Town Hall Brings Students Face to Face with Administration
Last evening, for two hours, President Rodney Erickson and some of his esteemed colleagues hosted a town hall forum with students inside Heritage Hall. The event was sponsored by the University Park Undergraduate Association, the Council of Commonwealth Student Governments, and the Graduate Student Association with sociology professors Dr. Sam Richards and Dr. Laurie Mulvey acting as moderators for the discussion.
Seated on stage alongside president Erickson were:
- Robert Pangborn, Executive Vice President and Provost
- Damon Sims, Vice President for Student Affairs
- Madlyn Hanes, Vice President for Commonwealth Campuses
- Henry Foley, Dean of Graduate School
- Craig Weidmann, Vice President for Outreach
- Rod Kirsch, Vice President for Development & Alumni Relations
- Terrell Jones, Vice Provost for Educational Equity
Before the floor was opened for questions, Erickson began with a few opening remarks describing the situation as “a difficult time but time to move forward.” He went on to acknowledge the victims and urged everyone to “not let the actions of an individual define the university.”
A common theme throughout the night was transparency. In response to the first question, Erickson urged people to come talk with him. “My door is open.”
Answering a question regarding The Right-To-Know Act and having more information including financials available to students, Erickson stated, “discussions are taking place.” He went on to say that one goal is to make already released information more organized and accessible to the public.
Weidmann and Pangborn, in response to a question from the Penn State Brandywine campus about how students can help: Weidmann cited Penn State having a “rich history of helping” while Pangborn discussed more “curricular offerings” in both classes and student organizations.
An interesting question about rebranding Penn State for life after Joe Paterno: Sims, citing his time at Indiana University, referenced Bob Knight’s departure, talking about how the university found ways to demonstrate excellence in other areas after Knight had been fired. Kirsch then chimed in, pointing out that “Penn State is more than just one person.”
Regarding how the scandal and subsequent events could impact employment: Sims stressed that “students are not accountable” for what took place. He added that he had checked in with Career Services and will travel to Philadelphia, New York, and Washington D.C. to meet with major employers, but does not believe students will be affected when it comes to the job market.
Regarding emotions while these key events were occurring: Foley acknowledged that the last four weeks were agonizing for many reasons. “It was never quite so apparent that we are all in this together.” Erickson followed up by saying that he learned about the charges one day before they were officially handed down. It was not an ideal time to inherit a new position but it was “time to step up.” He then went on to say that applications are up four percent from last year and only eight individuals have withdrawn their application at this time.
This question, in terms of audience applause and official comments, received the biggest response of the night: “I feel shame. What do I do with this shame?” This prompted a response from just about everyone. The two most telling were Kirsch admitting to crying several times during the scandal and Jones strongly exclaiming, “this will never again happen on my watch.” All administrators were happy that the audience member was able to admit this and encouraged continued communication.
On moving forward including future fundraising: Kirsch pointed out that Lion Line which focuses on students reaching out to alumni to make donations is still going strong. In wake of everything that has happened “time had been lost” but there was still support from alumni.
Inquiries about football and Joe Paterno started to roll in, and this was the one time when administrators seemed to dance around questions rather than answering candidly. Several audience members erupted in applause when Erickson said that there are no plans to take down Paterno’s statue or rename the library. He went on to say that he believes in time the Paterno family will be acknowledged but in light of the ongoing investigation declined to speak about the Board of Trustees’ controversial decision to fire Paterno. “Football has never defined us.”
Richards mentioned that several students still expressed that they were unsure how to specifically help going forward: Sims instructed students to take time and reflect on everything that took place. “We choose how we will be defined.”
Onward State’s own Devon Edwards received the microphone from Mulvey to ask why there was no undergraduate student on the special committee: Graduate student Rodney Hughes, who is a part of the committee, provided a little background about himself while stating what his role would be. The question wasn’t really answered.
Bard was given the floor to refute a claim questioning the legitimacy of UPUA: He cited all of the work they had put into this forum and other rallies and events on campus. Sims, who works with UPUA, added that interactions between student government and administrators are a “collaborative effort”
A question toward the end about the Syracuse scandal and Jim Boeheim receiving a vote of confidence from Syracuse versus Paterno’s treatment: Foley quickly answered saying that he could not second guess decisions made by the Board of Trustees. “You can, but I can’t.”
As the forum approached its conclusion, administrators continued to emphasize student involvement. Hayes encouraged talking with legislators over winter break to get more perspective.
The meeting concluded with some closing remarks by Lozano and a powerful statement from Mulvey encouraging continued conversation because “when conversation stops it leads to rumors, and rumors lead to darkness.”
The session ended before I was able to ask my question, but afterward, I approached President Erickson with something that had been on my mind not just the entire night, but since the entire scandal began. What’s the future of “Success With Honor”? It was more than just a phrase used by the athletic department; it was something everyone at Penn State could take pride in. What happens now? Will it still be marketed? Speaking in a soft, calm tone, Erickson mentioned that there is a time and a place for everything. “If we are able to go through the process successfully and realize what we did wrong, I think in time, that will be a worthy slogan again.”
To those who attended the town hall forum, what were your overall impressions? To those who did not, what would you have liked to ask Erickson and other administrators? Share your thoughts below.