As I sit to write this column, I find myself increasingly at odds with the broad-brush tarring of Penn State’s culture as cited in both the Freeh Report and the NCAA consent order. As the latter document stated: “Indeed the culture exhibited at Penn State is an extraordinary affront to the values all members of the Association have pledged to uphold and calls for extraordinary action.” It’s time for us to take a look at what the true Penn State culture is.
In its message to the Penn State Family on July 27, the Alumni Association’s Executive Board struck back: “We take serious issue with the way that investigative and regulatory bodies have mischaracterized the Penn State culture, impugning the integrity of our students, faculty and staff, and alumni—a proud heritage of honor, achievement, and service to others that has been built up over 157 years.”
So it’s time for us to figure out what the true Penn State culture is and begin projecting it far and wide. Here are my thoughts on the subject:
First and foremost, the Penn State culture is one of academic excellence. Penn State is one of the world’s top 100 universities, a global academic powerhouse in a wide range of scientific, intellectual, creative and technological fields. Any number of recent studies have listed Penn State among the top 100 universities in the world—and there are roughly 20,000 institutions of higher learning on the planet. And our academic reputation is accelerating, not decelerating, even through the crisis of the last nine months. Just last month, the Center for World University Rankings placed Penn State at No. 64 based on such measures as quality of faculty, publications in top journals, highly influential research, citations, patents, academic training of students and professional future of alumni.
And despite the criticism that the academic-athletic equation has been out of whack, consider this: Penn State’s Intercollegiate Athletics budget is slightly more than $100 million per year, all of it self-generated without benefit of tuition or tax dollars. Our research expenditures—most of them coming from federal, state, and industry sources and awarded on the basis of competitive merit and expertise—are more than $800 million. In other words, Penn State spends eight times more on research than on intercollegiate athletics. Throw the teaching, academic support, patient care, and outreach enterprises into the equation and you see that athletics pales by comparison, comprising about 2.3 percent of the University’s $4.3 billion annual operating budget.
And what about creative solutions to public problems? No university in America remotely approaches Penn State when it comes to serving the public of its sponsoring state. The genius to Penn State is its Commonwealth Campus system, providing local access and opportunity where none existed before. Long before the concept of the community college blossomed, Penn State had already solved the problem, responding to the requests of more than 20 communities across the state to put centers and campuses in place. Today, these campuses continue to educate and serve, but as the state’s industrial base eroded, they also have taken on a vital new role as the economic engines of their communities. And Penn State’s World Campus—one of the most successful online education programs in American higher education—has taken the same concept to the global community.
And what about athletics, particularly football? Well, nothing on earth so enthralls our species as competition through sport. And nothing receives nearly as much attention from the media as sport. In 1986, when President Ronald Reagan met Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev at Reykjavik, Iceland, to essentially determine the fate of the world, more than 400 credentialed reporters were on hand. A few months later at the end of 1986, when Penn State met Miami in the Fiesta Bowl in Tempe, Ariz., to determine the national championship, more than 1,100 credentialed reporters were on hand. That’s the reality of media coverage then and still today.
The genius of the Penn State culture, in my view, was to use sport—football in particular—as the lens through which the public could interpret the larger university. The emphasis on academic achievement—with large numbers of athletes consistently on the dean’s list, consistently graduating (and consistently ranking at the top of American universities in those respects), consistently doing well after graduation—whether as architects, business executives, or surgeons—spoke volumes about what Penn State stood for. The mantra “Success with Honor” now seems hollowed out, but it represented what the University strove for—and as Robert Browning said, “A man’s reach must exceed his grasp, else what’s a heaven for?” We put a noble philosophy out there and on the line as no other university did.
And the coach himself, Joe Paterno? My proudest memory of him was when I heard him being interviewed on National Public Radio after Penn State’s first national championship. The interviewer asked him what he was reading. Paterno said he was reading Thucydides’ history of the Second Peloponnesian War. That, I said to myself, is my kind of football coach! He embodied academic values as did no other of his profession before or since.
The trouble is, when you’re on a pedestal, as Penn State was; when you’re best in class, as Penn State is; when you’re No. 1 in your industry, as Penn State continues to be, it doesn’t always inspire admiration and adulation. Human nature being what it is, it more often provokes jealousy, resentment, envy and heavy criticism.
And when you fall, the degree of perverse delight others take in your misfortune—the Germans call it schadenfreude—can be overwhelming. We’re seeing it now, across the land.
While we can all agree that what occurred with regard to the Sandusky scandal was appalling, we must never forget that Penn State’s culture is centered on one of academic excellence. We can support and foster that culture—alongside successful student-athletes—while at the same time being outraged by and working to eradicate all types of abuse and violence.
So the challenge is, without appearing to be defensive, how do we continue to define the Penn State culture? And how do we project what is unique and good about the Penn State culture to the nation, especially to those who might not be receptive to hearing it and who seem to be piling on with great delight?
Please let me know your thinking on the subject.
For the Future,
Roger L. Williams ’73, ’75g, ’88g