You’re From Penn State. Now What? (A Special Request Post)

Today’s post is a Special Request post for a grad student (ABD) from Penn State who wrote on email to say:   “I went to a small conference last weekend and as soon as people found out I was from Penn State the conversation was redirected to the scandal….It’s a minefield as it relates to views on administration, the role of athletics at the university, and often overshadows the tragedy of the victims of the abuse. The last thing I want to do this weekend, as I head to our big national conference, is keep talking about this—-especially to potential employers/future tenure letter writers—but I know it will come up.”

He goes on: “I would love to think that people are more professional than to bring scandalous details up, but conference chat is an informal venue. Do you think you could do a blog post on how conference goers/job candidates can effectively deal with these situations?  is there a correct way to acknowledge the tragedy/scandal while distancing yourself from your school’s recently tarnished (understatement) reputation?”

I cannot imagine the impact that the sex abuse scandal is going to have on graduate students affiliated with Penn State. Obviously, it goes without saying, such problems are small compared to the suffering of victims and the crisis of the campus as a whole. Nevertheless, as this scandal impacts the lives of graduate students seeking to find their way in professional venues and on the job market, it is a worthy topic for consideration. How do you deal with being from a campus whose infamy has overshadowed its scholarly reputation, and tarnished everything associated with it?

There are undoubtedly many ways to approach this question, and I welcome reader comments below. My thoughts are rather confused at present, and I am far from the (delusional?) level of conviction I normally bring to these posts.

And, I want to be clear: what I offer here is not meant to be any kind of higher moral reckoning vis-a-vis the abuse. It is, rather, in the standard vein of TPII, offered as highly instrumentalizing, pragmatic advice for dealing with tricky conference/interview situations.

In that vein, here are my thoughts. I think that anyone from Penn State should respond to questions and commentary on the scandal, in academic venues where people should be focusing on their academic reputation and projects, with something along the lines of, “This is all the evidence that we should need that college sports/college football/the NCAA is a corrupt system whose influence on university life has been allowed to far exceed its value to mission of the university. It is time to (depending on your point of view) abolish/strictly control/reduce it. My graduate program had little connection to that side of campus, so I am not well-informed on the details. I’d like to focus on the academic work I’ve been engaged in in my department, which was and still is a dedicated/serious/vibrant scholarly community.”

There are other tacks to take as well. The grad student himself offered his own response to comments about the riots on the Penn State campus, which was to remark something along the lines of: “indeed, Penn State students are passionate, and while those students were misguided in their actions, it is the same passion that drives Penn State students to run the largest student-run philanthropy in the country, which raised $9.6 million for pediatric cancer research last year. In the past week, Penn State students and alumni have raised $421,000 for the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network. I am proud of these students.”

While this is also an excellent response, I would suggest that the former one will be more effective. There are two reasons. The first is that by and large, and certainly with some exceptions, academics dislike and resent the power that college sports have over the mission and resources of the university. Shifting attention away from the horror of Penn State, and the personalities and individuals involved, and toward the larger issue of athletics as a venue for corporate control of the university is going to be a productive and persuasive way to acknowledge the topic, while staying at a higher level of engagement more conducive to moving quickly back to academic subjects.

The second reason is that academics by and large, and certainly with some exceptions, maintain an ironic (if not hostile) distance from the boosterism and shameless pandering to student and alumni emotions that characterize so many college campuses. Linking yourself to campus “pride” (“Still Proud To Be a Penn Stater,” as the t-shirt says) even for things like student-run philanthropies, runs the risk of appearing to associate you with the same lack of critical insight into the real power structure of the university that led to mass cover-up of the abuse to begin with. I’m not saying that you do lack critical insight. You just want to avoid the appearance of lacking it. And for many of us (and I do include myself here), it is past time to stop feeling so damned “proud” to be affiliated with ANY of the institutions of this country that have sold us a bill of goods.

Keep in mind that Penn State itself, in a truly gross move, distributed a memo to students on how to properly deflect questions about the scandal in their job interviews, which basically said, “Focus on all the good work accomplished at Penn State [and never, ever criticize us]”.

In short, it is possible, as many sharp commentators have done, to interpret Penn State in the same light as the ethically bankrupt big banks and feckless corporations that have sacrificed the powerless in the interests of the few at the top. Another institution too big to fail. It is of a piece with the power structures that have come under attack by the Occupy movement, and that allow us to see it as a sign of the corporate control of campuses, and neoliberalism writ large. These are productive themes for academic discussion, that are far larger than one campus’s crisis. It is in that direction that I suggest you turn the talk.

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You’re From Penn State. Now What? (A Special Request Post) — 5 Comments

  1. All this discussion is great, if you make the assumption that all the media hype, accusations and the cover up story is truth. However, the flaw is, we don’t yet know the truth. Once the investigation and trials are over then you can decide how To judge the university. Whatever happened to due process? If you think the grand jury report had all the facts and represents the truth your very wrong, not to even mention the information being sold by the media. I found this advice very presumptions to claim that all PSU affiliates should follow your dogma.

    FYI I am also a full professor with all the trappings you boasted about, and more.

  2. Mark, you’re right that we don’t know the entire truth. However, the jury of public opinion (and the school’s administration for that matter) has deiced that the crime in question is egregious enough, and that there’s enough wrongdoing (or not-right doing) on the part of Paterno and his staff that they’re certainly culpable to some degree. Now, whether that’s fair or not is not the issue. What’s at issue is that ABD is already dealing with backlash from his peers and potential employers. Deflecting the conversation toward how academics dislike athletics, how athletic departments are apparently able to run roughshod over schools, as well as their attitude that they are above needing to consider ethics and repercussions is valid (going well beyond just this one event), and I believe a probably effective strategy. I completely agree that referring to the charitable work that’s been done prior to and surrounding this issue has the likely effect of perpetuating a conversation about the school’s reaction, and may very well lead the discussion into hostile territory in which ABD finds that he’s defending people and a program that he isn’t involved with (questions like: “well, it’s great that they raised so much money, but where was all this goodwill and conscience when children were being molested?”)

    So while I agree that torches and pitchforks are currently premature (I’ll light my torch after the jury has deliberated), insinuating that this has no effect on students’ futures seems naive.

  3. The strategy of trying to refocus the discussion to academic work by stating “My graduate program had little connection to that side of campus, so I am not well-informed on the details” is valid. However, I would hesitate to make such a strong statement about the evils of college sports in general. There are many academics that love college sports and I’ve found that football and basketball can actually be great casual discussion topics when talking with more senior academics. I also know a number of department heads who would be extremely turned-off by such strong anti-sports statements (even if they agree that too much money is spent on sports in general). I’ve just recently started reading your posts, but it appears that a general trend is “avoid insulting senior academics who might influence your chances of getting a job/tenure.” The advice in this post appears to contradict that sentiment.

  4. I was initially disconcerted by ABD Penn State’s suggested response. Most of the faculty I know would find the implicit boosterism deeply off-putting and would automatically put the speaker in the category of “kids who would have beat me up in high school” + “how’s the weather on Mars?” + “oh my, not really one of us, are you?”

    But then, I’m in an R1 humanities department, with its own strange pathologies.

    Upon reflection, ABD Penn State’s response seems *perfect* for speaking to administrators (as sometimes happens at campus interviews) who will be cheered by the speaker’s reluctance to speak ill of a previous employer. It’s also potentially useful for speaking to faculty in well-funded non-liberal-arts (possibly just non-humanities departments) who feel less sense of deep personal grievance about college sports programs and the corruption they bring with them.

    A functional way out of the situation (particularly when the recent events are still in the headlines) would seem to be a vigorous shake of the head, a sincere “I just find the whole situation sickening, and I’m deeply dismayed,” followed by a “it’s all been so overwhelming on campus lately–it’s actually kind of nice to be away and able to focus on my XXX…” segue.

    • This is probably the best idea so far: “A functional way out of the situation (particularly when the recent events are still in the headlines) would seem to be a vigorous shake of the head, a sincere “I just find the whole situation sickening, and I’m deeply dismayed,” followed by a “it’s all been so overwhelming on campus lately–it’s actually kind of nice to be away and able to focus on my XXX…” segue.”

      Added to a general policy of closely tailoring the response to the situation. It’s true that some faculty love college sports. Others despise it. Administrators can be the pavlov’s dogs of boosterism. Many faculty find it gross. So until you’ve taken the temperature of the individuals and dept (may not happen until the post job-talk dinner on your campus visit, for ex.), Kirstin’s suggested response is the soundest.

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