Tenor Of Sandusky Debate At Penn State Heats Up
STATE COLLEGE, Pa. (AP) – Homecoming Week, at any college, is in part about alumni coming back to their old school, and letting a fine autumn weekend bring back the sights and sounds of that world as they remember it best.
But more and more at a Penn State University in recovery mode from one of the most shocking scandals in the history of college sports, students are starting to say that the public conversation surrounding their school lately has been too much about the past.
And some are moving to take their university back.
The pushback really started, albeit quietly, a long time ago.
But it clearly picked up steam during latest of the public rallies led by those alumni, and friends, driven by a fierce conviction that university leaders were too quick to sell all they hold dear about “Old State” down the river in the wake of the searing Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse scandal: especially the late, great Joe Paterno.
Billed as the “March for Truth,” it was a peaceable, if sometimes raucous, rally. But it was peppered with signs lambasting the university’s leadership and lampoonable moments, such as former football great Franco Harris’ partial blockade of a trustee van.
Students speak out about alumni reaction at Penn State More and more at a Penn State University in recovery mode from one of the most shocking scandals in the history of college sports, students are starting to say that the public conversation surrounding their school lately has been too much about the past.
Finally, University Park Undergraduate Association President Katelyn Mullen – seeing tweets from the march as it took place during the Sept. 20 board of trustees meeting – thought the time had come to let the alumni know many students see it differently.
“We wanted to go out there and voice some of the concerns that we’ve been hearing from students, essentially along the lines of: `We understand the importance of finding the truth. But at the same time, it’s really important that we look long-term, and we work towards restoring the name of the university and act in its best interests,” Mullen said in a recent interview.
Mullen and some friends did just that. They left the board meeting and ventured into the belly of the beast, letting some of the protesters know that the students don’t necessarily have their back.
And when some of that dialogue was posted on YouTube. the debate was on.
It was sparked further the following week, when the campus newspaper, The Daily Collegian, published an editorial chastising the alumni protesters as divisive and reflecting negatively on the world’s view of Penn State.
The students’ voice
Why wade in?
Collegian Editor-in-Chief Brittany Horn said it was to make the point that there is a growing disconnect between some of the highestprofile alumni, and the university at large at a time when students feel real progress is being made in stepping out of the shadow of the scandal.
“This wasn’t a rally to lower the tuition rates or other important issues. It was about bringing back a statue and bringing back football wins,” Horn said. “What does that say to the rest of the country?
“We want the alumni crusading for this university,” Horn added. “But the chorus of what they’re shouting needs to change.”
As Penn State enters this particular Homecoming Week, it seems like Mullen and The Collegian writers have tapped into something.
“I just think they (alumni) should put it in the past, just like most of the students here have,” said Michael Petrino, an 18-year-old freshman from Bristol, Pa. “The publicity I want for Penn State would be like, academic. How we’re ranked in the Top 40 national universities rather than fighting the (NCAA) sanctions or clearing someone’s name.”
Petrino’s reference was to the latest U.S. News & World Report ranking of colleges and universities.
“I don’t agree with what the NCAA did” in imposing penalties on the current football program in response to a former coach being convicted of non-football crimes, said Shaan Pravhakar, a 19- year-old sophomore.
“But I also don’t agree with the fact that the alumni are being so obnoxious almost a year-and-a-half after.”
March for truth
Obnoxious, of course, is in the eye of the beholder.
September’s “March for Truth” drew a crowd of about 200 outside The Penn Stater, a conference center where the trustees meet that is more than a mile away from the heart of the University Park campus.
At its height, there were more than 200 protestors – most clearly not students – and they had some very specific targets.
One sign showed two photos: one of Penn State President Rodney Erickson; the other of Trustees member Ken Frazier, one of the leaders of the committee that oversaw the hiring of former FBI Director Louis Freeh for an internal review of the Sandusky scandal.
Under Erickson’s face was the tag line: “Coward.” Under Frazier’s: “Liar.”
Another sign read: “Louis Freeh is a liar! Reject the Freeh Report!”
Speakers called for all remaining board members from the group that voted to fire legendary head football coach Joe Paterno to resign and “and let competent people take over.”
The crowd got most amped up when trustees, mostly emeriti, left the Penn Stater via university vans and protesters challenged them to address the crowd.
Harris, the most public face of the pro-Paterno loyalists, then was moved to step into the driveway in front of one of the vans. The driver calmly steered up onto the curb and drove around him to loud choruses of “Shame on You!”
Some have dubbed it Franco’s Tiananmen Square moment.
Protesting the protest
Mullen, a senior from Old Bridge, N.J., did go to meet the group, driven by frustration at seeing media tweets about the protest during the middle of the September trustees meeting.
“Part of our job is to inform other individuals about the students and what they feel,” Mullen said in an interview last week.
And the truth is, she said, students don’t want to be asked about the Sandusky case when, for example, they meet corporate recruiters.
Mullen said the students leaders also believe the hundreds who regularly turn out for such protests aren’t really representative of 600,000 Penn State alumni.
Most of the 10 students reached by PennLive this month in an unscientific survey said they have some sympathy with the alumni’s aims.
But they also said they wish the alums would stick to forums where they can have a direct impact, such as the courts, where the Paterno family is suing to overthrow the remaining NCAA sanctions.
“That has a better chance of having some positive effects for that side, rather than being outside of a trustee meeting rallying with signs and standing in front of their vans and stuff like that,” said Allen Sheffield, president of the club that coordinates the “Nittanyville” student encampments outside Beaver Stadium that once were known as “Paternoville.”
Questions and answers
Some alums, however, strongly defend their right to make their points as loudly and as publicly as possible. And they aren’t sure that the student newspaper represents a campus consensus.
“I would argue the majority of students haven’t reached any conclusions (about the Sandusky-related issues) because I don’t know that they’re in any position to reach a conclusion,” said alumni trustee Anthony Lubrano, who is among the most vocal of the self-proclaimed “truth” fighters, and a co-plaintiff in the Paterno’s suit.
“Think back to when we were students,” he continued. “How truly engaged where we?... I’d argue the group they represent is significantly smaller than the group that the active alumni represent.”
Lubrano went on to say he believes it is the alumni who are uniquely positioned to fight on behalf of the students for their university, because they have the resources, time and perspective.
“I don’t want to come across as minimizing how they feel. But I think 600,000 alumni have experienced Penn State and have a life basis to take a position that’s far more encompassing than just being on campus.”
Maribeth Schmidt, a spokesman for Penn Staters for Responsible Stewardship, a grassroots alumni movement that has given voice to the most sustained anti-Freeh Report, anti- NCAA sanctions protests, agreed, calling the studentalumni disconnect “a manufactured controversy.”
Coming together, ready or not
On this Homecoming Weekend, meanwhile, expect the great debate to continue.
Really, how could it not in a place so infused by the legend of Joe Paterno (a post-game candlelight vigil is planned at the site of the former statue), so full of school pride and so stung by the Sandusky scandal that - for a time - made Penn Staters the bad guys?
One student, 21-year-old Carl Boswell of West Chester, recognized that today’s passions won’t last forever, but said he believes that they do have to run their course as part of the healing process.
(It’s worth noting that one of the organizers of the March for Truth, Eileen Morgan, reached out to Mullen and other student government leaders last week to ensure there are no hard feelings and to continue their discussion. A possible “town meeting” to air various perspectives is being considered.)
As a student tour guide who meets alums regularly, Boswell understands the concerns they have about how their old school has been portrayed.
And while he also sympathizes with the students, like himself, for whom the Sandusky scandal has dominated so much of their student career, Boswell said he believes it’s important for everyone to have their say.
And in the meantime, Boswell said he looks for the moments where everyone can row in the same direction, like Saturday’s planned “ blue- out” in support of child abuse prevention efforts.
Wrapping up a guided tour of prospective students earlier this month, Boswell said “I think we’re doing a good job so far of moving past the scandal. But it is a little hard when you have one foot stuck in the mud.”