Mourning Happy Valley

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By Amy Shuster

Throughout yesterday’s losing game against Nebraska, Penn State fans repeated the roar “We are Penn State” as they have for countless seasons. The cheer rings hollow and no longer sounds true to my ears. I am not Penn State, at least not the Penn State I’ve watched this week, though I am an alum.

As this story unfolded and worsened each day, my heart ached for a Penn State that never existed. The Philadelphia Inquirer’s Bill Lyon perfectly captures autumn in “Happy Valley,” the downfall of Joe Paterno and perhaps the university itself – from Camelot to this. A flood of images fill my mind as I watch the school’s reaction to the ugly news, intercut with my own Penn State experience. Penn State, ranked among the top 15 of national public universities, never seems able to shake its reputation as a “party” school. The scandal reminds me why Penn State is its own worst enemy.

Raucous college students protesting for Coach Paterno on E. College Ave. on Wednesday gave me the same nausea I felt when I ate too many grilled sticky buns at Ye Olde College Diner. The atmosphere looked like the same perpetual state of bacchanalia as at a football rally. There was no sense of a hallowed institution of higher learning. This was happening in a university environment where intellectual questioning and reasoning should be the order of the day. Instead, we heard the sound of the monolithic football culture that cries above all else “We are Penn State.”

The silence at Friday night’s candlelight vigil, while appropriately reverent, does not seem like a sufficient response to the administration that missed its chance already. The time has come to hear the voices of distinct and disparate individuals, students and faculty members, questioning the administration, those who would live up to a higher academic ideal and challenge the “We Are Penn State no matter what happens” attitude. Football culture at Penn State overwhelms all else. The church of Joe Paterno overpowers the intellectual culture of the university. We’ve seen all week that for those who held the keys of power to Penn State, football is the actual lifeblood of the university.

At a dinner party I attended recently, a woman who also works in the news business asked me if I attended J school at Columbia. “No,” I told her, “Penn State.” She visibly shuddered and asked me if I’d heard the “This America Life” episode about my school, #1 Party School. “There’s a widespread alcoholism problem among the students, I’ll never think of the place the same way,” she said. I can only imagine what she thinks now.

I don’t plan to disown the university or burn my diploma any time soon, but I will not regain my pride in my alma mater until the university elevates itself and uses this horrific event in its history to rebuild on higher moral ground, teaching its students a real sense of social obligation and responsibility to every person the institution touches.

(Video: Singing at Joe Paterno’s house last week.)

Mourning Happy Valley

Updated