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The Soul of Penn State----Comments on Penn State Trustees' Paterno Field Resolution

On Friday February 16th a number of Penn State Trustees, with the support of tens of thousands of Penn State Alumni introduced a resolution to honor Sue and Joe Paterno by, among other things, naming the field at Beaver Stadium "Paterno Field."

After the resolution was introduced, I delivered the following comments to ask that we simply postpone the resolution:

“The Soul of Penn State” 


I want to address the resolution to honor Joe and Sue Paterno and their lives of service to Penn State University.


In addressing this board, I do so as an alum, a former university employee and a Trustee---but also as someone who understands the man at the center of this discussion.


On Joe Paterno’s desk blotter he taped quotes he’d read that aligned with his worldview. Time has faded the pencil of his handwriting, but the words of a Lincoln quote endure:


“I do the very best I know how, the very best I can, and I mean to do so until the end. If the end brings me out all right what is said against me won’t amount to anything. If I’m wrong, ten angels swearing I was right won’t make a difference.”


While much has been said against him over the last 12 years, it is important to note this for the record: The prosecuting attorney general commended Joe Paterno’s actions in this case. Four Pennsylvania Attorneys General all came to the same conclusion; Joe Paterno followed the law and cooperated fully. He did not attempt to conceal, cover-up anything and was in no way an enabler of any crimes.


Those are facts established by a full and fair examination of all the evidence by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.


It is not enough to say that “He did nothing wrong” but rather in his handling of this case it is more important to say “He did the right thing” –both then and even as would be required today under current law, university policy and NCAA guidelines.  


With that said, we have a resolution that would help correct false narratives. After 12 years some argue that the time is long overdue to correct the historical record. Others think that it’s not important.


Getting it right is important because that decades-long era of Penn State history was never about one man. Thousands of players, coaches, administrators and tens of thousands of students and fans earned ownership of that era’s proud history of Success With Honor.


For 61 years working at Penn State he served as a coach, an athletic director and a tenured faculty member, Joe Pateno understood and respected the chain of command of working for an Athletic director who worked for the president who served at the direction of the board of trustees.


He understood that alignment on issues and priorities at the University started first with our land-grant mission and priorities flowed from the top down not from the bottom up. Football served the University and not the other way around.


With that understanding as prologue we stand here with issues of our history before us at a time of great challenges.


As it relates to this resolution, the President and this administration have indicated to this Board that they do not want these actions to happen right now. They acknowledge the truth about Joe Paterno, but they’ve cited factors unrelated to him, as reasons for postponing recognition at this time.


They want to focus our university on current challenges with an eye towards future recognition.


Let’s speak to those challenges…..


Deans, faculty and staff across all of our campuses are being asked to tighten budgets, roll up our sleeves and attack the fallout from a decade of fiscal mismanagement and leadership malaise when aspirational vision was in short supply.


The call must go out to reignite the soul of Penn State to strengthen our foundations in difficult times.


At this moment, were Joe Paterno to be standing here, he would respect the President’s opinions. He would not want a focus on him to be the issue of the day.


That would not surprise those who knew him….


Nine months before the 2011 season began, he’d decided to retire with an agreed-upon succession plan with the administration, including discussions with a small group of very prominent head coaching candidates. It was kept quiet because he wanted the focus for the 2011 season to be on the team.


In early 1983, fresh off a National Championship, Joe addressed the Board of Trustees. Penn State was on the verge of a new Presidential administration and was facing difficult fiscal challenges.


Rather than take a bow, or ask for more money for athletics, he challenged the University to chart a new course.


He called on Penn State to raise more money for academic endowments and challenged every department to elevate their attention to education and research. He advocated for a more diverse student body.


He wanted the university to reach for greatness in every area—an endeavor requiring everyone to sacrifice and to exhibit “a reach that exceeded our grasp.”


He wanted this university to capture the passion of our alumni.  Now-- 41 years later, we need that same focus.


Higher education is under attack from some seeking political gain by misrepresenting much of what we do here. The value of a higher education is being questioned by a generation that is hesitant to be saddled by student debt. Diversity efforts are being attacked. Free speech issues are pulling us apart. Donors want to dictate decisions and curriculum.


For many students a college experience has become transactional. Students and families hand over $100,000, $200,000 or more to diploma mills for a credential of approval to make them employable.


If we talk about higher education as a business, we play right into that transactional ethos. Penn State University should be treasured as our Alma Mater, not seen as a treasure chest of loot.


Throughout our history Penn State’s passionate faculty, staff and students made this a college town community that created familial connections to last a lifetime. That is the genesis of our soul—a soul drawing students from around the world.


Many faculty and staff came to Penn State not because we offered the biggest paycheck, but because they believed in all that “WE Are” meant.       Many of our best people stayed despite opportunities to teach or work elsewhere for more money or perceived prestige.


For those people, their passion comes through in lectures, office hours and research. It comes through in faculty and staff who relish seeing young people arrive at “Childhood’s Gate” and leave a few years later molded by Dear Old State.


It wasn’t perfect—but that set us apart.


That was and should always be the soul of Penn State. Ensuring that will take hard work, sacrifice, and unselfish leadership.


This administration and this Board must chart that course.


It will require fiscal responsibility and sacrifice from every department and every enterprise in this University. From research to teaching to athletics to the administration and everything in between, everyone has to ante up.


In honoring the legacy of Sue and Joe Paterno at this moment—we should respect the wishes of this administration. But we should also work together with this administration to ensure that the hard work ahead is borne by sacrifice from everyone at Penn State.


If Joe Paterno was here now, he’d respect the vision of our President and implore us to do the hard things required for the future of Penn State.


He’d focus on making sure future generations of Penn State graduates can afford their education----------- with a chance to start their post-college years building lives of meaning and service that  Swell the fame of dear old state.


He’d be more concerned about improving falling academic rankings and sagging off-the field academic APR football scores than seeing his name on the field.




We’ve got the ball. The wind and rain may be in our face facing a hostile crowd with eighty or more yards between us and the end zone. But we’re called to begin a game-winning drive to restore the soul of this proud university for the generations to come.


Success will require putting aside personal preferences for the good of all.


Yesterday morning to gather some thoughts, I was at Joe’s grave just a mile or two from here. It was cold and quiet. The early morning light was just starting to come up over Mount Nittany.


As is a custom I recited the words of the Lord’s Prayer at his grave—a continuation of a decades-long tradition when our teams held hands and recited that prayer before and after every game. Once in a conversation he revealed the reason for that.


It’s really a non-secular prayer for all people. And every pronoun is plural—We, Us, Our…no I, Me or Mine.   


We and Us –----WE are.


That cemetery is a final resting place for many professors, alumni and people who lived lives of service to Penn State. Those people embodied the soul of Penn State. They did the very best they could and they did so until the end.  


It is fitting that they are buried on a hill sloped towards the sunrise. Because in life they wanted Penn State to meet each new dawn, cognizant of our soul and armed with a knowledge of a grand history that was vital to guide us forward.


As we look toward tomorrow, we can both honor the past while also building towards the future. The truly enduring excellence of a university comes from nurturing its roots to grow strong branches reaching ever higher towards the sun.


And that is the challenge of our time.

With that I humbly ask that the resolution brought forward today be held for a future date, a date upon which we’ve charted the course to meet the same vision and shared history of the two people some want to honor. But with Sue Paterno having turned 84 two days ago, and knowing that tomorrow is promised to no one, we can only hope that the future comes sooner than later.


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