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Penn State Diary: Cultural Lessons

by on June 21, 2012 11:08 AM

Fixing school’s “dysfunctional culture” means realizing where the problem lies

By Lee Stout

   In 2005, I wrote a column about the concept of institutional culture and how the increased awareness of our history had brought out a stronger sense of this idea at Penn State. Today, in the wake of almost nine months of unprecedented media attention focusing on the university and whatever connection there might be to the “Sandusky scandal,” there are frequent questions in the press about whether Penn State has a “dysfunctional culture.”

   In his June interview in Town&Gown, university president Rodney Erickson talked about the internal investigations and our responsibilities to all who were hurt in these events. He said, “We have to make it right and figure out what went wrong. Is it something in our culture, in our practices that contributed to this?”

   What does “culture” mean in this context? Corporate or institutional culture has a number of definitions, but it all seems to boil down to a shared sense of a past and a certain “way we do things” that is handed down in an organization.

   Sociologist Burton Clark described the “institutional saga” as the legends, myths, and common sense of heritage that the people of a particular institution shared. There are heroes, stories, places, and certain procedures and practices that bind us together into a unique community.

   There are people we look up to as proud predecessors. Pugh, Atherton, Eisenhower, Walker, Paterno, and many others are significant figures in our past and present. Then there also are experiences as undergraduates that draw alumni back to campus. Besides memorable events and people, the world of ideas was opened to them; they found new friendships, made decisions about careers and often a spouse and family that would define the rest of their lives. Few experiences are as vivid in memory as those they had here as students.

   The iconic places that feature in those experiences — including Rec Hall, the Lion Shrine, the Creamery, the HUB, and even places downtown such as the Corner Room — are revisited both in person and in memory. They will always be with us. They help define what we mean when we cheer, “We are ... Penn State.”

   For faculty and staff, there are both the diverse cultures of particular academic disciplines and common characteristic traits of the entire university. In the beginning, fiscal conservatism was one common example. Penn State knew what it was like to live without much funding, so there was never much in the way of elegance or lavishness. Perhaps it shared the Pennsylvania German roots of the region with its reputation for thrift and plain living.

   There were notable administrators such as Ralph Dorn Hetzel and S. K. Hostetter who guided Penn State through the Great Depression and World War II. They kept the institution functioning despite desperate financial times and great trials for all. Eric Walker shared that sense of utilitarian sparseness. Like Warren Buffet, the billionaire who drives a plain American sedan, Penn State always seemed to buy off the rack in those days.

   This began to change in the Oswald years, in the 1970s and early ’80s. Perhaps with the growing need for fundraising and then the success of the Campaign for Penn State in the 1980s, we started to see a developing taste for elegance. The look of both public spaces and executive suites became richer, and we sought out celebrated architects to design signature buildings. As much of the country came to value conspicuous wealth and consumption, the school found it necessary to also adopt those standards to recruit new students and faculty, as well as loyal donors to help fund it all.

   While student and other community segments have their problems and successes, bureaucratic culture seems to be where the current issues lie. Administrative methods have always been conservative here. From the 1850s to the 1950s, this was a very top-down place. The president, senior administrators, and key members of the board of trustees made the most important decisions with little input from faculty and almost none at all from students. This was as much the norm in American colleges as with business managers and corporate boardrooms. Decisions were usually publically announced, but details about the processes and reasons for making them were rarely shared with the outside world.

   Perpetual growth and expansion across the state, facilitated by information and communication technologies, have become hallmarks of how Penn State has done things in the last 70 years as well. But for those who perceive a “dysfunctional culture,” the problem centers on transparency. Penn State has gradually made more information available to the public, especially through the Internet; but now critics want to see the freedom-of-information standards used for governments applied to Penn State.

   Just as the public character of the university is subject to debate and interpretation, so too is public accountability through transparency. While laws and regulations can change overnight, cultural change takes much longer. If “openness” is the problem, it won’t be solved quickly.

About the author:

Lee Stout is Librarian Emeritus, Special Collections for Penn State.

Lee Stout is Librarian Emeritus, Special Collections for Penn State.
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