I should clarify that my words were NOT referring to the official PS4RS critique of the Freeh Report or anything of the sort – merely referring to the often-quoted accounts listed above.

      In my opinion, quoting said sources does little to further the credibility of organizations like PS4RS, a group that I feel does good, well-researched work to better the future of University governance – so much so that I’m a member myself. I should also clarify that I (of course) recognize that it’s a small sample of the 10,000+ members of PS4RS that engages in what I was referring to, but it seems to dominate the conversation more often than not in my experience.

      • Your comment refers to alumni __groups__ quoting such material. PS4RS materials are available on the PS4RS website (www.ps4rs.org). AFAIK, PS4RS has never quoted or furthered such conspiracy theories. Can you point to any media release or comment by an official group spokesperson that does so? Personally, I wouldn’t be a member of the group if it did espouse some of the wilder theories (e.g. Bucceroni). In fact, as you must be aware if you have been following those threads on FB, there are plenty of PS4RS members who have specifically cautioned other members against believing some of the wilder theories. You seem to be advocating that PS4RS go a step further and censor the posts on the FB wall. Is that right?

      • The article written however yet was simplistic to suggest division between students and alumni.
        As a reader of PS4RS and SMSS blog. It’s discouraging that you should suggest that they propagate conspiracies. Like most PennStaters, I’m looking for a narrative that makes sense. PS4RS has been an excellent forum to discuss all ideas to find the truth and SMSS blog is doing the investigative work with that we expect for the regular media.
        I genuinely find it bizarre that the largest state university has to be defended by unaffiliated groups and blogs while the Governor and BoT leaders keep quiet while NCAA fines the university without an investigation.

  3. Great article!! But for clarification, PS4RS is not just an “alumni” group. There are many students, PSU friends, PSU Parents,State College residents, etc….. My hope is that students can enjoy their 4+ years exactly as they should – but know(and support) the efforts of groups like PS4RS because they wish to maintain the value of a PSU diploma. Many of us are willing to fight because we are so proud of the current students and don’t want anything diminished for them.

    • Certainly understood. While PS4RS is the biggest group, I understand there are a wide variety of others – my familiarity with the other groups just isn’t as refined as with PS4RS. My use of the term “alumni” wasn’t meant to imply that such groups are exclusive to alumni only, although I would probably guess that PS4RS and similar groups’ populations have alumni as the solid majority.

  4. I wish more Onward State articles were like yours.

    Great well-balanced article. It was a pleasure to read :)

  5. Well stated Chris. I had a long post written, but I think I will hold it, for now. I’m going to stop focusing on details for a minute and zoom out to the 30,000ft level and see if I can see the big picture.
    You gave me something to think about. Thank You!

  6. Chris, this is an excellent article! Very well thought out and written, and giving all of us a lot to think about. However, I’m not at all sure that all of the off-the-wall, conspiracy minded web-sites and blogs are quite as crazy as you might think. I have found most of their writings to be fact-based and thoughtful … I hope people aren’t allowing the overly busy look (style) of their sites to detract from their messages. Crazy conspiracies aren’t just found in pulp fiction novels!

  7. I”m in a rather unique position in that I am an alumnus, parent and step parent of 2 alumni, a PSU staff member and parent of a current student so I’ve heard all sides of this discussion. (I’m sure I’m not the only one in this situation but I believe my peers make up a fairly small number of people with a dog is this fight). I think your article is quite well written and I appreciate your thoughts. Unfortunately I think too often the expectation to unite is meant as “move forward” and my alumni passion just won’t allow that to happen until the truth is known. Also unfortunately, I don’t think that can happen under the existing BoT. Maybe, as a staff member, I’m shooting myself in the foot with that statement but there are times when doing what’s right is more important than what’s politically correct.
    To help students try to understant where many of the alumni are coming from I’d like to give you something to think about: If you love Penn State during your short time here just try to imagine how much deeper that love will become 5, 10, 25 years after you leave. That’s why so many of us want the truth to come out and are willing to fight to make that happen. Penn State has become the dear step parent that helped raise us during our time as students and we can’t stand to see it hurt as it has been without doing everything in our power to make things right, not just for ourselves but for current and future students as well.

  8. So, if I may be so bold as to say “it all comes down to this…”,

    It all comes down to this simple phrase “You just can’t understand exactly where I’m coming from.” This can be said from both a “student” and “alumni” perspective (to use the 2 groups cited in the article, though I agree it’s probably more of a continuum). And it’s more than likely true.

    Students won’t understand the feelings alumni have for the University after they leave. Alumni won’t understand how the students felt living here as things unfolded.

    That’s perfectly alright. As the article’s intention was, we all just need to accept that and find out what it means moving forward. Penn State prides itself on having an extremely active group of alumni, over half a million strong. I’m sure that we can find the most appropriate way to move, move forward and move onwards a more successful University, because after all, Together, We Are One.

  9. Chris: nicely done and you make good points. I’m an alumnus, I’m married to an alumnus, and our son is a sophomore. I’ll offer a couple thoughts. One, I think we know who PSU needs to be… all we need to do is look at who we are. Two, we are a big group, us Penn Staters. That counts you and us. We can probably multi-task and pursue at least a couple paths. Students can tackle the looking ahead part, and alums can tackle the ‘hey, wait a minute…’ part.
    Our common ground IS Penn State. The rest is just details.

  10. Good, fair commentary except for this line:

    “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.”

    There was a little incident involving planes and buildings about 11 years ago. Alumni who were students then sure as hell know what it’s like.

    • 9/11 was tragic of course, and it was difficult for everyone to deal with, no matter where they were, but it’s not really comparable. It’s not a Penn State tragedy where Penn Staters were put in the position of defending themselves and had to deal with a sudden media storm descending upon them. Apples and oranges.

  11. “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.”

    Something seems to be missing. Can I get a little help?

    I’d also say that the goal shouldn’t be to get on the same page, except to the extent that the page reads: “Respect each other, no matter what page you’re on.”