UPDATE: This post has obviously been somewhat superseded by events. I'm glad the Trustees at least seem to understand the severity of the situation.
Conversation from earlier today between me and someone I was interviewing...
Him: Where'd you go to school?
Me: Penn State.
Him: Oh. I'm sorry.
In the 20 years since I graduated from Penn State University with a degree in journalism, that is the first time I have ever heard that. Usually people just say "Oh," or nod their head in recognition. Most people have at least heard of Penn State. Sometimes they'll say, "Hey, good school." And I will agree. It is a good school. Not a great one, not quite in the top tier of public universities, like Michigan or Chapel Hill or your assorted California campuses, but a good one. I received a good education there, and spent a happy four years. Even if I've never been the true-to-your-school bleed-blue-and-white rah-rah type, I think of the place with a lot of affection. Or, I did. Now I'm just angry.
The arrest of Jerry Sandusky and the crimes he is charged with are horrible. But almost as bad, and in a way worse, is the apparent negligence and refusal to intervene practiced by the entire Penn State hierarchy. I say "worse" because everyone who had any notion that Sandusky was hurting children--and according to the grand jury report, that included a lot of people--was in a position to make it stop. But they didn't stop it. There were, instead, almost laughable reprimands: Sandusky was told to stop taking showers with young boys; Sandusky had his keys to the locker room taken away. Are you kidding? Are you kidding?
Now Joe Paterno is retiring, at the end of the season. That's not soon enough, of course--he should never be on the sidelines of another Penn State game. But the same power and privilege that allowed Sandusky to slide by for years are still strong enough to mandate a "dignified" closing for JoePa. As if there will be anything dignified about it. Reports are that university President Graham Spanier will be gone sooner, maybe as soon as today. The school has already lost its athletic director, Tim Curley, and VP for finance, Gary Schultz, who are both charged with failing to report Sandusky's suspected abuse, and lying to the grand jury about what they knew about it.
There will be a lot said about Paterno, how sad it is for his legacy to be tarnished like this. And it does make me sad, but not for Paterno. He is not the person to feel sorry for here. I feel sad most of all for Sandusky's victims and their families. Some of them have not even been identified yet--because of failures by Paterno, Curley, and others, police still don't know who the boy was that a graduate assistant saw being raped in the shower by Sandusky. (And it's hard to believe more victims won't step forward or be uncovered.) I am the father of two boys, the oldest of whom is nearly the same age as the youngest boy Sandusky is accused of molesting. I can't describe the horror and anger and repulsion I feel in reading the account of that abuse.
I also feel sad for current Penn State students and faculty. They now have to live, and work, and graduate into the world in the shadow of shame cast by the university's leaders. And I feel sad for that name itself, Penn State. I wonder how long it will be before I can say it again without feeling a twinge of guilt. The actions of the institution, and its failures, send out ghostly tendrils of association to all of us who have ever identified with it.
If you go to a football game at Beaver Stadium, the most common cheer you will hear in the stands, from students and alumni alike, is a simple call-and-response declaration: "We are!", one side of the stadium will yell. "Penn State!", the other side will yell back. We are Penn State. The men who have disgraced the school have damaged more than themselves and their own reputations. We are Penn State. They hurt all of us.