Guest Column: Endorsements Keep PS4RS on Wrong Track for Accomplishing Meaningful Reform
It’s hard to believe, but it’s been almost two and a half years since the world came crashing down on our university.
Or, to put it another way, since then, Penn State has hired two university presidents, welcomed two new football coaches, erected a hockey arena, raised $35 million for THON, fought off appropriations cuts and a threat to go private, and welcomed tens of thousands of new members to the largest alumni association in the country.
The world, somehow, didn’t stop. We went on with our lives, not out of abandonment but of necessity. And yet, there are still those who refuse to move on, blind to the fact that, for all intents and purpose, we already have.
The loudest voices in this upcoming Board of Trustees election are those who are living in the past, driven primarily by an unhealthy thirst for vengeance. They refuse to acknowledge that the present poses new and distinct challenges, and that our Trustees are the ones who must lead this university through an uncertain future. There are few who will challenge the assertion that those in office failed their university three years ago. But intransigence and lingering resentment is neither a judicious platform nor a prudent roadmap upon which to guide one of the nation’s largest, best, and most important universities. Penn State remains at a crossroads, and sober evaluation of her long-term interests must be allowed to rise to the forefront.
There are those within Penn Staters for Responsible Stewardship, surely, who understand this imperative. As the largest (and, until last month, de facto only) mobilized group of alumni, PS4RS must be, to some degree, a large tent. And so this isn’t just directed at those of us on the outside looking in, but to those members who must be frustrated by their colleagues’ obstinance and misguided priorities: Is this really what you want? Is this the way to realize the positive change we all agree is needed? It’s been remarkably encouraging to see this much energy and concern towards what had never been more than a passing fascination and an election process that had been, essentially, a mere rubber stamp, but just as disheartening to see how it’s been channeled. For almost two and a half years, now, I’ve come to wonder whether those most prominent voices care more about future generations of Penn Staters to come, or their quest for revenge.
Those who have already grasped the need to move on have been on the forefront of accomplishing what so many clamor for. Yes, change, slowly but surely, is coming. It’s already come, not just in dribs and drabs but in real meaningful reforms. And it’s come through diplomacy and through dialogues, from finding a common ground rather than refusing to back down. What happened at Penn State was not fair to us alumni, and neither was the series of staggeringly poor decisions made by Her leadership in its wake. But truly responsible stewardship means accepting and trying to improve an imperfect reality rather than waging battles whose time have long since passed.
The NCAA’s unjust sanctions have been rolled back significantly–and will likely be diminished even further in the coming months–not because any of the various lawsuits challenging them succeeded, or because Penn State pushed back and risked the death penalty–as Alice Pope recommended–but because the administration that PS4RS has consistently portrayed as impotent and inept worked with Senator George Mitchell in showing how and why another Sandusky scandal could never happen again, that Penn State football, and its supposed culture, were never to blame. Even the Freeh Report, riddled as it was with glaring and significant flaws, did provide Penn State with a series of recommendations to help ensure oversight and responsiveness. Perhaps Board leadership should not have been so quick–to the extent they did–to accept its findings. But any sort of denouncement now would ultimately be inconsequential and probably disingenuous on the part of the trustees.
And the most substantial and lasting reform in board structure, the placement of a student-selected trustee, arose primarily from the leadership of the students that PS4RS and its adherents have continued to dismiss as alternatively hopelessly out of touch or not worthy of carrying the torch for their movement, the same one we all ostensibly share: making Penn State the best university it can possibly be. The students who struck the first blow in upheaving the Board structure, making it more democratic and transparent, are the same ones who were berated by alumni protesters at last fall’s farcical “March for Truth,” who have been the subject of nasty snipings in Facebook posts and Onward State comment sections.
PS4RS leadership, of course, is quick to distance themselves from its loudest members–the ones we should all be ashamed share a Penn State degree–shielding themselves behind the civility of their press releases and other public statements. If PS4RS were made up of alumni as reasonable as their leaders seem to present themselves, I probably wouldn’t be writing this. But the failure of PS4RS to responsibly and effectively mobilize and advocate for conscientious, concerned, and reform-minded alumni has been to the detriment of all Penn Staters. It has instead served primarily to provide a forum and a voice for those who, frankly, make us all look bad, and then to deny any culpability in their most egregious transgressions. The swarm of alumni that descends, on social media, on any journalist or Penn Stater who dares challenge their assertions stigmatizes the reform movement to the public at large, and PS4RS leadership has neglected its duty to reign these people in.
Indeed, if the last three years have taught us anything, it’s that the juvenile militancy of PS4RS members isn’t the answer, not to bring about the type of meaningful, lasting reforms we all seek. Should it come as any surprise that the lone vote against a student-selected trustee came from Anthony Lubrano, just the latest public misstep of a trustee who was elected before PS4RS was formed but who notoriously champions their causes, whose endorsement Alice Pope proudly accepted, who perhaps best represents their core constituency?
The PS4RS crowd continues to rally against David Joyner, who was a Trustee and who was hastily named interim Athletic Director despite a seeming lack of qualifications. But all he’s done since getting the job–aside from allegedly not letting Michael Mauti crack open a beer–is hit a pair of home runs in hiring Bill O’Brien and James Franklin–so much for that oft-repeated canard that Rodney Erickson sought to deemphasize football, huh?–and by all accounts, run a successful athletics program. Joyner will probably be gone in a few months, as a new President brings in a new AD, but his tenure will have been an unqualified success. Under Erickson, a good man who for 30 years has served this university with honor and rectitude, Penn State rose consistently through the national college rankings, and hit new records in the philanthropy efforts that will fund student programs and scholarships. He was, perhaps, not the vocal leader Penn State needed at time when it needed leadership more than anything else, but those who have questioned his love for our university or his personal integrity could not be more wrong. And many–including PS4RS nominees Alice Pope and Bob Jubilerer, in an editorial published by the Centre Daily Times–criticized the search process that found Erickson’s successor, but come this summer, Penn State will be in the supremely well-qualified hands of Eric Barron.
In short, an administration and student body that PS4RS has so often characterized as feckless and incompetent have so often found success, and have taken great strides to rehabilitate our university’s image, to guide us past our darkest days. One can only imagine the accomplishments we would have achieved, together, if the energies of contempt and criticism were channeled into constructive aims, if our triumphs weren’t undermined by a minority who refuse to acknowledge them. There is more work to do, and we can accomplish it, but only together, and only if the most vocal fringe is no longer allowed to hijack the process.
Rather than create a divide between Penn Staters young and old, we should trust in and find strength in our students. Despite being attacked by PS4RS-types for having the audacity to speak for her fellow students, UPUA President Katelyn Mullen’s hard work has culminated in the establishment of a student-selected trustee, merely the greatest accomplishment in a presidency dedicated to giving her constituency a voice. In less than a year, Mullen has been able to realize more positive change than the thousands involved in PS4RS or the trustees they have elected.
Regardless, while we alumni continue to alternately celebrate these reforms and seek even more, they are merely distractions and frivolities for the vast majority of the some-hundred thousand Penn State students. By and large, they’re not worried about the proportion of alumni-elected seats on the Board of Trustees because they’re too busy worrying about the realities of their education, their job prospects, and the mountain of student debt they’ll find themselves buried under upon graduation.
These are matters that fall under the purview of the Board of Trustees, but they have languished too long on the back burner of its public agenda, shamefully overlooked by too many candidates–especially those promoted by or seeking the endorsement of PS4RS. This is not, of course, a defense of its current makeup. Too many of the current trustees are out of touch, having attended Penn State during an era when a college education was far cheaper and a college degree guaranteed gainful employment; PS4RS’ endorsed candidates, unfortunately, fail to offer a different perspective.
Although so many PS4RS candidates refuse to accept it, the Board’s primary goals must be pedagogical: fighting to ensure lower tuition and more scholarships, and recruiting and retaining the excellent educators who make a Penn State education so unique and so valuable, who develop the type of well-rounded students that companies want to hire. It should always be fighting on the behalf of students, not for alumni interest groups and their constituencies, especially those which continually belittle and denigrate the most important stakeholders in each election. PS4RS has put board reform, oversight, and governance at the top of its agenda, and it is an admirable goal, but not only have they ignored other ones, but sabotaged their own credibility. Robert Jubelirer was the ringleader of the exact sort of shameful tactics in the Pennsylvania State Senate that PS4RS rails against, pushing through a legislative pay raise bill with a 2 a.m. vote and nary a public comment. It was this scandal that cost him his job, despite backtracking, in the wake of immense public backlash, in hopes of reelection. Does this remind anyone else of Joel Myers, who PS4RS will surely delight in voting out of office in a month’s time?
And by endorsing the candidacy of Albert Lord, who made his personal fortune, which includes a personal 18-hole golf course, and enough money to make a serious run at buying the Washington Nationals, by finding new and innovative ways to saddle generation after generation of students–both here at Penn State and across the country–with crippling student loan debt, PS4RS has made clear where they stand. Can anyone say with a straight face that a man who has time after time dismissed ballooning education expenditures would seek to lower costs for students when he lined his pockets with our–borrowed–tuition dollars, when he became the target of a federal investigation in the midst of allegations that he personally profited off a program designed to make college affordable for low-income students? Can PS4RS truly claim to put students first when they nominate an adversary to make the important decisions that will affect them? Is it any surprise that the core of PS4RS, just like the candidates they’ve endorsed these past few years, haven’t stepped foot inside a Penn State classroom in decades?
Ensuring opportunities for students and faculty is where the responsibility of the Board begins, not where it ends; governance of Penn State is of course more complicated, especially given how interwoven the university is to the fabric of Pennsylvania thanks to its commonwealth campuses and state-wide programs. Given the expansion of the World Campus, Penn State has the opportunity to make a truly global impact. But at the end of the day, the Board’s primary duty is to guide the long-term interests of the university, always in service of her students. And because so few, comparatively, are voted for by alumni, creating divides between elected and appointed trustees only both obstructs the important work the Board will do and stokes the flames of hostility that detract time and energy from the real issues.
I can’t and don’t pretend to speak on behalf of Joe Paterno or the Paterno family, but I will recount an anecdote that seems relevant to the current predicament of our Board dysfunction. It was a Tuesday night, I remember, a few days before the Board made its fateful decision to fire Joe Paterno, when a group of hundreds of students–the same current students and young graduates who, PS4RS tells us time and time again, do not show sufficient deference for Paterno–trekked up near Sunset Park, to the Paterno home, where, for hours, we sang songs and chanted and let our hero knew that we stood with him. And after a while, Joe did exactly what you’d expect Joe to do: He came outside, and he thanked us for our support. He rallied us around the university he had helped build. Then he told us to go home, and focus on what really mattered: our academics.
It’s time Penn Staters For Responsible Stewardship took his advice. What matters most isn’t restoring Joe Paterno’s legacy, or even reforming the Board of Trustees, no matter how valiant both efforts may be. That I, of all people, will surely be attacked for not showing JoePa the proper reverence only serves to demonstrate the divide that has been fostered, in no small part by PS4RS. Frankly, there’s no reason why we can’t and shouldn’t honor a man who meant so much to Penn State at the same time that we look to the future, and safeguard Penn State’s longterm vitality. That means ensuring that Penn State remains accessible and affordable, and that the education it offers remains rewarding and comprehensive.
The greatest irony of all is that working towards that end, more than anything else, will be what truly vindicates Joe Paterno, what effectuates his lifelong dream. And PS4RS doesn’t seem to grasp that, instead continuing to beat a drum that’s long since stopped resonating.
When I cast my ballot next month, it will not be for the PS4RS-endorsed candidates, it will be for those trustees who will understand the impact of their position on those it affects most, and use their position to fight on their behalf. I will have to do more research before filling out the rest of my ballot, but I know one name that will be on it. As UPUA President, Gavin Keirans was a tremendous leader who fought successfully on students’ behalf while strengthening what was then a nascent student government. I have the utmost confidence that he will, as a recent graduate, represent with integrity a large constituency that has too often been overlooked, and that he will inject some much-needed common sense into a quagmire so often devoid of it. That he was not selected for the PS4RS ticket despite courting them, and daring to take the organization in a brave new direction says more than I possibly could about the groupthink mentality that has handicapped what ought to be a truly effective coalition of alumni. Keirans represented PS4RS’s best opportunity to prove that they are not the collection of our worst fears. But he offered them the red pill, and they chose blue.
I mention Keirans only because I feel he stands in stark contrast to the handpicked PS4RS contingent, not to encourage you to vote for him; I ask merely that you, too, do your homework. Vote for those candidates who will best represent our university, and who will best advocate for Her students. PS4RS may well remain the kingmakers, but that doesn’t mean this race is over.
It’s an uphill fight, but it’s one worth waging. And I choose to believe that the silent minority can make our voices heard yet.