By Kate Snow
Rock Center correspondent
There’s a cheer I learned long ago at Penn State University. Half the stadium yells “We are!” The other half responds with “Penn State!”
I know this cheer well because I’ve logged a lot of time on the Penn State campus. I’ve been to too many tailgates to count. My son Zack marked his first birthday on a “football Saturday” (as they say) in that sprawling field over behind the dairy barn.
I didn’t attend Penn State or grow up in State College. But years ago, in the mid-90s, my parents moved here. My father came here very much on purpose, to join an anthropology department that this year was rated the top department in the nation.
My father, Dr. Dean Snow, is a professor and once chaired that anthropology department at Penn State. He is an archeologist by specialty.
And so, as you might imagine, the first phone call I made when I heard the news about the grand jury report two weeks back was to my dad. He was devastated by the revelations, as were all of his friends and colleagues.
He was horrified by what allegedly happened to young boys. He was outraged by the idea that those alleged crimes might have been preventable. He was concerned about what all of this would mean for the image and the future of his beloved institution.
When rioters overturned a television truck on the night that football coach Joe Paterno was fired, my father and I traded text messages.
“Major disturbances downtown last night,” my dad wrote. “Bad.”
He and my mother were disturbed when those images ran on an endless loop on the cable channels. They didn’t want a few outliers to define the response of their community.
And so it seemed only right to ask my father last Friday if he would agree to sit down for an interview with a journalist he knows pretty well.
I wanted to ask Dr. Snow and a few other professors to share the conversations they’ve been having amongst themselves, to give us some professorial insight on all that’s happened.
It is very strange to interview your own father. And equally strange to be interviewed by your daughter. But I’m glad my father said yes.
The students, he said, have been looking for cues from the faculty. They’ve been quizzing professors about what they think and how this could happen.
My father compared the shock of the grand jury report to experiencing a death in the family.
“It'll never be the same,” he said. “It'll be good again. But the major change has occurred. There's been a shift in our little universe. And so we're going to move on and be different from what we were before.”
Professor Russell Frank has been using the whole experience as a case study for his journalism students.
“I tell them at the beginning of the semester that, you know, sometime in the semester, there's going to be some big story, some big journalism ethics scandal or issue-- that's just going to be perfect fodder for this class,” he said. “Who ever thought it would be in our yard?”
We talked at length about what they call the university’s “top-down” structure, the outsized role of the football program and Joe Paterno.
“We went from a university that had never been investigated, never run afoul of the NCAA… to a university that shielded an alleged child rapist for nine years. That's an incredible-- I-- I'm still not getting my head around that,” said Dr. Michael Berube, who holds a professorship in English Literature that was endowed by the Paterno Family.
Yes football was king here. But there was a flip side as well. Every one of the professors we interviewed joined Penn State at a time when coach Paterno was attracting new funding for the university and donating generously himself to build academic and research programs.
Paterno was lionized for holding his athletes to a high academic standard.
I asked the professors about a comment made by one of their colleagues. Charles Yesalis, a retired Penn State professor, told Sports Illustrated: “Penn State will never fully get its reputation back as the guys in the white hats.”
“Maybe it's a good thing not to have that reputation,” said Dr. Susan Squier, professor of women’s studies and English. “Because maybe none of us wear white hats all the time. And maybe it's about being adult enough finally and talking among ourselves and realizing that. I mean, I'm not sure we want that reputation if what it is is an illusion or a myth.”
“Not only can't we get that reputation back,” said Dr. Berube, “but there's no way to go back from this… For decades, Penn State will be associated with this.”
Maybe the cheer takes on new meaning now, they said. It’s not just about sports anymore, but about a damaged institution—students and faculty-- trying to pick up the pieces and come together to restore their pride, while never forgetting the victims.
We are. Penn State.
“It's not Joe Paterno for all his contributions and all his fame,” said Frank.
“It's the students, and it's us. The faculty. You know? We are. The university.”