Before I came to State College in the 1990s, all I knew about Penn State was that Joe Paterno was the football coach and the team was called the Nittany Lions, a species of big cat that was unfamiliar to me.
I assumed that the place was a football factory, which is to say, a not-very-serious institution as far as academics are concerned.
Those who paid closer attention knew Penn State as the great, shining example of intercollegiate athletics done right, which meant, roughly, that the coach did not cut corners when it came to recruiting and educating his players. Athletics and academic integrity, in perfect harmony.
Still, unless those players were winning Nobel Prizes, making sure they did their own work and kept their grades up (assuming they did) did not in itself confer elite status on the university. So when I got here (as the features editor of the Centre Daily Times; I joined the Penn State faculty two years later) I was surprised to learn that Penn State does, in fact, employ world-class scholars who are doing ground-breaking research in their fields.
The paradox of Joe Paterno is that he both contributed to the stature of the university as a research institution through the money and attention he attracted, and he obscured it. A football coach became the face of the university, not just to the outside world, but, as we saw last week, to many Penn Staters as well. If State College was "a drinking town with a football problem," as the bumper sticker put it, Penn State was a football team with a good university rather than the other way around.
We are paying dearly for that image now. But I think being a drinking town with a football problem has been hurting us for a long time. Too many of our students come here for the fun and games. Eavesdrop on their conversations as they shuttle between classes. You'll hear a lot about drinking plans or drinking exploits and very little about the content of their courses.
Cross College Avenue and look for a downtown bookstore. You won't find one. In a college town with 45,000 students!
This is not, in short, a very intellectual place. Which is a very odd thing to say about a community inhabited by so many intellectuals. But they're barely visible. The university's own website doesn't even boast of its faculty's achievements. A page devoted to "Penn State Firsts" hasn't been updated since 2007.
Note that we have a Penn State All-Sports Museum that celebrates "the athletic history and heritage of one of the greatest universities in the nation," but no Penn State All-Academics Museum that honors the university's scholarly history and heritage.
Read the Daily Collegian and you would scarcely know this university even has a faculty. (I've been nagging the paper's staffers for years to profile the university's outstanding instructors and scholars.)
We hear so much about Penn State Pride, but what, exactly, is everyone so proud of? Having "the best student section in the country" (whatever that means)?
It sounds to me like we're mostly proud of how proud we are. We are...Penn State! Well, yes. And Ohio State is Ohio State.
The reputation of the university is damaged by the Sandusky scandal only if we behave in ways that confirm the outside view that Penn State is football and Joe Paterno and Joe Paterno and football are Penn State.
The way to counter that view is to put the emphasis back where it belongs: on teaching and learning. All of us have a role to play.
I sometimes feel like we're caught in a death spiral of disengagement. Students, by texting and puzzle-solving and zoning out, show no interest in their classes, which causes instructors to give up on trying to engage them. Instructors, by focusing first and foremost on their research, show no interest in their classes, causing students to text and solve puzzles and zone out. The classroom becomes a dead zone. The focus of everyone's interest and attention is elsewhere.
Crossing the Old Main lawn the other morning, I looked up at what the TV cameras were looking at: the faceless clock on Old Main's bell tower. The mock clocks that have been installed while the real ones are being repaired make the hallowed halls look more like a movie set than a real place – like a Stand-up Penn State to go with our Stand-up Joe.
Thankfully, it is Thanksgiving. All of us can step away and breathe deep. The TV trucks will go looking for fresh meat. The hysteria will subside. Our idols have fallen, but the sky has not.
When we return after the holiday perhaps we can rededicate ourselves to carrying out the mission of the Pennsylvania State University, which, if you read it, contains nary a word about football.