Redirecting the Penn State Way

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Prior to the Freeh report, the phrase "The Penn State Way" was used around here part jokingly, part seriously, and always with more than a grain of truth to it. Penn State does things its own way. The Freeh report refers to The Penn State Way "as an approach to decision-making, a resistance to seeking outside perspectives" and fingers it as a source of major problems. When I read that phrase in the report, I imagined investigators repeatedly jotting down the phrase in their investigator pads, maybe even circling it and placing a question mark beside it. By the fiftieth or sixtieth time they heard it, they were probably starring it and underlining it, even coding it: PSW.

Penn State is of course like any other institution in that it cultivates its own habits and practices. But when those institutional habits and practices can be encapsulated by such pithy self-reference--the very understanding of which depends on a kind of insider status-- it's probably not a good thing. The phrase takes the the chest-thumping chant repeated by our students--"We are!"--and stretches it toward what that identity means practically, how it manifests in terms of decisions large and small, mostly unidirectional lines of communication. Most importantly, the vagueness of the Way combines with a certainty that the Way exists to create a generalized fear of violating said Way.

Here is a small example of the Penn State Way. Back in November when I focused some of my energies on this letter to The Collegian requesting that Gary Schultz's name be removed from the new daycare center on campus, I heard from more than one person that my colleagues were whispering about it, wondering if I would get reprimanded somehow for speaking out.  I had, in short, gone against the Penn State Way, made a case for swift action and let it be known that I thought the discipline received by Sandusky--to ask him not to bring guests onto campus--had "protect the University, not children" written all over it. In the meantime, and in a more visible/audible instance  of the PSW, the faculty senate--the voice of the faculty--circulated an email telling faculty it was inappropriate to comment on allegations against Sandusky.

At other universities where I've worked (also big public ones), it is considered not only appropriate but par for the course for faculty members to speak their minds. Faculty members at Illinois (my previous institution) in particular are a vocal lot, and this even goes for the ones without tenure. But the Penn State Way has made faculty into a relatively quiet group. Faculty objections to the vacating (thanks for that word NCAA!) of programs such as Science and Technology Studies come too late in the process to do any good. Administrators act; faculty react. Decisions are handed down. (The passive voice ought to glare.)   
I'm no NCAA administrator, and I don't have the ethos of a former FBI director. I am just one faculty member. But the first change I would like to see around here--and I know I'm not alone--is a real honest-to-goodness self-accounting of the depth and reach of the Penn State Way, which might well begin by asking faculty and staff--the foot soldiers, and the ones who often feel they are most beholden to said Way--about their ideas for transforming, redirecting, and yes, cracking open the Way. And it shouldn't take the form of general kvetching or whining (both habits encouraged by the Penn State Way, by the way, because of the lack of widespread consultation), but rather the outlining of principled ideas and propositions.

The CDD is planning a forum for the fall semester during which such ideas and propositions can be shared and discussed in a thoughtful, deliberative way, but we shouldn't wait until fall semester to start sharing and deliberating about such ideas. For Penn State faculty and employees: what has the Penn State Way meant for your work, your colleagues, and your area? Are there parts of the PSW worth salvaging? What ideas do you have for concrete change? For other readers in work environments that sound similar, what strategies or insights can you share that might help us remake the Penn State Way?

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Thanks for such a fantastic blog! I really look forward to hearing about others' experiences and their ideas for changing this Penn-State-Way culture. I think you're absolutely right that the reach of the "PSW" touches on almost all aspects of university life -- down to the smallest day-to-day decisions. I hope change happens at every single level. But for right now, I'll start with one suggestion that's at the upper levels -- I think there needs to be some type of faculty and staff representation on the BOT -- at a very minimum. Even if the faculty and staff aren't given formal voting rights, they should be able to attend the meetings and to learn of (and share) the discussions and rationales for decisions that affect the university and everyone who works here. I'm just not sure why that's not in place right now. Do other universities allow for this?

Thank you Mary Beth for alerting me to this blog.

As a native of Norfolk, Virginia I grew up with a major Navy influence. I did not live in a company town, but understood clearly that there was a right way, a wrong way and the Navy way. That phrase resonates with me today.

Ignoring the Sandusky scandal for a moment I recall the PSW and the Board of Trustees validating the below market sale of 1000 "surplus" acres (Circleville Farms) to a venture led by a fellow trustee. The Board apparently did not see the need to issue a Request for Bids, and only after embarassment sold the land to an unaffiliated venture.

In another instance the Board did issue an RFP for the Village at Penn State. The winning venture included a former football coach and the possibility exists that his association may have dissuaded other ventures from bidding. The winning bidder recently declared bankruptcy.

These activities were not illegal, but they created doubt as to their appropriateness. Let us resolve that Penn State and its agents never come close to impropriety or illegality.

Great post ... and you know what I'm gonna say: we need a good, strong AAUP chapter here more than ever. And plenty of people who know exactly how the Core Council failed to follow AAUP guidelines for program closures.

Excellent insights! I thought it would be useful if academic units (maybe Colleges, maybe Depts.) created a task force to examine local policies and generate ways to increase transparency and shared governance. It doesn't necessarily have to be big changes (although it may involve those); even small changes to process can be helpful. These recommendations can then spark conversations with administration, faculty and staff. We all know the last 8 months have been difficult, but this is an opportunity to be self reflexive and consider how to improve decision making at all levels at Penn State.

thanks everybody for these ideas. They are all great. I wanted to add a related paragraph from Russell Frank's recent column:
"If we’re going to reform the university, let’s start with its charter. Let us not entrust all the policy-making at an institution of higher learning to a group of people who are not educators. Let us not put so much faith in the notion that people who run businesses are qualified to run other kinds of enterprises. Let us reduce the role of agricultural interests in the governance of a 21st-century university. Let’s see some faculty representation on the board of trustees. Let’s see some people from the arts, humanities and the sciences on the board of trustees."
the rest of the column is here:

As someone still relatively new (just over a year) to PSU and the "Penn State Way," I am grappling with what this concept signifies. I hear the term quite often, both in aspirational and cynical contexts. At its best, I would hope the “Penn State Way” refers to an effort conducted with hard work, integrity, best practices, and cooperation. However, in my role as an administrator at the university, when I have shared the obstacles and frustrations I have encountered in my work with others, the response is very often, “welcome to the “Penn State Way.””

In my day to day activities, I am charged with working with several functional units of the university. I have found it extremely challenging to introduce new ideas or initiatives. On occasion I have had colleagues in these units reject suggestions without even the benefit of an initial discussion. Unfortunately, when I have shared my experiences with my own unit’s leaders (who agree with my ideas/initiatives,) there is a wholesale reluctance to push back, a strong aversion to “rocking the boat.” It is very troublesome to see those in decision-making roles resign themselves to this definition of the “the Penn State Way.”

Prior to coming to Penn State, I had never worked in academia. My professional experience was in the corporate world. I had been accustomed to organizations always searching for better and more efficient practices, knowing that if they didn’t constantly innovate and improve, the competition would. And in this context, my co-workers and I in private industry were well aware that if we didn’t stay on top of our game, there was always someone smarter, faster and more creative waiting in the wings to replace us. In my experience thus far, Penn State seems to operate differently; change is not always embraced and it certainly isn’t expeditious and new thoughts and practices are often considered suspect rather than welcomed.

I think the “Penn State Way” will only be redefined if efforts are made by the most senior leaders at the university. A university-wide culture needs to exist where faculty and employees at all levels are encouraged to voice their opinions and suggestions and are appreciated for doing so. Units need to be evaluated objectively, based on benchmarks that demand their leaders to seek out and implement best practices. Based on the events of the past 10 months, it is obvious that the “Penn State Way” has not been a source of university pride. I hope that the Penn State community would be willing to change this moving forward.


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