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Redirecting the Penn State Way

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Prior to the Freeh report, the phrase "The Penn State Way" was used around here part jokingly, part seriously, and always with more than a grain of truth to it. Penn State does things its own way. The Freeh report refers to The Penn State Way "as an approach to decision-making, a resistance to seeking outside perspectives" and fingers it as a source of major problems. When I read that phrase in the report, I imagined investigators repeatedly jotting down the phrase in their investigator pads, maybe even circling it and placing a question mark beside it. By the fiftieth or sixtieth time they heard it, they were probably starring it and underlining it, even coding it: PSW.

Penn State is of course like any other institution in that it cultivates its own habits and practices. But when those institutional habits and practices can be encapsulated by such pithy self-reference--the very understanding of which depends on a kind of insider status-- it's probably not a good thing. The phrase takes the the chest-thumping chant repeated by our students--"We are!"--and stretches it toward what that identity means practically, how it manifests in terms of decisions large and small, mostly unidirectional lines of communication. Most importantly, the vagueness of the Way combines with a certainty that the Way exists to create a generalized fear of violating said Way.

Here is a small example of the Penn State Way. Back in November when I focused some of my energies on this letter to The Collegian requesting that Gary Schultz's name be removed from the new daycare center on campus, I heard from more than one person that my colleagues were whispering about it, wondering if I would get reprimanded somehow for speaking out.  I had, in short, gone against the Penn State Way, made a case for swift action and let it be known that I thought the discipline received by Sandusky--to ask him not to bring guests onto campus--had "protect the University, not children" written all over it. In the meantime, and in a more visible/audible instance  of the PSW, the faculty senate--the voice of the faculty--circulated an email telling faculty it was inappropriate to comment on allegations against Sandusky.

At other universities where I've worked (also big public ones), it is considered not only appropriate but par for the course for faculty members to speak their minds. Faculty members at Illinois (my previous institution) in particular are a vocal lot, and this even goes for the ones without tenure. But the Penn State Way has made faculty into a relatively quiet group. Faculty objections to the vacating (thanks for that word NCAA!) of programs such as Science and Technology Studies come too late in the process to do any good. Administrators act; faculty react. Decisions are handed down. (The passive voice ought to glare.)   
I'm no NCAA administrator, and I don't have the ethos of a former FBI director. I am just one faculty member. But the first change I would like to see around here--and I know I'm not alone--is a real honest-to-goodness self-accounting of the depth and reach of the Penn State Way, which might well begin by asking faculty and staff--the foot soldiers, and the ones who often feel they are most beholden to said Way--about their ideas for transforming, redirecting, and yes, cracking open the Way. And it shouldn't take the form of general kvetching or whining (both habits encouraged by the Penn State Way, by the way, because of the lack of widespread consultation), but rather the outlining of principled ideas and propositions.

The CDD is planning a forum for the fall semester during which such ideas and propositions can be shared and discussed in a thoughtful, deliberative way, but we shouldn't wait until fall semester to start sharing and deliberating about such ideas. For Penn State faculty and employees: what has the Penn State Way meant for your work, your colleagues, and your area? Are there parts of the PSW worth salvaging? What ideas do you have for concrete change? For other readers in work environments that sound similar, what strategies or insights can you share that might help us remake the Penn State Way?

Guilt and Punishment (Kirt Wilson)

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Kirt Wilson, a faculty member in Communication Arts and Sciences and board member of the CDD, is joining us to start a deliberation on a short piece by Amy Davidson (New Yorker) called "Punishing Penn State." 


You can read Davidson's short piece here: http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/closeread/2012/07/punishing-penn-state-sandusky-scandal.html


Amy Davidson's recent essay provides an opportunity to deliberate over how we talk about blame, guilt, punishment, and correction; that is, how our habits of communication are both helping and hurting efforts to restore justice in the aftermath of the Sandusky / Penn State scandals. 


In much of American culture, justice proceeds from the assumption that guilt is tied to individual behavior: I am guilty or I am not guilty. If guilty, I should be punished according to the severity of the action that produced my guilt. This individualist framework, which dominates our judicial system, is the foundation for our everyday conversations about morality and ethics. 


On occasion, however, things go horribly wrong within a large community, and the language that we typically use to right the wrong becomes imprecise and confusing. To illustrate this point, consider the following paragraph published by the leaders of the Big Ten Conference on July 23, 2012:


"1. Censure: The accepted findings support the conclusion that our colleagues at Penn State, individuals that we have known and with whom we have worked for many years, have egregiously failed on many levels-morally, ethically and potentially criminally. They have failed their great university, their faculty and staff, their students and alumni, their community and state-and they have failed their fellow member institutions in the Big Ten Conference. For these failures, committed at the highest level of the institution, we hereby condemn this conduct and officially censure Penn State."


If this paragraph were submitted as a public speaking assignment or to an instructor of freshman composition, I can imagine that the first comments of the teacher would be, "Who are the 'individuals' of the first sentence? Who is included in the institutional identify of the last sentence? By what logic do you leap from the behavior of individuals to the condemnation of an institution?"


The slippage between individual action and corporate responsibility leads to the awkward circumstance in which the leaders of the Big Ten seem to express sympathy for faculty, staff, students and alumni even as they "officially censure" the same. It is precisely those divergent impulses that frustrate folks who believe that the NCAA sanctions go too far. It just doesn't "feel right" that many should be responsible for the behavior of a few.


Amy Davidson's essay provides us with an opportunity to talk through this problem a bit further. She argues that the NCAA sanctions are fair, because they are designed to impact the football program and not the players, "non-revenue" sports or Penn State's academic system. This part of her post narrows the field of who is guilty and who is being punished. In many respects, these arguments reframe the NCAA sanctions back into a traditional ethics narrative in which the crime and its punishment are limited and proportional.


But note that Davidson goes one step further; she suggests that the NCAA "has been, and is still, a mess." Although the NCAA doesn't share in the guilt of the original crimes or their cover-up, she implies that the organization might benefit from the corrective action that Penn State's punishment imposes. This is a potentially disruptive perspective that considerably widens the impact of the scandal. It suggests that the NCAA is, itself, in jeopardy and that the sanctions that it has levied on Penn State may help it remake its own practices and image. The purpose of sanctioning Penn State, in this expansive framework, is not just to punish the institution, but to reconsider the norms that govern "amateur" collegiate sports across the nation.


There are many things in Davidson's blog post that are worth discussing. Is she correct that the sanctions against Penn State are limited to the football program? Do objections to these sanctions suggest that Penn State is, in fact, defined by football as some suggest? What do these sanctions say about the NCAA or about collegiate athletics, generally? Do the current rules that govern collegiate athletics contribute to or mitigate the influence of revenue sports on college campuses?


As the remaining criminal and civil investigations continue, there will be many opportunities to debate individual responsibility, but answering the questions above will move our deliberation away from traditional notions of guilt and punishment and toward a greater appreciation of how this scandal impacts us all. In the long run, that might be a good thing.


As one of the founding co-directors of the CDD, I'm pleased to join with the new CDD co-director, Debra Hawhee, in inviting you to participate in our online forum about the Jerry Sandusky sex abuse scandal.  At the CDD, we deliberate a lot about deliberation: When is deliberation necessary or even possible?  What forms and formats of deliberation are most useful and productive?  Is it even possible to deliberate under such circumstances--or, to be more specific, to deliberate productively in the midst of crisis?   

Events like this challenge our conventional notions about deliberation, and they test our faith in the value of deliberation itself.   In the midst of an unprecedented media frenzy--at a time when people are already polarized and many have already made up their minds--is it even possible to have constructive deliberations?  Now that the Freeh report and the NCAA sanctions have been announced, what is there left to deliberate?  Can we really make a difference by deliberating now?  Whose voices still need to be heard, and how might we help push the conversation beyond expressions of outrage and finger-pointing?  At the CDD, we have grappled with all of these questions, and we believe that this sort of forum might prove useful in focusing our attention on the next big question: Where do we go from here?   

 So we invite you to weigh in on the subject, whatever your point of view.  All that we ask is that you do so thoughtfully and respectfully, in a spirit of constructive dialogue.  We understand the passion and even the vitriol behind so much of discourse on this subject.  But if we are to deliberate productively, we must get beyond our shock and anger and make a commitment to deliberating "in good faith"--that is, in a shared spirit of mutual respect, open-mindedness, and common cause.  To aid in that effort, we have provided a set of Guidelines for Deliberation that we hope all will read before posting here.  We also have developed another resource on our Website, "Deliberating in the Midst of Crisis," that includes a variety of articles, videos, classroom resources, and other materials that you might find useful as you consider your response. 

Many of us are still stunned, conflicted, confused, and terribly disappointed by this whole episode.   But at the CDD, we believe that it is not too soon to begin talking about the next steps in what is sure to be a long and difficult process of healing and rebuilding.  We welcome your insights; let the deliberations begin.                  

deliberating in a fishbowl

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As soon as the Freeh report was released, it began to generate sub-issues within the larger issue of the grave errors of institutional judgment. This is how rhetoric works: people respond to an event--be it a terrorist attack or a theater shooting (to choose two sadly familiar occurrences) or, as with the Freeh report, the release of investigative findings--they respond by locating topics of concern, and building debates around those. The debates swirling around the Freeh report have so far ranged widely, from matters of institutional control and reporting lines, to questions about Big Football, to the making and unmaking of legacies, to the fate of commemoration, to--always, we hope, to--the broad problem of child sex abuse in this country and elsewhere. 

Those of us living in or carrying strong ties to State College are sagging under the weight of the "what next." 

With discourse so polarized at the moment, and emotions running so high, is it even possible to have productive discussion with anyone other than those who agree with us? We believe it is, and we hope to offer a few thoughts on how. For starters, it's important to favor listening and questioning rather than yelling or asserting. This is especially true when deliberating online. In this case, we suggest that you consider taking the time to read your post or comment out loud, even having a trusted friend read it for you. Do you raise a point in conversation with others or out of the blue? Does the post or comment read as if it could just as well be written in capital letters? If so, consider modifying the tone so that others will be more likely to consider what you have to say. This might mean taking a look at  pejorative words or adverbs of force that foreclose exchange (like "clearly" or "undoubtedly" or "certainly"). Does the post or comment begin with name calling? How else might it begin?   

Two pieces that appeared last week begin to raise the issue of what it's like to try to think and talk within a fishbowl, especially one that is churning as ours is right now. One is by Russell Frank, a member of the Penn State faculty and a State College resident, and the other is by Vicki Glembocki, a PSU alum who lives elsewhere now. Here are  links to those pieces:

Glembocki, "I Went to Penn State--But Don't Pity Me"

Frank, "Oh, Things are Just Peachy Around Here."

Glembocki replays the struggle with identity, place, and culture that we noticed during the first wave of controversy (you can find discussions of this set of issues in our "Deliberating in the Midst of Crisis." resource page). Frank sketches the debates about the future of Penn State football and the conundrum posed by existing emblems of honor but then insists that these debates miss the point.  

These pieces make very different points, but they do so from the perspective of someone inside the "fishbowl," with the bowl including anyone who has ties with Penn State. The fishbowl is not a placid place right now. How do Glembocki and Frank find a way to write in more or less reasonable tones within the swirl of controversy?

The Frank and Glembocki pieces also link to one of the questions we posed in the deliberating in crisis resource reverberates through our fishbowl: Does "Penn State Pride" mean too many different things to too many different people? Does it make sense to examine the reasons--and the emotions--that attend affiliation? 




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  • DEBRA HAWHEE: thanks everybody for these ideas. They are all great. I read more
  • Matt McAllister: Excellent insights! I thought it would be useful if academic read more
  • Michael Bérubé: Great post ... and you know what I'm gonna say: read more
  • ROBERT MILNER FRIEDEN: Thank you Mary Beth for alerting me to this blog. read more
  • MARY B OLIVER: Thanks for such a fantastic blog! I really look forward read more
  • DEBRA HAWHEE: Thanks for this post, Kirt. I have spoken with a read more
  • ROBERT CHARLES RICHARDS JR: Thank you for this interesting post. Professor Gastil has recently read more

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