excerpted from Harrisburg Patriot News
A professor of sports history, Ron Smith, taught at Penn State from 1968 to 1996. He worked alongside former President Graham Spanier, Paterno, Sandusky, Curley and Schultz. Smith said the university has its work cut out for it in transitioning out of its top-down administrative ways. “It dictates from the top, and you better go along with it. It’s been that way ever since I was there,” he said.
A change agent for a university like Penn State and others like Tennessee, Alabama and Michigan, where football is pre-eminent, is more likely to be a streak of losing seasons and the loss of football luster, as opposed to dictates from independent authorities.
“It’s an ingrained culture. It doesn’t change just by its own nature,” said Smith, who is researching the presidential papers of about 80 universities.
“Revolutions change. But there isn’t going to be a revolution in intercollegiate sports unless something more drastic than what happened in Penn State happens, and it’s drastic enough here,” Smith said. “But you don’t change culture quickly and the culture of students and the dominance of football and having stadiums the size of 100,000.”
A former athletic director at three NCAA Division I schools doesn’t think the hearts and minds of fans need to change. “Why shouldn’t people who are Penn State graduates be proud of their institution, be supporters of that institution in many different ways?” asked Dave O’Brien, director of the sports management program at Drexel University. “The failure isn’t that 100,000 people come to the stadium. That can be a good thing.
“The question has to be asked, why did the leadership of the university fail to act in a moral and legal manner with regard to suspicions and evidence in front of them regarding Sandusky conduct?”
The challenge before Penn State is doable, O’Brien said, pointing to scores of universities that have football programs as big and as laudable as Penn State’s that are not mired in NCAA violations or criminal scandals.
“I understand athletics can sometimes play a more prominent role than it should at a university, but I also know that with proper leadership, athletics can play a suitable role and not an expanded one within a university culture.”
Academic oversight of sports
One sure way to foster change is to return athletics to the purview of academics, said Smith, who in the 1980s served on the committee that moved Penn State athletics to the finance department. He said the then-vice president for finance and operations, Steve Garban, who recently resigned from the board of trustees, argued vehemently to have athletics moved from academics and placed under his office. Smith argued it should remain under academic oversight, something Vanderbilt University has done successfully. “It was a good model. It was a model other institutions had followed,” he said. Paterno backed Garban’s proposal to move the athletic program away from academics, and the move was sealed. A new football culture was ushered in, Smith said. “A lot of people don’t think that makes a lot of difference, but I do,” Smith said. “That can be changed and that would have changed the culture because the culture was changed when it was put under a money person that had no academic credentials. I think it changed it a lot.” The football program became isolated and insular.
“Once you get isolated from other people, the tendency is to hide anything that might be bad,” Smith said. “Instead of fixing it, you hide it. I think that’s what happened.” For more than three decades, the Penn State community basked in the prestige and money-earning engine of its football program.
A lawyer and previous athletic director at Temple, Northeastern and Long Beach State universities, O’Brien said all parties involved with those offices must be held accountable in the Sandusky scandal.
To date, he said, little discussion has taken place with regards to the failure of the board of trustees. The fact that Garban resigned should serve as a bellwether for other board members. “They need to do soul-searching about what level of complicity they have with regard to the scandal,” O’Brien said.
Change will fail, Sestak said, if the university relies on a new president to set a new tone. Key positions and department heads must also all buy in and be granted leadership.
“It’s emphasizing that you not just follow rules, people need to feel a valued part of the membership.”
Erickson promises change
Penn State President Rodney Erickson has vowed that his university, while it cannot undo history, can become an agent for change and reaffirm its “core values of honesty, integrity and justice.”
“I promise you, we will learn from our past and take the steps that will allow us to emerge and grow into a stronger, better university.”
Those who have walked the classroom hallways — as well as sat on the Nittany Lions sidelines — say it will be a difficult task for the university to find a new tone for the role football plays on campus.
Change is inevitable for Penn State. Penn State must rededicate itself to its true mission — that of nurturing and protecting young lives. And for the university to fulfill the directives from the Freeh Report, it must put in place new leadership and a new board, and both must abide by the new mission.
“This is a large effort, and it doesn’t change overnight,” he said. “There are those that argue, ‘You’re going too far. This is going to harm the ethos, the warrior ethos that we need.’ That’s the issue at Penn State.”