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Community regroups after difficult year

Over the past year, the community of State College, Pa. and Penn State University has endured a series of dramatic blows to the tight-knit community.

Allegations of child sex abuse committed by former defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky were made public in November 2011, drawing international media attention. The Penn State Board of Trustees swiftly responded by dismissing Penn State President Graham Spanier and coach Joe Paterno, but these moves proved controversial as some students rioted while an active alumni contingent and some of the local community protested the firings.

Community regroups after difficult year

by Molly Cochran, Tara Richelo, Allison Robertson, William Saas and Elizabeth Timberlake-Newell

 

Over the past year, the community of State College, Pa. and Penn State University has endured a series of dramatic blows to the tight-knit community.

Allegations of child sex abuse committed by former defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky were made public in November 2011, drawing international media attention. The Penn State Board of Trustees swiftly responded by dismissing Penn State President Graham Spanier and coach Joe Paterno, but these moves proved controversial as some students rioted while an active alumni contingent and some of the local community protested the firings.

Summer proved no respite from the cloud of unease hanging over State College and Penn State.

The Freeh report was released in July, and in it were claims of a cover-up by President Spanier, Coach Paterno, former athletic director Tim Curley and former vice president Gary Shultz, who according to Freeh, “never demonstrated through actions or words any concern for Sandusky’s victims until after his arrest.”

In August, the NCAA placed sanctions on the university (see the article “NCAA sanctions” in this issue), which was met with concern from both a community that thrives on football season tourism and a university that depends on contributions from alumni. President Rodney Erickson quickly accepted the sanctions based on the determination that the university could readily endure sanctions instead of the threatened end of the football program.

“Given the two alternatives, I felt that it was best to accept the consent decree,” Erickson told “Face the Nation” in July. “This allows us to continue to go on playing football, it allows us to go on helping to support the other intercollegiate athletic teams that we have at the university,” he said. “The choice that I made really allows us to move forward.”

It is now autumn, and a new school year and football season for the university have begun.

State College and Penn State now face an important question: how can the community move forward?

Together We are One?

Signs proclaiming, “We are one. We are strong. We are a community,” “Together We Are One,” “Proud to Support Penn State Football” and “Proud to Support Penn State Athletics” have been taped on the windows of downtown restaurants, businesses and apartments. Each of these poster campaigns is a product of a different group or groups who are not necessarily coordinating their efforts, but all have a similar aim—to create a sense of community.

The “Together We Are One” campaign, according to StateCollege.com, is a product of and supported by local business owners and the Chamber of Business and Industry of Centre County (CBICC) with additional support from the Downtown State College Improvement District.

The DSCID was created by an ordinance of the State College borough. Four hundred local businesses participate in its activities, including promotions, annual events and civic activities to improve the State College experience.

David Nevins of Nevins Real Estate Management is the campaign spokesman. According to a blog post written in September for the Huffington Post by Nevins, the series of events surrounding the Sandusky scandal is a “black swan” event—an event that “occurs totally unexpectedly and carries enormous potential impact”—but he also believes that the aftermath represents an opportunity for the community to define itself and its future.

“The ‘Together We Are One’ campaign is both a call to action and an invitation to the entire nation to hear our story and visit our community and campus; a town and university filled with natural beauty and an indomitable spirit,” wrote Nevins. “Our message to the returning students, to the parents of the returning students, to local businesses, to P.S.U. alumni and to every person who lives in the Centre Region is about awakening a spirit of courage, fortitude and resilience and that lies within each of us.”

The large banners, window posters and 20,000 “Together We Are One” pins share attention with two more signs, “Proud to Support Penn State Football” and “Proud to Support Penn State Academics.” The two support posters, however, are from two entirely different sources.

Mike Desmond, co-owner of the Hotel State College, told the Collegian that he and several of his colleagues created the “We Support Penn State Football” signs in August.

Desmond, a longtime business owner in State College, considers the football program to be important to the town’s downtown business prosperity. Desmond told USA Today in July that “the NCAA sanctions will have an impact on our business, but it could have been much worse.”

The football signs did not follow the sanctions, according to Desmond, but preceded them. “Proud to Support Penn State Academics,” on the other hand, did not.

Penn State alumnus Erik Davidson, who graduated in 2010, developed the posters at the request of several other alumni. According to what Davidson told the Collegian, the posters were then distributed by students from the Schreyer Honors College Student Council, Sigma Nu Fraternity and the College of Engineering.

Davidson told the Collegian that these posters were not designed to compete with the football ones, but to complement them.

“The alum who had discussed this idea with me was interested in showing the world that we’re ‘ra-ra’ about other things, too,” Davidson said.

Neither the “Together We Are One” nor the “Proud to Support” poster campaigns are associated with any currently planned community activities.

The “Together” campaign gave out free coffee and donuts at parking garages on the day of the first football game, but no events as of press time are listed on the website.

Business and community leaders move forward

Business and community leaders have found meaningful ways to create community beyond hanging up posters.

On July 31, the first day of practice for the Penn State football team, fans and community members gathered outside the walkway between the Lasch building and Holuba Hall to cheer on the players that remained on the team’s roster despite the NCAA sanctions.

This event, dubbed “Rise and Rally” by its host the Goon Show PSU radio program, attracted around 3,000 people, despite starting at 6 a.m. The event was sponsored by Old State Clothing Co. and Nittany Bank.

Sharon Herlocker, marketing manager for Nittany Bank, said that “Rise and Rally” was the first time she saw the community come together in an effort to move forward from the troubles.

“We must put one foot in front of the other and do what we do best,” said Herlocker.

Nittany Bank is also a member of the Downtown State College Improvement District and branches have signs showing support of the football team.

Herlock said that the bank “supported the team in the past and supports where the program is going.”

The posters, she noted, are symbols of the community coming together to send a positive message.

Brittany Haislmaier, the general manager at gift gallery/art store/custom frame shop Uncle Eli’s, also expressed the importance of sticking together as a community and supporting Penn State.

After everything that has happened, the community coming together “shows that the community is still alive,” said Haislmaier.

Uncle Eli’s, a 40-year-old local business, has promoted community solidarity with two items—“We Are Committed” t-shirts and “We Stick Together” wrist bands.

According to Haislmaier, a Penn State graduate designed the “We Are Committed” t-shirts and a 2005 alumnus came up with the idea for the wristbands.

The idea behind the bracelets is to “band” the Penn State community together.

A portion of the proceeds made by the sale of these items will go to support Penn State athletics, while another portion will go to Prevent Child Abuse Pennsylvania.

Elaine Meder-Wilgus, owner of Webster’s Bookstore and Café, has taken the idea of community renewal one step further and opened up Webster’s as a gathering place for open and honest conversation stemming from the scandal.

“One of the things we keep talking about here in the bookstore is this loss of civil discourse in which people are just able to have a conversation,” stated Meder-Wilgus. “Our community, the bigger picture of who we are and who lives here, isn’t going to heal overnight.”

To further this healing process, Webster’s is hosting events such as Muriel’s Repairing: Telling Ourselves Who We Are; Light, Not Heat – Conversations on Issues That Matter; and The Human Rights Film Series in order to bring people together to talk about the bigger issues like civil discourse and child sex abuse.

But what they are not talking about is football or Penn State athletic teams.

Meder-Wilgus emphasized, “It’s not about football. It’s about the survivors and the abuse and how can we show up and change the culture that allowed it to go on.”

Focusing on the reason for the scandal and its aftermath instead of the repercussions for the sports team or the university is imperative for changing the way that the community responds.

“[Abuse] is still happening…[the scandal] is a real opportunity for us to change and to be a community that is supportive and proactive,” said Meder-Wilgus. “State College should become a community where we can develop a vocabulary and a social structure and a culture that makes those conversations easier to have.”

Opening up the discourse on sex abuse in this community forum also changes the avenue for information sharing. Most of the Sandusky updates and abuse related news articles have appeared in the sports section of newspapers and television segments.

“Pedophilia is happening everywhere, and we don’t cover it in the national news unless it brings down somebody big,” said Meder-Wilgus.

While one upshot of the scandal has been that child abuse is being discussed openly, there has also been an economic benefit to the rallying around Penn State.

Tourism to State College by families and alumni has increased. Instead of abandoning what some consider their second home, more people have returned to show their support. Meder-Wilgus sees this through the increase of tourism and customers in Webster’s.

 

“I think that people [want] to show up in a show of solidarity. I’ve seen so many more families walking around the football games.”

Penn State students and faculty take a stand

The students and faculty of Penn State have not been left out of this community renewal effort. According to Arnold of the DSCID, one important goal of the organization is to “bridge the gap between the students and the community.”

The DSCID may yet realize this goal, if the current sense of community felt by some students is any indication.

“I belong here. When I go home it doesn’t even feel like home anymore,” said Casey Kurtyka (junior, Computer Engineering).

Kurtyka, who lives in downtown State College, said he was impressed with the efforts made by the community to send a positive message. He too has a “Proud to Support Penn State” poster in his apartment.

“State College is a hard town to bring down,” said Kurtyka. “If you walk downtown there are students, but there are families and children. State College is a good place to raise a family.” Other students have questioned whether the current outpouring of concern for victims of sex abuse is more than just a show.

“I feel like the town is more trying to act like they care than being active,” said Madeline Chandler, undergraduate, media studies and women’s studies. “I haven’t seen very many people change their behavior to reflect what we are saying, it just seems as if the town and the student body don’t want people to look down on us anymore. I respect the donations to charities, but being active towards sexual assault (especially the ever-present assaults on students by students) would be much more admirable.”

Some survivors of abuse question the efficacy of the Penn State and State College community’s attempts to create an inclusive, supportive community. Matt Bodenschatz is an undergrad majoring in English and has written about the scandal as an advocate for survivors.

“What’s disconcerting about the WE ARE ONE campaign is the false impression it gives that everyone’s included, that everyone’s been thought of—because that isn’t the case,” said Bodenschatz. “The victim/survivor community, a population that numbers in the many thousands on this campus and in this town, has yet to see efforts made to include them and to acknowledge what they need and deserve before any notion of ‘moving forward’ can justifiably be imposed on it.”

“‘WE ARE ONE’ pretends that all is well because everyone is ready to link arms at the shoulder and begin stepping forward. This ignores the fact that the Penn State scandal has hit victims harder than anyone else, and that no act of moving forward is justified until “We” reach down and extend our hands and arms to them, to lift them with us, to bring them along too, and to fulfill our many promises made to them in the past year, when we claimed to be committed to helping them to thrive, to ensuring they’re never forgotten, and to help them heal.”

Some faculty also takes a more measured view of the community’s efforts to regroup.

“Moving forward is the right—and in some ways inevitable—thing to do,” said Dr. Rosa Eberly, professor of communication arts and sciences and English. “Confusing PR with moving forward is merely repeating the mistakes of the past.”

The things left unfinished

Not everyone in the Penn State and State College community is prepared to move forward. The faculty senate and two trustees have contested the NCAA sanctions and the Freeh report.

A group of 30 of the past chairs of the Penn State faculty senate released a statement in August that stated the Freeh report fails “on its own merits as the indictment of the University that some have taken it to be” and that the NCAA sanctions were unfairly levied on the basis of no substantial fact.

“The way that the NCAA treated Penn State has very strong implications for every college and university,” said Professor Keith Nelson, professor of Psychology.

Nelson also noted that the faculty senate and many of its past chairs said that it was, “absolutely essential that we speak up about untruths in the Freeh report, and the NCAA statements that echo and expand beyond the Freeh report.” In particular, the faculty senate took offense at the NCAA’s characterization of Penn State culture.

“The heart of the matter we believe is that a characterization of the Penn State culture is blatantly false,” said Nelson. “In contrast to what the Freeh report and the NCAA [statement]; Penn State has a long, established record of caring about integrity in sports.”

He went on to say that NCAA had stepped out of bounds within its own process.

On August 6, alumni-elected trustee Ryan McCombie announced that he would try to appeal the NCAA sanctions against Penn State.

McCombie questioned the board’s decision to accept the Freeh report to stand as their independent investigation, though it did not include interviews of the key witnesses.

“Our Board allowed the Freeh report to be presented as a full and fair review, which it most certainly is not; and we stood by passively while the University accepted an unprecedented penalty from the NCAA, based entirely on the findings of the Freeh report,” wrote McCombie in a letter to the Penn State Board of Trustees. “These are grave mistakes that inflict undue harm on the entire Penn State community, in addition to compromising the rights of numerous individuals.”

The NCAA penalties and the Freeh report inflict “undue harm” on the university and those accused of crimes by unfairly tarnishing the reputation of the university, compromising its future and violating “the rights of the accused individuals,” McCombie wrote.

More recently, trustee Joel Myers spoke at a meeting of the trustees in support of appealing the sanctions. Myers noted that the Board had not yet fully accepted the Freeh report, and questioned whether President Erikson had the authority to accept the NCAA sanctions.

“We hired an independent investigator to explore and provide his expert opinion and findings,” said Myers. “However the Freeh report, despite what the NCAA consent decree says, is still being reviewed by the Board, and has not been fully accepted. We committed to a full disclosure. We committed to move forward in a healthy way, correcting what was wrong, and providing information to law enforcement officials so that those accused would have their day in court.”

New board member and major alumni donor Anthony Lubrano has made even more strenuous demands.

On his website, www.lubrano4psu.edu, Lubrano asserts that as part of his platform, he will secure a public apology for the Paterno family “for the disgraceful manner in which coach Paterno was treated.” He added that the community cannot heal without it.

Lubrano could not be reached for comment.

On the same Saturday that Penn State’s football team played the Navy, a crowd of 350 students, alumni and faculty gathered at the steps of Old Main to call for the resignations of Governor Corbett, University President Erikson and the Board of Trustees.

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