Karen Heller: Now, Penn State can show it's much more than football

Protesting the handling of the child sex-abuse scandal, Penn State students held a candlelight vigil on campus Wednesday night. Others rioted in support of the ousted football coach.
Protesting the handling of the child sex-abuse scandal, Penn State students held a candlelight vigil on campus Wednesday night. Others rioted in support of the ousted football coach. (GENE J. PUSKAR / Associated Press)
Posted: November 13, 2011

Penn State is a great school far better known for football than for terrific academics.

That equation ought to be reversed immediately.

Coaching legend Joe Paterno and president Graham Spanier were both fired Wednesday in the wake of the Sandusky sexual-abuse scandal, but students rioted, overturning a news van and toppling streetlights, in support only of JoePa, for almost half a century the university's most celebrated citizen.

Nationally, Paterno's team is all too commonly, and mistakenly, deemed the university's crowning achievement.

Until the Sandusky scandal erupted, Spanier was highly respected as a national leader in higher education. He made significant improvements while helming the 96,000-student university system for more than 16 years, an unusually long tenure for a top modern academic officer.

Spanier was seen as elevating the school's national reputation, while being a relentless champion for increased state funding. (His earlier budget battles with the governor, himself a university trustee, played out against the secret sex-abuse investigation Tom Corbett launched in 2009 as state attorney general. His spokesman said last week that Corbett "was upset about the inaction.")

But the Spanier story was lost, as well as Penn State's myriad achievements, in all the yelling and hand-wringing about the mighty, invincible, mythic Paterno.

You may not care for those scholastic rankings that sell magazines and fuel watercooler chatter and office one-upmanship, but Penn State makes any of them. In a 2010 Wall Street Journal survey of professional recruiters, the university ranked first in preparing students for the job market.

A university of this size isn't all about one coach, or one athletic season. A school's reputation can't live or die tied to the actions of an 84-year-old athletic leader and the achievements of a few physically gifted young men.

And yet too frequently, and at too many educational institutions, this perspective holds sway. As goes the football or basketball season, so goes the school's collective happiness and "reputation." Which a scandal can so easily bruise.

When 4,000 students protest, and some then riot, crying and yelling about their football coach and not about politics or tuition, social injustice, or, say, the alleged rape of a 10-year-old in the university's locker room and nobody doing anything to stop such a heinous crime from ever happening again, you know how they look?


Very, very stupid, heaping additional shame on Penn State, something the school doesn't exactly need at this moment.

"Yeah, and just like with the Catholic Church, no one is trying to take away your religion," The Daily Show's Jon Stewart said of the students, "which in this case is football."

Now, sadly, in addition to football, Penn State is famous for something else, for doing the wrong thing by doing almost nothing. NCAA president Mark Emmert called the child-abuse atrocity "easily the worst scandal I've ever seen or even heard of in intercollegiate athletics."

In the NCAA, that's saying something.

Penn State is bigger than football and it's better than football, and pre-scandal Paterno couldn't have ever been as great or as important as everyone believed him to be, not at an institution with so many students, employees and 400,000 living, passionately faithful alumni.

This moment provides an opportunity. Take the disaster, the turmoil, the firing of Paterno and Spanier, and rebuild. Instead of a Nittany Lion, think of the school as a phoenix. Celebrate all that's great and smart about this dynamic institution.

Kudos for making this a teachable moment, bringing the scandal into classrooms, engaging students on the issues that truly matter.

Out of chaos, triumph. You've got the country's attention, use it.

You, not Paterno, are Penn State.

Contact columnist Karen Heller at 215-854-2586, kheller@phillynews.com,

or @kheller on Twitter.

Read her past columns at www.philly.com/KarenHeller.

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