Wednesday, November 9, 2011

After the Scandal

All of us who have been touched by Penn State over the years cannot go untouched by the Sandusky child abuse case—the charge that the former Penn State football coach had molested young boys who were in his care through his leadership of the Second Mile charity and that Penn State leaders failed to properly report the abuse.

I have lived in State College most of my adult life.  I came here in 1968 as a junior and was lucky to get a full-time job at Penn State when I graduated.  I left in 1987 and returned in 1994 as an Outreach administrator until my retirement in 2007.   Jerry Sandusky was a neighbor when our son was a little boy.  I’ve worked closely with Tim Curley’s brothers at Penn State and know Gary Schultz as a colleague and leader.  I even worked with Joe Paterno when I was in public broadcasting and he produced a weekly show, TV Quarterbacks, during the football season.  One year, in an attempt to lure more viewers, I interviewed all of the coaches to develop a give-away poster that described the role of each player. 

Most people seem to think that this scandal is about the football program.  However, the impact is surely to be felt well beyond Beaver Stadium.  And that is what bothers me most.  For me and for many others, the football program is an interesting sideline to the university’s true mission as a public land grant university: to extend access to education and service to all Pennsylvanians in order to build a stable and productive society.  Penn State has 24 campuses in addition to the University Park campus.  One of them, the Shenango Campus, opened in Mercer County the year before I graduated from high school.  If it were not for that new campus opening in my backyard, I may not have been able to go to college.  It allowed me to live at home and to work pretty much full time while I completed the first two years of my undergraduate education and then to seamlessly move to University Park to finish my degree.  There are thousands of Pennsylvanians who have had the same experience of Penn State.

In the final decade of my career at Penn State, I was responsible for developing the university’s 25th campus—the online World Campus.  Through it, we are now able to provide full baccalaureate and graduate degree programs to working adults around Pennsylvania and, indeed, around the world.  It is the natural extension of the land grant mission for the Information Society.  

For many thousands of alums in Pennsylvania and elsewhere the real meaning of the university lies in its commitment to helping students—both young people and adults—achieve their life goals by making education accessible while simultaneously ensuring quality.  There are, of course, other aspects of Penn State’s mission.  Some see it more as a research institution, for instance. Penn State research has made significant contributions to improving the quality of life around the world, from agricultural production to new materials that are used in artificial knees to nanotechnology to understanding and combating global climate change—all in the spirit of the land grant vision.  Then, of course, there is the service element that helps individuals and organizations implement the results of research to improve the quality of life.  Ultimately, it is the interaction among these three missions—teaching, research, and service--that has made Penn State a great university.

The current scandal must run its course.   I suspect it will change Penn State in the process.  However, when it has died down, I do hope that the University will again focus its energies to how to re-articulate and re-commit its considerable talents to the land grant mission –to the integration of teaching, research, and service—in light of the challenges presented to our economy and culture by globalization and information technology.   This, more than football or anything else, will ensure that Penn State continues to be a great university for many years to come.