Utne Reader’s associate editor Danielle Magnuson is a former Penn State professor. Here’s her take on the Penn State ethic:
The little basement room where our cubicles were crammed smelled like dust and coffee. I occupied the farthest cube against the back wall, through which a snippet of window and weak sunlight and outdoor vines peeked. Here I answered student emails and graded compositions and wrote stories. It was a big football university, although I wasn’t there to tailgate but rather to study creative writing in the graduate program and meanwhile earn my way teaching English to undergrads. Some of these undergrads inevitably turned out to be student athletes: softball players, track runners, and of course football players. I was initially leery of them. At a Division I school like Penn State, these are high-profile students with a lot riding on their performance on the field, from scholarships to championships. Or, boiled down, money and prestige.
Here in this little grad student dungeon I fielded an email from a frantic student named Matt Sandusky. He was signed up for my class but had stopped showing up many weeks earlier. He never got around to dropping the course, and then the drop deadline passed—which meant he automatically earned a failing grade. His email asked something to the effect of If I start coming now, is there any way I can get a passing grade? I’m on the football team, and my dad is a coach, and I just can’t fail or I won’t be able to play.
No, I told him firmly, you’ve missed far too much class time to recoup. I’m sorry but you’ve already failed the course.
After the exchange, I talked to the department dean, just in case I got wrapped up in some pushy football player privilege drama. He’s a coach’s son, I said anxiously. No, she assured me, this school has zero tolerance for that; I guarantee you there will be no pressure from the coaching staff.
And there never was. Matt Sandusky accepted my decision, he was sidelined for the season, and I never heard a word from the coaches. I was impressed.
That was fall of 1999, my first semester, and it established the tone for the rest of my three years at University Park. The student athletes turned out to be a wonderfully disciplined lot. They showed up on the first day of class with a list in-hand of each class they would be missing due to games or travel, and explained that they would turn in any homework assignments ahead of time and also take any missed tests ahead of time. They were uniformly polite and deferential; they made use of the tutoring center of their own accord; and they were model students, across the board.
Everyone knew it was head coach Joe Paterno’s rule that made the student athletes so disciplined. His message was clear: Playing college sports is a privilege. Academics always come first. No special license would be accorded to athletes—no extra time for tests or homework, no excuses for missed work, no pressure on instructors from coaching staff to let things slip, no cover-ups for bad behavior in or out of the classroom like at so many other universities. No mass plagiarism scandals, no tolerance of domestic violence. JoePa famously only allowed numbers on jerseys, no names, to discourage egoism. It was a wonderful contrast to what I had braced myself for.
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