For Now, and For the Future
Column: A plea for respect and understanding among all who call themselves Penn Staters, and a reminder of our shared fate.
Sitting in my office on another perfect September day, I can look at the most recent issue of our magazine, and at the stories we’re writing and editing for the next one, and find constant reminders of the things that make this place great.
Working at The Penn Stater, we’re fortunate to meet and interact with a lot of the individuals whose intelligence, ingenuity, and hard work make that greatness possible. Just in the past few months, I’ve had the chance to interview faculty members whose research explains everything from the genetic influence on our voting habits to the science of zombified ants. I’ve met students who have established themselves as leaders on campus, in town, and beyond—smart, insightful young adults who are already doing important work. And of course, there are our fellow alumni. Literally every day, we hear about another alum—an artist, an educator, a public servant, or an entrepreneur—who is doing something important, unusual, or just plain cool. As writers and editors, we’re lucky to have such a rich vein of people, and stories, from which to choose.
It is this collective—of faculty and staff, of current students, and of more than half a million living alumni—who combine to make Penn State great. More than an institution, Penn State is a community, and like any community, every demographic contributes to the whole. We are greater than the sum of our parts, and we are weaker when those parts don’t function in unison. Right now, in too many ways, unity among Penn Staters seems increasingly hard to find.
There is room for constructive disagreement within a community—such critical discourse is vital. The problem is the increasingly combative, often disrespectful, and occasionally hateful tone of “debate” among various members of our community. It seems to have come to a head over the past week. The most shameful example has been the vitriol directed toward John Amaechi ’94, the former basketball standout who was chosen by the student-run Homecoming Committee as this year’s grand marshal. Comments on social media, at least some of them apparently made by alumni, used threats and homophobic slurs to attack both the committee and Amaechi, who, in the weeks after the Sandusky scandal broke, spoke honestly and bluntly about his feelings as an alumnus and former Second Mile volunteer.
I’ve known John since we both were undergrads, and I know honesty and bluntness have long been trademarks of his. Those traits, and his status as a prominent gay man outspoken on a variety of civil rights issues, make John an easy target for some—a role I know he accepts, if not always relishes. It’s valid to disagree with Amaechi’s choice of words or point of view. It’s cowardly, and should be unacceptable, to threaten and attack anyone for honest speech.
It’s easy to condemn bigotry—necessary, yes, but not hard. It’s trickier to address the rising resentment between segments of our broader community. There is no easy way, for example, to heal the rift between those who feel Penn State must “move forward” and those who remain publicly focused on righting the wrongs—real or perceived—of the past two years. I don’t believe those two goals are, or should be, mutually exclusive, and I know many alumni on both “sides” of the issue agree. But I also know that’s not the tone that dominates public discussion on the topic.
Not for the first time, the Board of Trustees meetings have served as a flash point. Emotions remain raw for many inside and outside of these gatherings, and both the public comment sessions and outside protests have provided moments of predictable conflict. Last week’s meetings seemed to hit a new low, with verbal altercations between some students and some alumni protesting outside that served only to widen an ever-growing gap of understanding between the two groups.
Increasingly, the most outspoken members of these vital segments of the Penn State community engage each other as adversaries.
Ultimately, that’s what inspired this post. My fellow senior editor, Lori Shontz ’91, and I talk often about this stuff, and we came to work on Thursday in a similar mind. Lori and I share a perspective that, if not quite unique, is relatively rare. We both have spent our careers in journalism. We’re both Penn State staff members, and we both have taught—and Lori still does, as a thoughtful and conscientious instructor in the College of Communications—as adjunct faculty. As alumni and current townies, we both mix regularly with students, faculty, staff, and other alums. As much as anyone can, we try to view every Penn State story from every possible angle.
From any angle, I find this particular story increasingly frustrating and sad.
So: Consider this a reminder. A reminder that what “we are” is a community, and that no one segment of that community exists without the others.
We are not Penn State without the faculty and staff who turn on the lights, teach the classes, serve the food, do the research, and mow the Old Main lawn.
We are not Penn State without the alumni who build the traditions, hire the recent graduates, start families of future Penn Staters, and give generously to ensure their alma mater can continue to thrive.
We are not Penn State without the students whose hard work, idealism, and ambition are the reason the rest of us have a university to work for and support.
Consider this also a plea.
To alumni, and to those who never attended a class but are invested as life-long Penn State football fans: Remember why this place exists. Remember the thousands of faculty members whose teaching and research improves lives. These brilliant, motivated people came to Penn State—and remain here—because Penn State remains a place they can do great, important work.
Remember, too, the tens of thousands of students planning and preparing for the rest of their lives. Remember that they’re living the life-defining moments you’ve already experienced, and that their experience these past two years has been among the most challenging in Penn State’s history. Remember that many of these students are working their way through college, balancing jobs and full class loads, or working toward a degree that may take years to pay off. These students, their needs and their perspective, deserve your respect, even when they might differ from yours.
And to students, particularly those in campus leadership roles, and those with a public profile and media platform that allows their voices to be heard among the din: Try not to add to the noise. Try to appreciate the emotional roots of dissatisfaction among some members of this shared community. Try, especially, not to generalize—to avoid the tone of us-vs.-them that seems increasingly to define our interaction. From State Patty’s Day to empty seats in the student section, you’ve felt victimized in the past by broad and sometimes unfair accusations; turning that broad brush against a huge alumni body you’ll soon be a part of helps no one.
The past two years have provided a harsh lesson on how easy it is for others to hold the actions of a few against an entire community. We’ve all heard countless references to “Penn State’s guilt,” as if an institution can do anything, and as if such careless language doesn’t have repercussions for everyone affiliated with it. We know this; we’ve lived it.
Too often now, such generalizations are directed at fellow members of this community. Alumni think this; students don’t understand that. Our internal discourse has taken on the worst aspects of our national political discourse: so much shouting, so little listening. No matter what side you’re on, you can see where that’s gotten us. If it continues, we only hurt Penn State. Which is to say, we only hurt ourselves.
Ryan Jones, senior editor