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Penn State, Higher Education and the Compact with Society

penn state

by Kenneth Rudich

At universities with influential athletic programs like the one at Penn State, you’ll commonly find a polarity of thought on campus that resembles something along the lines of a sibling rivalry.  In this case, the siblings tend to be divided into those that focus on nurturing the academic side of the institution versus those more interested in the athletics program.  

For instance, ask a faculty member about the core mission of the college or university and he/she will almost assuredly assert it’s grounded in teaching, learning and, at many, research and discovery.

Or they’ll proudly talk about the effort to endow students with specific knowledge in a discipline or mix of interrelated disciplines; and also helping them to develop their abilities in areas such as collaboration/teamwork, communication, creativity, critical thinking, and personal initiative.

Perhaps they’ll regale you with stories on how they constantly nudge their students to engage in reasoned thought and action, to carefully study all sides of an issue or circumstance, and to draw conclusions only after having acquired all the facts. 

Heck, pose the same question to recently ousted Penn State President Graham Spanier and he’s apt to repeat a line from a speech he delivered early on in his 16 year tenure as president, in which he characterized the mission as also including “the challenge of developing character, conscience, citizenship, tolerance, and social responsibility in a society that sometimes gives the impression that such virtues are optional.”  (The irony of what has ensued all these years later, and now stands out in high relief, is hard to fathom.  But those were his words, and they are as on point today as they were back then.)

Seldom, if ever, will you hear an academic claim it’s part of the mission to persuade others into giving the football-basketball-baseball teams and their representatives unconditional support and attention.  Nor will they elaborate on how vitally important it is to have a winning season this year.

In fact, ask the faculty what role the athletics program plays in contributing to the core mission of the institution and then watch what happens.

You’re as likely as not to be greeted with a pursing of the lips, a shrug of the shoulders and a long pregnant pause.  At best, they’ll describe it as a diversion from the real work being done at the institution, though the purist among them may well even scowl in disgust over the mere insinuation that the athletics program makes any contribution at all (apart, perhaps, from having to concede the obvious financial one from teams that turn a big profit).

For the people deeply committed to the academic side, athletics in higher education has been a longstanding source of apprehension precisely because scholars don’t see anything scholarly in it.  Indeed, the thought of being paired together under the same good name of the university is enough to make some of them cringe.

With the above as a backdrop, it should be recognized that the current situation swirling around Penn State, in all its deplorable depth and scope, was set in motion by influences far removed from the hearts and minds of those who have stayed true to the core mission as they see it.  Unlike the relative few who have clearly strayed, a majority understand they’ve been entrusted by society to live the mission minute-by-minute, and to embody it day-after-day.  Most importantly, they fully embrace this trust with sacred devotion, both as individuals and as a collective.  In higher education circles it’s known as a compact with society.

For this group then, the only thing close to the harm the victimized children have suffered is the harm of having the compact with society broken from within the university ranks.  The rogue behavior of the relative few swept up in this mess, wherein all should have known better and done better, pains everyone else who strives to preserve and protect the good of the compact.

Theodore Roosevelt once said, “To educate a person in mind and not in morals is to educate a menace in society.”

Higher education’s compact with society wholeheartedly strives to support this ideal by helping to develop well-rounded citizens.

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