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Penn Staters and the Challenge of Attractive Dissent

OS Old MAin 2Few Penn Staters believe that the actions of either the Board of Trustees or the administration of Rodney Erickson since November 2011 represent clearheaded, let alone great, leadership. The vast majority of the Penn State family, I’d venture to say, continues to feel the pain of the Jerry Sandusky scandal and our tremendously sloppy response to it all. In our worst moments, in the midst of our darkest crisis, our leaders reacted by disavowing our own and implicitly endorsing a report that condemned our culture as sick, when most of us sought to cling to our culture as a safeguard, and as one of honor.

In the two years since the Sandusky scandal broke, the Penn State family has responded in many ways. Most of the prominent leaders within our community, our most visible representatives in the administration and our trustees, have sought to have us “move forward.” This mantra is repeated ad nauseum as if this alone constitutes a strategy. Was our treatment of Joe Paterno a decent one? Was our repudiation of Graham Spanier—our presumption of his guilt—an honorable one? Was our acceptance of Louis Freeh’s conclusions sensible? On and on we ask such questions, and the answer remains the same whenever they are raised for discussion. “Move forward.”

It’s as if the most important questions, the questions relating to our principles and how they apply in reality—in the practical moments of life—are somehow secondary, or even irrelevant. Move forward. Move forward. Move forward.

Yet even the most moderate among us still wonder. Could our best leaders, men like Graham Spanier and Joe Paterno, two figures who crafted the modern University we continue to celebrate as great and strong, have done something as heinous as intentionally cover up child rape? Move forward.

Move forward. In other words: shut up, and get in line. It’s neither a strategy nor a decent way to conduct oneself as a leader. Yet it’s all we are getting from our veteran trustees and administration.

In response, many alumni have sought to express some of the best aspects of our legacy as a means to shine the light of who we are, of who the Penn State family has always been and remains—to recover the truth of our history. This involves a recovery of the truth about Joe Paterno, necessarily, and a sense that our trustees who presided over our era of crisis certainly deserve to go.

Yet there’s a growing problem. These supporters of responsible stewardship in the Penn State family are growing increasingly shrill, and becoming increasingly weary. New trustees have been elected through their efforts—good men and women. Yet it’s not clear these new trustees are being taught to work together, or to organize in any coherent fashion for genuine reform among the Board of Trustees.

Meanwhile, the loudest alumni and supporters in this family of ours increasingly issue demands rather than promote dialogue. The ugly tactics of 1960s organizing—of passionate emotion, of suspicion, of perpetual mudslinging as a strategic and rhetorical device, are forming a picture in our consciousness that isn’t attractive.

Time marches on. We are mortal, and we each will die. Yet the culture we craft and perpetuate lives on. This is why we care so deeply about the truth of Penn State and people like Joe Paterno—because we know which aspects of our legacy deserve to live on despite our own morality.

Yet as the student body changes in the next few years, and as new trustees cycle onto the board, and as a new president takes the reigns in the years to come, what are we crafting and perpetuating as supporters of the truth about the Penn State family?

For those young people who are growing up in or after the scandal’s continuing fallout, what will they know? We seem to be slipping into a danger zone, a dark area where our anger is speaking more loudly than our love—which is a tragedy, because our anger is a surface thing, a lesser thing. We feel anger because first we knew love. If it’s true that we’re one Penn State family then it’s also true that we learned to love one another at some point. We certainly loved Joe Paterno and the principles he promoted in his life.

If our love is true, our challenge cannot be one of issuing demands and speaking with anger. The Board of Trustees, for better or worse—let’s just agree it’s “or worse”—will not act for our honor. Our president will soon change. The time for the correct and decent decisions in the heat of the scandal has passed. We won’t get those moments over again. We can’t take that field through a late-kindled passion.

But we can plan for the games ahead. We can learn to act with a prudence guided by our love. Or to put it in perhaps a less flowery way, we can learn to act in the way those we love would have acted—with humility, and determination, and restraint. And quietly.

We can’t shout about our values, or about those who have failed to act in the best way, and expect to be well regarded. We’ve got to continue to shape Penn State with a future oriented vision. We’ve got to move forward—yet move forward in a way true to the best aspects of our legacy.

We will pass on. Our hopes for responsible stewardship will one day end. What will we work to build before this time passes? What are we spending our time, talents, and treasure building up for the Penn Staters of tomorrow?

Joe Paterno and the Penn State he knew were attractive things. If we truly want to responsibly steward our University, each of us has to learn how to be attractive. A culture of anger, of dissent, of teasing, is not an attractive thing. It doesn’t earn praise, and only has effect in the short term.

Monuments are built by those who recognize that time marches on, and that our chapter in the story of a place is brief. How we use the time allotted to us matters. If we loved Joe Paterno, and believe in a better Penn State family, we’ve got to prove it in a way that will engender the admiration of the students of tomorrow. That’s the only way his legacy will live on.

A few transient administrators removed Joe Paterno’s statue and tarnished his name and implied even worse about the wider culture of our family. They are transient. The Penn State family is forever, because it grows and changes with time across generations. What will we set ourselves to building?

Will we craft new statues with vision and funds of our own? Will we create new scholarships in the name of men like Paterno or even Spanier? Will we forge real relationships with students and learn about their needs and how alumni can meet them? Will we learn to make ourselves as attractive and impactful as Joe Paterno and other heroes of our long history?

Or will we content ourselves with a shrill dissent, and grow increasingly frustrated as those with administrative power ignore demands we make in moments of passion?

As time moves forward, and the next chapters in our story are authored, Penn Staters for responsible stewardship can redeem our culture by embracing a paradoxical truth—the University is each of us within the Penn State family. We don’t need the approval or consent of an unwilling Board of Trustees or administration to ensure our history and values live on.

We simply need to remember our history and our values, and live on.

Tom Shakely is the author of Conserving Mount Nittany: A Dynamic Environmentalism, a book telling the extraordinary story of an ordinary Pennsylvanian mountain. He has written for on The Paternos and the Penn State Family and The Paterno Legacy.

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