How Penn State is like the Kremlin

Posted: July 31, 2012

Jerry Sandusky's serial sexual abuse of young boys and the cover-up by officials at Penn State has devastated a once-proud university and inflicted much pain and collateral damage. The NCAA has imposed sanctions that the football program will not recover from for a long time. Businesses that depend on it will likely be forced to close, and good people will lose their jobs.

And yet, while punishing Penn State football into submission may make the NCAA and others feel better, it will not do a thing to change what really ails the university: its culture of secrecy.

From 1998 to 2010, I served as news adviser to the Daily Collegian, Penn State's student newspaper. My job was to train, advise, and mentor all the student reporters and editors who came through its doors. In that role, I worked with many students who went on to become fine journalists. In fact, dozens of Collegian reporters, including the current crop, have contributed to the reporting on the scandal and the national debate surrounding it. One former member of the Collegian staff even won a Pulitzer for breaking the story in the first place; another earned honors for contributing to that effort.

While working with such outstanding young talent, I also got a close look at just how insular Penn State is, and not just with respect to the football program. At one time or another, hundreds of those student journalists crashed into Penn State's great stone wall. The university's ability to control information was epic; some students likened it to the Kremlin in its opacity.

The Penn State public-relations apparatus truly was something to marvel at. The university wielded power with very little public scrutiny. For the administrators and the marketing professionals they hired, the goal was to control the university's image by savagely controlling information; the truth had nothing to do with it.

Right to know

Some state lawmakers and officials are finally promising to make Penn State more transparent. State Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi (R., Delaware), in consultation with Terry Mutchler, the head of the state Office of Open Records, has introduced legislation to amend the state's Right-To-Know Law to include Penn State. Other legislators, including State Rep. Kerry Benninghoff (R., Centre), have submitted similar bills.

One problem is that Penn State, along with Temple, Pittsburgh, and Lincoln, are considered state-related universities, not state-run universities (like West Chester, East Stroudsburg, and others). Even though Penn State receives more than $200 million a year in taxpayer funds, the administration has always insisted that as a state-related school, it does not have to share information as other public entities do.

If you are a reporter looking for information about the university, that means the chances are that you won't get it easily. And it means that the public generally isn't going to learn anything about Penn State that its administrators and marketing professionals don't want you to know.

Dark corners

Also contributing to this lack of transparency is Penn State's location in the middle of what James Carville famously called the "Alabama" portion of Pennsylvania. If Penn State had been located in Philadelphia or Pittsburgh, perhaps things would have been different. Under the circumstances, though, Penn State only has to deal with small-town newspapers that, while solid in their own right, are not equipped to or particularly interested in rooting about in the dark corners of the university.

As for the Collegian students, they questioned everything and pushed relentlessly. Often, what they got in return from the university's marketing machine was ridicule. On occasion, journalism professors would poke fun at them, too.

Even Joe Paterno joined in from time to time. At his weekly press conferences, he made great sport of student reporters who asked questions that none of the football beat reporters would ask. Paterno would belittle them, and the other reporters would chuckle along with him.

Ultimately, this did our reporters a favor, teaching them how difficult it is to be a good journalist. But it certainly didn't do much for justice or the truth. Secrecy prevailed, and Sandusky lurked.

Instead of being satisfied with devastating the lives of many good people at Penn State and throughout the region and the commonwealth, Pennsylvanians should insist on strengthening the Right-To-Know Law and taking other steps to ensure that all the universities that receive state funding are completely and utterly transparent.

A lack of transparency created the conditions in which this horrific situation occurred. It's proof, once again, that bad things happen in dark corners.

John Harvey is the director of student media at Georgia Southern University and a former editorial page editor of the Times Herald of Norristown. He can be reached at johnharvey@georgiasouthern.edu.

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