“Of course we’re going to riot. What do they expect when they tell us at 10 o’clock that they fired our football coach?”
-- Paul Howard, 24-year-old Penn State aerospace engineering student, as quoted in the New York Times.
OK, so maybe Paul Howard is no rocket scientist. (Oh wait, actually he is a rocket scientist!) But I think his comment sums up the real problem with the Penn-State-child-sex-coverup-and-God-knows-what-else scandal, the problem that's so fundamental that no one is really talking about it. People barely blink an eye when a 24-year-old adult in an elite academic program says that a) he attends a college where rioting isn't an anomaly, but an expectation and b) the cause for said rioting is the firing of a football coach.
Sure, Joe Paterno isn't just any football coach -- he's won more games than any major college coach in history, and his craggy, bespectacled face and the plaudits for a much ballyhooed "Grand Experiment" in mixing athletics and academics became the very symbol of how the entire university -- and arguably the state of Pennsylvania -- presented itself to the outside world. We've seen people taking it to the streets a lot this year, from Cairo to Madrid to Zuccotti Park, and usually it takes something existential to get people off their rear ends -- a lack of democracy or (here in the USA) opportunity. In State College, Pa., that existential experience is...the football program. Far too many PSU students couldn't imagine life itself without their beloved JoePa the sidelines, and when reality slapped them upside the head, they ran amok.
That's why I think the solution to the very deep and very fundamental problems at Penn State need to be much, much bolder than the cosmetic change that a new president (especially when it's likely to be a bland choice in the mold of Tom Ridge) and a new face on the sidelines of Beaver Stadium. Those changes would do little -- if anything -- to upend the deeply rooted culture of corruption that finally went so far off the tracks that preserving the cash cow of a winning football program became more important than the safety of children.
There's only one way to end the culture of winning at all costs, football-first-and-education-second, and rioting when things don't go your way on the athletic field.
Blow up, metaphorically speaking, the main campus in State College.
Split up the student population among the 19 so-called commonwealth or branch campuses that now educate nearly 40 percent of the student body, and launch a major expansion with new construction and real job creation at those sites, to finally fulfill Gov. Corbett's so-far empty promise of "jobs, jobs, jobs." In fact, expand the overall statewide enrollment so that a college education in Pennsylvania is more accessible to the middle class. But make the current campus in State College much, much smaller -- with a student body closer to 10,000 and a focus on central Pennsylvania. Meanwhile, you can -- and should -- let these new pumped-up regional campus have varsity football programs.
Just not in Division I. That is one dream that needs to be buried along with the Paterno era.
The reasons for doing this are two-fold. The first is obvious -- the culture of corruption at Penn State that clearly runs much deeper than just one monster who got away with sexually abusing young boys. What a lot of people are unwilling still to admit is that the Jerry Sandusky scandal has exposed Joe Paterno -- and his enablers up and down the university ladder -- as an Emperor with No Clothes, parading down College Avenue on his white horse.
Paterno's "grand experiment" started failing a long time ago -- his student athletes starting causing all kinds of problems for Paterno as long ago as the late 1990s. There was some foreshadowing of the Sandusky affair back in 2006 when JoePa appeared to make light of sexual assault allegations against a star player, which prompted the National Organization for Women to call for his resignation, and three years earlier a different player accused of a sex assault was allowed to play in a bowl game. But Paterno was just one piece of the puzzle -- the Sandusky probe has revealed an entire community, including administrators, the campus police, and local law-enforcement, that was in the tankto protect the sacred cow disguised as a Nittany Lion.
You think a new president is going to just waltz in and fix that?
Meanwhile, the most unsettling thing about last night's riot was how predictable it was. In the last decade, we've seen students go on a destructive rampage when Penn State lost games (in 2001, when the basketball team lost to Temple in, ahem, March madness) and when it won games (over Ohio State in football in 2008), and now over Paterno's firing. Yes, I realize that these aren't a majority of the student body, and that others more righteously protested against Sandusky and the failures of now former university president Graham Spanier. But rioters have become the public face of the Penn State student body, and it suggests that maybe putting 45,000 young students in one rural town, where the economy is built on a currency of jello shots, was an idea that made a little bit of sense in, say, 1950 but seems played out in 2011.
So let's end the "grand experiment" -- not the grand experiment of Paterno, but the bigger grand experiment that is Penn State's main campus. It failed. A radical restructuring of the Penn State system would cause everyone -- from students on up to the governor -- to re-think the entire experience, to re-invent the university as one focused not so much on beating Nebraska as on beating the Chinese and the Indians in creating the commanders and the foot soldiers of a new American economy.
Expanding the regional campuses would create thousands of construction jobs and new permanent academic positions, and you could direct the greatest growth to the regions with the highest unemployment. And what about State College? I would use some of the vacant campus space to create what would be a national center, performing academic research and seeking solutions to the problem of child abuse. Not the football locker rooms and the showers where Sandusky committed some of his most heinous crimes, though. Those I would bulldoze, and replace with gardens. And Beaver Stadium could sit vacant as a monument to Penn State's massive hubris.
Could this happen? Of course not. While I think the statewide economic benefits would be a plus, it would be hard to manage the impact without hurting business in Centre County in the short run. But the real obstacles are political. The powerful lobby of Penn State alums and supporters would ensure that any leader who backed such an extreme plan would become (doing my best Michele Bachmann impersonation here) a one...term...governor.
But people need to realize that the problems in little Happy Valley are huge -- and the solution needs to be radical. With new vans overturned last night and photojournalists dodging rocks and riot police coming down the street. a chant echoed across the campus: "We are....Penn State!"
Never before has a problem been summed up so well in just four little words.