A Town Hall Session on the Scandal

December 1, 2011 at 4:02 pm 6 comments

Patrick Mansell took this photo for Penn State Live.

The most dramatic moment happened almost an hour into Tuesday night’s Town Hall Forum, in which President Rodney Erickson and seven other top University officials took questions from Penn State students.

Students had never before had such an opportunity—not in “the history of the whole university,” student government president TJ Bard stressed in his introduction—and the ones who came took it seriously. They pressed for assurances that the Sandusky scandal would not affect their internship or job prospects, wondered why no undergraduate students were named to the special investigations task force appointed by the Board of Trustees, and asked whether Penn State’s commitment to transparency would include reassessing its exemption from Pennsylvania’s open-records law.

Then a woman stood up and said she not only had a question, but that she wanted to tell the eight administrators on the stage how she felt: “I don’t know if all of you feel this way, but Jerry Sandusky is part of the Penn State family. And I feel shame.”

The room fell silent, broken by one loud clap of approval. Then the woman added, softly, “What do I do with these feelings?”

More silence. And suddenly, the forum took on a different feel. It wasn’t about who may have done what or how things should have been handled or what the University is doing to recover from this, but about the emotions that Penn Staters have been coping with over the past 27 days.

The officials rallied. Hank Foley ’82g, vice president for research and dean of the graduate school didn’t even wait for the microphone before he said, “Acknowledge them.” Once he got the mic, he added, “We have to acknowledge them, recognize how how you feel. And admittedly, a lot of us feel some of the same feelings. There’s nothing wrong with feeling like that. At all. And there’s nothing wrong with expressing that, either. I think it’s completely understandable.”

Then Madlyn Hanes, vice president for commonwealth campuses, chimed in.

“We all feel so deeply about what you just said,” she said. “When I was growing up, I came from a Russian home, and my grandparents lived with us. And if there was ever an incident, the whole family would get a very kind approach to discipline. But if they used the word shame, we knew that it was time to get into shape. Shame is a very strong word. You chose it carefully, and it meant very much to you. And I do appreciate hearing that. …

“These horrific allegations and the events surrounding them do not define you,” she continued. “They never have. I would submit to you that we should emerge from this more compassionate and with resolve, and I think going forward, the communities that you will join will benefit from that compassion that you will have learned.”

Terrell Jones ’74g, ’85g, vice provost for educational equity, also spoke of how everyone should be learning from the events of the past month. “One of the things that I come away with from this,” he said, “is a resolution that this will never happen again on my watch.”

It was a very human moment during the forum, which lasted for two hours and was intended to be a conversation between administrators and students, who have felt left out and often confused by how the University has handled the fallout from the Sandusky scandal. The moderators—Sam Richards and Laurie Mulvey ’94g, sociology faculty (and husband and wife) who have addressed the scandal repeatedly in class—noted how difficult it is to have a conversation with so many people. (About 450 students picked up tickets, and others submitted questions online.)

It’s difficult to sum up, too. But here are a few highlights:

—It’s clear that the students want a clearer explanation about why Joe Paterno was fired. Although Erickson told the first questioner that he couldn’t discuss some issues because of the ongoing criminal investigation, students kept pressing.

Erickson did lay to rest two rumors: that the Joe Paterno statue at Beaver Stadium would be removed, and that the library would be renamed. He added, “At some appropriate time down the road, I’m sure there will be an opportunity also to reflect on the many years of service that Joe—and Sue—provided to this university and the many good things that they’ve done for Penn State.”

—Erickson noted that the scandal has not hurt applications to Penn State, which he said were up 4 percent over last year’s record rate. Of the 40,000 people who have applied, he said, only eight have withdrawn their applications.

—In response to questions about how current students would be perceived by the outside world and alumni, Rod Kirsch, vice president for development and alumni relations, said that although he has heard from angry alumni, he has also heard from many who want to help the University move forward. “I’ve had calls from donors that say, ‘I’m just calling to say we’re standing with you here.’ I’m confident that this large, powerful alumni body that we have is certainly going to be with us here for the long haul.”

—Many times during the forum, administrators responded to students by saying that they wanted student input, that they wanted to hear student concerns. Particularly eloquent was Jones:

“We know that human beings are capable of monstrous evils—that’s part of the human condition,” he said. “They are also capable of tremendous good. There have been lots of studies that indicate that all you have to do is have people in authority tell you that it’s a good thing to do, and the people who normally wouldn’t do really evil things will do evil things.

“It’s very important that we learn to question authority. In many cases, we being here and being part of this experience might even make you a better human being and employee because you have to question authority. And those of us in authority have to be ready to answer those questions.”

Richards frequently stressed to the students that they needed to follow up with the administrators, to give them the student input that they spent two hours saying they wanted. And Foley, too, left the students with a charge:

“Integrity starts with all of us, right? And asking ourselves every day what we’re going to do. I’ve heard a lot of questions about how we’re going to restore integrity to Penn State. I think it’s fair to say we’ll do everything we can. My question back would be, ‘What are you going to do?’”

Stay tuned.

Lori Shontz, senior editor

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6 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Cindy Shingler  |  December 1, 2011 at 9:27 pm

    “It’s very important that we learn to question authority.” That is a direct quote from this commentary. Well, many of us (alumni and others) are questioning the authority of the Board of Trustees that fired Joe Paterno on Wednesday, November 9, 2011. Why did they rush to that decision, and why are they now meeting again, tomorrow morning at 8:00 a.m. at the Nittany Lion Inn, meeting again to “ratify” that decision to fire Joe? It’s all very questionable, and I’m wondering who is holding the strings of the puppet Board of Trustees that made this irrational decision?

  • 2. Cindy Shingler  |  December 1, 2011 at 9:32 pm

    This ratification is coming 23 days after the initial decision to “fire” Joe.
    “Integrity starts with all of us, right? And asking ourselves every day what we’re going to do. I’ve heard a lot of questions about how we’re going to restore integrity to Penn State. I think it’s fair to say we’ll do everything we can. My question back would be, ‘What are you going to do?’”
    Another quote from the article. Where is the integrity of this sitting Board of Trustees? This is the question. Their action has damaged our institution in ways beyond what we will comprehend for many years. Shame on all of them. I will always proudly wear my Penn State attire, and my favorite items are anything with JoePA on it!

  • 3. R Thomas Berner  |  December 2, 2011 at 3:37 am

    The important thing is that we alums do not abandon Penn State during its darkest house, but embrace it.

  • 4. J Roland  |  December 2, 2011 at 5:26 pm

    I do agree with you Cindy. Why the Board of Trustees made such a quick decision to fire Joe Paterno I think needs to be answered to the Alumni– By the Board itself. The decision to announce it at nighttime alone lends me to question the Board’s judgement –soley because of the predictability of the students acting out in protest. Seeing the “riots” on TV (WE know that most students were peaceful) only added fuel to the fire lite by the media blitz. I believe we as alumni deserve a thorough answer.

  • 5. James Feather  |  December 10, 2011 at 2:09 pm

    J. Feather, 67 Bus I agree with the listed comments concerning the Board of Trustees response to the crisis by their firing of Graham and Joe in such a manner that was totally irresponsible. Who is to blame? In Joe’s words,”Let the courts decide the outcome.”

    Obviously Gov. Corbett knew of the investigation as Atty. General of PA. during his campaign in 2009 and said nothing. But the current Atty. General was ready to grandstand her press coverage with the dramatic revelation that Penn State administrators were complicate in a coverup of events.

    The question is “Why is the Board of Trustees doing what they did by firing Joe and not doing the same act to themselves. The accountability should be dished out equally. We need a clean slate. The alumni should ask for a complete recall.” .

  • […] the news conference after the Nebraska game, to Sam Richards’ sociology class, during the town hall for students. He’s always calm, and he doesn’t raise his voice. Audiences seem to respond to that. Even many […]

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