Cuba!

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I’ve been thinking a lot about yesterday’s historic announcement that the U.S. and Cuba are taking steps to normalize relations. It’s huge news, on so many levels—not the least of which is tourism.

For decades, the U.S. prohibited its citizens from traveling to Cuba except under certain circumstances, such as academic research. (Penn State Hemingway scholar Sandy Spanier ’76g, ’81g and telecommunications expert John Spicer Nichols have who’ve been to Cuba many times, for example.) More recently, the U.S. government began allowing citizens to visit under specially licensed “people to people cultural exchanges.” I went on one such exchange in 2012 via the Santa Fe Photo Workshops, and the Alumni Association has offered several trips under a similar umbrella. Our former senior editor Lori Shontz ’01, ’13g went on one such Penn State trip and wrote about it here.

Basically, the people-to-people trips have a heavy emphasis on understanding the culture—on my trip, for example, we visited a dance school and a boxing academy, and interacted a lot with Cuban photographers. On other trips you might visit a school, an orphanage, or a tobacco farm. (I remember that on our trip there was talk of visiting a cockfight, and when some of us grimaced at the thought, the Santa Fe Photo Workshops guy chastised us, saying, “You’re here to experience, and photograph, what is uniquely Cuban.” He was right—but, nevertheless, I was glad when the cockfight plans fell through.)

Yesterday’s announcement doesn’t exactly throw the doors wide open for U.S. tourists. It’s not like you’ll be able to book a flight from Dulles to Havana on USAirways anytime soon. People-to-people cultural exchanges are still the only legal way to get there. But a few things will change: For one, you’ll soon be able to take your credit cards and ATM card with you. Currently, U.S. travelers have to figure out how much money they’ll need for everything—hotel, meals, taxis, admission fees, you name it—and take that amount in cash. That’s because U.S.-issued ATM and credit cards won’t work in Cuba; just one example of the embargo. That’s changing—although Cuba is still a pretty cash-oriented society anyway.

Another change is that Cuban cigars and Cuban rum will soon be legal in the U.S. Not that anyone will be selling them in retail stores, but people who visit Cuba can now bring back up to $100 in alcohol and/or tobacco products.

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In the fishing village of Cojimar, east of Havana, a sign remembers the “Cuban Five.”

The backstory leading up to yesterday’s announcement is interesting, and familiar to anyone who’s already visited Cuba. We heard a lot when we were down there about the five-decade history of the embargo, about Fidel Castro, about the prospects that Fidel’s brother Raul might take less of a hard line with the U.S., about what everyday life for Cubans is like under communism. There was talk even back then that President Obama would move to normalize relations in his second term. We also heard a lot about Alan Gross, whose imprisonment in Cuba has been a huge bone of contention with the U.S.—and likewise about the “Cuban Five,” whose imprisonment in the U.S. has been a huge bone of contention with Cuba. Yesterday, Gross and the remaining three of the Cuban Five were all released.

Cuba estimates that 100,000 U.S. citizens already visit the island nation every year, and that number is sure to go up as the restrictions are eased. It’ll surely skyrocket if the travel embargo is eventually lifted completely. And I’m not so sure that’s a good thing. There’s something very special and unspoiled about Cuba, and hordes of U.S. tourists could easily change that. It makes me want to go back—and soon, before the place is changed forever. Whatever the case, it seems certain that a new era is about to begin.

Tina Hay, editor

December 18, 2014 at 12:13 pm 2 comments

First Trombones, and Now Tubas

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‘Tis the season for deep-pitched brass instruments, apparently.

Last Thursday I went to see the Penn State Trombone Choir do its annual Christmas concert in Eisenhower Chapel. The next day, the Alumni Association had its annual holiday party, and the entertainment turned out to be … the Penn State Trombone Choir! (Or a subset of it, anyway.) Then, on Saturday, I saw a notice on Facebook about something called TubaChristmas, a free performance to take place that afternoon in the Business Building Atrium on campus, so I figured, “Why not?”

Turns out that TubaChristmas happens all over the world every year, and has been going on since 1974. There’s been a TubaChristmas at University Park since the 1980s, I think, and this year marked the 13th TubaChristmas at Penn State Behrend. Basically, all local tuba and euphonium players (a euphonium is similar to a tuba, only smaller) are invited to join in a program of Christmas carols arranged specifically for those instruments. Here’s a short clip of them playing “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” in the Business Building on Saturday:

TubaChristmas at Penn State: Hark the Herald Angels Sing from The Penn Stater magazine on Vimeo.

The woman conducting the 35-some players is Velvet Brown of the Penn State School of Music faculty. We profiled her in the magazine some years back. Since Saturday, I’ve discovered that she conducts the Penn State Tuba/Euphonium Studio in other specialty concerts during the year, like OctTUBAFest and TUBAWEEN. Who knew?

Saturday’s performance included not only Penn State students but also people from the community—there was at least one 11-year-old and one 14-year-old among the musicians, and the prize for the oldest performer went to a guy who’s 78.

Below are a few photos from Saturday’s concert.

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Tina Hay, editor

December 15, 2014 at 12:43 pm 1 comment

Two Dozen Trombones, Plus Santa Claus

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I’ve heard so much about the Penn State Trombone Choir’s annual Christmas concert, and this year I finally decided to show up. What a great experience: about two dozen Penn State trombone students wearing an assortment of Christmas attire (including pajamas, in some cases) and playing Christmas music over lunch hour in Eisenhower Chapel. The set list ranged from lovely versions of “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” and “Gesu Bambino” to funny stuff like “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer.” The annual highlight of the concert is “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch” (you can watch a YouTube video of the 2009 version here).

Instead of Mark Lusk, the director of the Penn State Trombone Studio, Santa Claus himself conducted the concert.

The audience was mostly little kids—the concert is a popular field trip for local day-care centers—and, as you might expect, some of the children were delighted, while others cried nonstop. Not sure if they were reacting to Santa or the trombone music or what.

Below is a slide show of some images from today’s performance.

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December 11, 2014 at 5:19 pm 1 comment

Trustees Approve an Expanded Board

In a busy and often contentious five-hour meeting Friday afternoon at the Penn Stater Hotel, the Board of Trustees ended months of heated debate by adopting a proposal to expand the board’s membership to 36 voting members. The board also voted to postpone action on a proposal to join a lawsuit against the NCAA—news that was tempered Saturday by the announcement that President Eric Barron will personally conduct a review of the Freeh Report.

The governance changes passed on a 16-9 vote, with the nine alumni-elected trustees voting against expanding the board. Under the approved proposal, the board will now include 38 trustees, 36 of whom will have voting rights. The new additions will include a student trustee, an academic trustee nominated by the Faculty Senate, and the immediate past president of the Alumni Association. In addition, there will be three at-large trustees elected by the board. All new trustees will begin their terms in July 2015.

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Anthony Lubrano. Photo by Tina Hay

Opponents of the board argued that a larger board would be too complex to function efficiently. Alumni trustee Al Lord ’67 was representative of his fellow elected board members when he said, “I find it hard to believe that a 30 to 40 member board will be effective. That certainly has not been the case.” The addition of the Alumni Association seat was particularly contentious for some, with Alice Pope ’79, ’83g, ’86g among those arguing that the seat created a potential conflict of interest. Alumni trustee Anthony Lubrano ’82 also argued the board should heed the request of state senators Jake Corman ’93 and John Yudichak ’93, ’04g to hold off on reforming the board until the recently elected gubernatorial administration was in office.

The majority cited the board makeup of peer institutions, some of which have dozens more members than Penn State’s, as proof that there was nothing inherently problematic in increasing the membership. Business and industry trustee Rick Dandrea ’77 said, “I think our board functions well on a wide range of issues. We have disagreements on a very few important issues. On this issue, our board function is not what it should be because we have a majority and minority agenda. I don’t think it has anything to do with size.”

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Keith Masser. Photo by Tina Hay

After the vote, board chair Keith Masser ’73 called the expanded board “a more comprehensive reflection of the Penn State community.”

Given the established voting lines on the board, it was the expected outcome from a long and increasingly tense afternoon session. Citing threats made toward some board members, the university increased security for the meeting; visitors passed through a metal detector, and as many as two dozen officers from the State College and Penn State police departments were visible in the conference room, in the hallway outside, and outside the hotel entrances. Masser opened the meeting with a reference to outbursts at the board’s Oct. 28 special meeting, when three audience members were removed from the room, and reminded the standing-room crowd that “members of the public are here as observers, not as participants.”

Some of those observers got their chance to participate at the public comment segment, and about half of the 10 listed speakers used their time to upbraid the appointed trustees involved in the dismissal of Joe Paterno and the acceptance of the Freeh Report. That session followed a proposal from Lubrano that Penn State join Sen. Corman’s lawsuit against the NCAA. That proposal, inspired by the release of emails last week highlighting apparent conflicts in the NCAA’s handling of sanctions in the wake of the Freeh Report, was voted down, 14-10, but not before alumni trustee Bob Jubelirer ’59, ’62g argued that “with all that’s going on, to kick it down the road to January, I think we’re making a terrible, terrible mistake.” Gubernatorial appointee Kathleen Casey ’88 countered that the board would be better served by having more time to consider the resolution and revisit it at the next scheduled meeting in January.

On Saturday, President Barron added an unexpected twist with the announcement that he would “conduct a thorough review of the Freeh Report and supporting materials produced during the course of the investigation.” Barron’s statement offered no timetable for the review, but noted that he “assured the board I would move with all deliberate speed.”

Barron’s scheduled address Friday focused on student engagement, a topic he addressed last week in an open forum with students at the Hintz Family Alumni Center. Barron highlighted the many reasons that more engaged students—those who study abroad, intern, take leadership roles, and have the opportunity for one-on-one engagement with faculty—have better GPAs and make stronger candidates for internships and jobs. His proposals for improving the environment for student engagement ranged from the creation of an engaged student medal to greater funding for international experiences. He noted, “Just going in and out of class is no way to go through this university.”

Executive VP and Provost Nicholas Jones address trends in faculty makeup, particularly the decades-long rise in non-tenure-track faculty. While acknowledging concerns about about the decline in tenure-track professors, Jones highlighted a number of non-track instructors whose work has been honored for teaching and research awards.

University scholarship was also highlighted Friday, with presentations from Schreyer Honors College Dean Chris Brady, Eberly College of Science Dean Daniel Larson (highlighting the Millennium Scholars Program) and Susan Welch, dean of the College of the Liberal Arts. Welch focused on the Paterno Fellows program, and her presentation included clips from a 2009 video of Joe and Sue Paterno ’62 explaining their inspiration for the program they endowed.

You can find information on additional items from Friday’s agenda here.

Ryan Jones, senior editor

November 15, 2014 at 9:19 am 4 comments

Margaret Atwood on Campus

Michael Berube handled the introduction, emphasizing his guest’s rare standing as a giant in both the fiction and non-fiction worlds—”not just an acclaimed and accomplished writer,” said Berube, the literature professor and director of Penn State’s Institute for the Arts and Humanities, “but also a brilliant contemporary critic.” He went on, and one got the impression Berube could’ve talked about Margaret Atwood all afternoon.

AtwoodInstead, he ceded the stage to one of his literary heroes, a woman whose career seems to justify such a gushing intro. Atwood was in town this week to accept the IAH’s 2014 Medal for Distinguished Achievement. (You can read more about the award, and find a list of past winners, here.) She’s best known as a Booker Prize-winning author, but is much more than “just” a giant of modern literature: poet, children’s book author, environmentalist and, as she showed Wednesday, a dryly hilarious speaker.

Her speech was titled “Genre and Gender,” and it covered the history, evolution, and often complicated intersection of the two in literature both classic and obscure. I think I wasn’t alone in not always following exactly where Atwood was going, but I laughed a lot, and thought about more than a few things I’d never considered—for example, the gender themes in The Wizard of Oz, where all the “whole,” powerful characters are female, and the men are cowardly, unfeeling, brainless, or frauds. Like so much of Atwood’s writing, it was sharp, often funny, and nearly always compelling.

Her newest book, the novel MaddAddam, is the third in a trilogy that she described as “a fictional saga set in the near future, on this planet, and within the realm of possibility.” (The trilogy is set for an HBO adaptation.) Like much of her fiction, it’s described as dystopian, a mix both gloomy and funny of science fiction and science that’s perhaps not so fictional after all. It’s here, in the overlap of observation and speculation, especially about the environment, that Atwood’s work holds so much power. As she said Wednesday, she’s fond of posing (and answering) the question: “Do you really want to go there? If not, change the road.”

Ryan Jones, senior editor

November 13, 2014 at 6:47 pm Leave a comment

Legacies Examined on the Big Screen

Two very different cinematic responses to the Sandusky Scandal will premiere this weekend at the State Theatre in downtown State College.

Happy-Valley_612x907Friday night sees the debut of Happy Valley, a documentary from director Amir Bar-Lev billed as “the story behind the Penn State scandal.” Best known for his films My Kid Could Paint That and The Tillman Story, Bar-Lev filmed in and around State College for a year following Jerry Sandusky’s arrest; the end result is an attempt to explore the scandal’s aftermath, and the climate that allowed it to happen in the first place. Sue ’62, Jay ’91 and Scott Paterno ’97, ’00g were all interviewed and feature prominently in the film, which will be available through iTunes, Amazon Instant, Google Play and other digital platforms on Nov. 21.

DVD-posterThe People’s Joe debuts Saturday evening, and as the title implies, its focus is the life and legacy of Joe Paterno. It’s the third post-scandal documentary from the State College-based Porterfield Group, which also produced The Joe We Know and 365 Days: A Year in Happy Valley. The film traces Paterno’s life from his Brooklyn childhood to his decades at Penn State through archival footage and interviews with former players, fans, and friends. DVDs of the film are available to purchase at peoplesjoe.com.

Ryan Jones, senior editor

November 12, 2014 at 6:49 pm 1 comment

Easing an Alum’s Pain

For nearly 10 years, Justin Brown ’03 has suffered from an incurable disorder that he and his family attribute to a surgery gone wrong. Reflex Sympathetic Dystrophy Syndrome is a nervous system disorder that causes extreme, chronic pain; Justin told the Ambler Gazette that the pain he feels “is bone-crushing; I feel like my bones are being crushed throughout my body.”

A benefit to raise money for Justin’s therapy will be held this Saturday, Nov. 15, in his home town of Fort Washington, Pa.

After complications from a 2006 surgery, Justin and his family spent years and more than $600,000 searching for a diagnosis and relief for him. They haven’t found a cure for his pain, but according to the Gazette story, they have discovered that warm water therapy is the best next step for his treatment.

“This is really just a dire, dire situation at this point,” his mother, Joan told the Gazette. “Everything is an issue and everything is hard and the only thing that can help is to get warm water therapy until medicine catches up.”

The nearest location with warm water therapy is located 45 minutes from the Browns’ house, and the journey is difficult for Justin to handle. The family is looking to install a warm water pool in their home, an addition that would cost about $85,000. This Saturday, they’ll hold a benefit from noon to 4 p.m. at Magerks, 582 S. Bethlehem Pike, in Fort Washington. The benefit will feature live music and a free buffet, and the football game against Temple will be shown.

For those who can’t attend the benefit, donations can be made on Justin’s youcaring.com page.

Mindy Szkaradnik, intern

November 10, 2014 at 11:54 am Leave a comment

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