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Penn State Culture Survey a Waste of Time and Money

By now, you’ve probably heard something about the Penn State Values & Culture survey being released this week to all students, faculty, and staff at every Penn State campus. The stated purpose of the survey, which Penn State paid the Ethics Resource Center based in Washington, D.C. to administer, is to “better understand our stakeholders’ views about the culture of our University, and the values that we share as a community.”

If that definition seems arcane to you, you’re not alone. The word “culture” has a developed a certain connotation at Penn State ever since Louis Freeh audaciously condemned it in July 2012.

Through my position as a UPUA representative, I had the opportunity to ask Barry Bram from the Center for Student Engagement two questions at the October 16 general assembly meeting in a public setting. Bram is part of the communications team for the survey and came to UPUA to deliver a presentation detailing the survey.

I first asked Bram how much the survey cost to develop and distribute. After all, sending a 26-page survey to more than 130,000 people is no cheap task, especially since most of the operation is outsourced. The tedious job of collecting and analyzing the data is likely even more expensive.

“I can’t tell you how much it costs,” Bram said. “It comes from the university general funds…there’s a line in there somewhere. I’m not sure if it comes from tuition, but I think that’s about all I can say.”

The next question I asked Bram was more open ended. Pointing out that Bram was the THON faculty advisor for seven years — and as a result, worked every day with students who represented the best of Penn State’s culture — I asked why he thought this survey was necessary, and specifically, what he thought was wrong with the Penn State culture that necessitated such an exhaustive venture.

“I’m not going to comment on what I think the Penn State culture is,” Bram said. He would later add, “I do love working here and I do love Penn State.”

I don’t blame Bram for this exchange. Make no mistake about it — he is only a foot soldier for a greater force in this PR frenzy we find ourselves in at Penn State. How far have we fallen when one of the most respected and accomplished members of the Student Affairs Department like Bram is forced to utter “I’m not going to comment on what I think the Penn State culture is”?

Bram’s clandestine statements were echoed by those in Old Main. I also asked Penn State spokeswoman Lisa Powers about the survey’s cost.

“We have a non-disclosure clause with ERC, which means it’s a competitive type situation where it would put a company at a disadvantage to have the fee disclosed,” Powers said. “By contract, we can’t disclose.”

While Bram might not want to comment on Penn State’s culture, I will. Anyone who has ever spent any part of their life in this Nittany Valley knows there’s something special going on here — something beautifully unique that transcends time. Our culture was crafted by good men like Evan Pugh, George Atherton, Eric Walker, and yes, Joe Paterno, along with generations of Penn Staters who have come to know and love this place. We watch the sun rise over Mount Nittany, classes of students pass through the Allen Street Gates, cheer on the football team every Saturday, and know that our culture is good. We perpetuate and cling to this culture — one of family, one of love, one of integrity — and it makes us stronger. “To one heart that loves thy name,” we so aptly sing.

Want to know what the Ethics Resource Center, firmly at the wheel of Penn State’s car, wants to reduce our culture to? This chart (obtained from a preliminary July version of the survey, so some definitions may have changed):

Very important Somewhat important Not very important Not at all important Don’t know
A. Accountability – We accept the consequences of our actions.
B. Caring – We act out of concern for the well-being of others.
C. Community – We come together to achieve a common purpose.
D. Courage – We stand up for what’s right, even when it’s difficult
E. Discovery – We seek new knowledge
F. Excellence – We each strive to give our best in all situations.
G. Honesty – We are forthcoming and truthful.
H. Integrity – We live out our values consistently.
I. Openness – We welcome new perspectives.
J. Respect – We treat one another in a way that upholds each person’s innate dignity.
K. Responsibility – We diligently meet our obligations.
L. Service – We help meet the needs of others.
M. Stewardship – We take care of that which has been entrusted to us.
N. Sustainability – We work to preserve the long-term health of the environment and its resources.
O. Transparency – We are proactive in sharing information to keep our stakeholders informed.

The rest of the report, which Penn State says will take 20 minutes to complete, includes similar charts that ask students to rate the performance of senior administrators, collective identity, and an environment to report misconduct.

Are we really at a point in our University’s history where we’re willing to shoehorn our culture into cheesy adjectives like “caring” or “sustainable”? Does anyone in their right mind believe that all or nearly all of these categories aren’t “very important” for any community to understand? These aren’t the qualities that make us unique — these qualities are the foundation for any sensible university.

According to Penn State’s survey FAQ guide, the results will be used to “identify a set of core values that we can communicate across the entire University, but importantly, they will not be rules to dictate behavior. Core values are broadly stated ideals that offer guidance to help people make good choices when they are not sure of the right course of action in a given situation.” What Penn State apparently doesn’t understand is that these “core values” are inherent in all of us as human beings, and if they’re not, no PDF file or catchy jingle from some ethics institute is going to change that.

So go ahead, Penn State. Add another line to box 1.1 on your Freeh recommendations progress chart so you can parade it over the PR newswire to the few people who still actually care about what that flawed report says.

I know that the real Penn State culture lives in my heart and in the collective hearts of my fellow students, and in the hearts of the alumni and educators who came before me.

Not on your overpriced piece of paper.

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About the Author

Kevin Horne

Kevin Horne was the editor of Onward State from 2012-2014 and currently holds the position of Managing Editor Emeritus, which is a fake title he made up. He graduated from Penn State with degrees journalism and political science in 2014 and is currently seeking his J.D. at the Penn State Dickinson School of Law. A third generation Penn Stater from Williamsport, Pa., Kevin is also the president of the graduate student government. Email: [email protected]

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