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Situation Normal: Death, Assaults, Vandalism

by on August 27, 2014 6:15 AM

So here we are, Day 3 of the fall semester, and already we've had one death, a couple of assaults, and several incidents of vandalism.

Response thus far has been muted. Town and gown together comprise a small city and in any small city there are going to be fatalities and crimes, right?

As for the possible role of drugs and alcohol in any of these incidents, yeah, college kids get wasted. Get over it.

And to think that some of us thought the Sandusky scandal would be a sobering experience.

News of the football team dominates the local media – including, I have to say, this website – as much as ever. JoePa's gone but the adoration of the football magus lives on. Fans seems just as ready to deify Coach "Franklion," before a single game has been played, bobbleheads and all, as they were to deify Coach "Billieve/Billeave" O'Brien before him.

If anything, the NCAA's broad-brush punishment of the entire football program has caused fans to dig in their heels: The team needs to be supported and celebrated more than ever. And what's a celebration without copious amounts of alcohol?

(For the record, I enjoy both sports and alcohol. It's the overdoing of either that's the problem.)

Then there's the police blotter. Five years ago, a Penn State freshman fell down a stairwell and died during the first month of the fall semester. This year we have beaten that dubious record with a death before the first day of class.

Though I no longer live among the Woo people, as I called the howling drunks who staggered around my downtown neighborhood, I still subscribe to the Highlands neighborhood listserv. Thus did I learn that vandals had destroyed a television that had been put out at the curb as refuse, yanked a bush out of someone's front yard, and pulled a chunk of flagstone off a gatepost.

To be sure, these are petty property crimes. In the case of the TV, what was trashed was trash. The bush can be replanted. The stonework can be replaced. But consider what passes for normal here: The students arrive to begin a new academic year and the first thing some of them do is get wasted and harm themselves, harm others or damage other people's stuff.

That's messed up.

I'm just getting around to reading a book published in 2000 called "Beer and Circus: How Big-Time College Sports is Crippling Undergraduate Education." Author Murray Sperber doesn't just blame students for coming to universities like Penn State for the "wrong" reasons – for parties and football games rather than for academics. He maintains that the big sports schools use the appeal of "beer and circus" to market themselves to prospective applicants, and that the faculty are too busy with research and grad students to notice or care about what's happening at the undergraduate level.

These are gross generalizations, of course. Here at Penn State, there are students who've come for the "right" reasons, the marketing folks tout undergraduate research opportunities along with the fun and games, and there are plenty of profs who do in fact care about undergraduate education.

Still it's depressing to see how entrenched the beer-and-circus culture is – and just to be clear, it's entrenched not because young adults get drunk and destructive in accordance with some immutable natural law, but because they have gotten a message that it's OK to do so. The weekend vandalism, you'll notice, wasn't even considered newsworthy by local media.

In the Highlands, my former neighbors are hoping security cameras will offer some relief from the late-night depredations of the Woo people – a solution that despairs of our young revelers learning moderation and consideration on their own.

I, too, no longer look for the beer-and-circus culture to change from within, post-Sandusky, but I see a way in which the community is changing from without. Ten years ago, there were about 3,200 international students at University Park. The majority were graduate students. This year there are about 4,600 international students (10 percent of the total). The majority are undergraduates.

Add the families of the international grad students and the international faculty and their families and quietly, almost imperceptibly, little State College is becoming a more cosmopolitan place. Take an evening stroll in Tudek Park and you'll see what I mean. A striking number of park visitors are foreign born.

I doubt many of these new residents have come for the tailgating or the fraternity parties.

Beer-and-circus isn't going away any time soon, but the changing demographics of town and gown hold out the promise of an increasingly diverse and, perhaps, less insipid local culture.

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A collection of Russell Frank's columns, titled “Among the Woo People: A Survival Guide for Living in a College Town," is available from the Penn State University Press. His columns for won first place for commentary in the 2019 Society of Professional Journalists Keystone Chapter Best in Journalism contest. The winning columns: The Women’s March: Notes from New York, It’s Time to Change the Script and Mixed Messages at Bellefonte High. Frank is a member of the journalism faculty at Penn State. Before launching his academic career, he worked as a reporter, editor and columnist at newspapers in California and Pennsylvania. He is, by academic training, a folklorist (Ph.D., UPenn), which means, when you strip away the academic jargon, that he loves a good story. His views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State University.
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