Samantha Sharf | We go to Penn, but we are Penn State
Elements of Style | We need to get over superiority complexes to stand with Penn State
November 16, 2011, 1:16 am·
Elements of Style
I have been riveted by the Penn State sexual abuse scandal since riots broke out on the university’s State College campus last week. My interest has been part that of a college-news junky and part that of a voyeur who can’t keep her eyes off a train wreck. But for a while, I viewed the events as tragic and other — not concerned with my life beyond Facebook newsfeed updates from my few acquaintances that attend the school.
Like many Penn students, I was initially angry when our lovely campus became entangled in the whole mess through the common confusion of our universities’ names. Don’t we always say, “Not Penn State?”
Digging through the many and varied opinions that have been expressed in the news media this week, however, I was particularly struck by an observation made by Bill Pennington of The New York Times. In his article covering Penn State’s loss to Nebraska on Saturday, Pennington wrote that the football game “was an opportunity to witness a university, indeed perhaps an entire state, wrestling with its conscience.”
Pennington seemed to be saying that all residents of Pennsylvania have some soul-searching to do. I then couldn’t deny the possibility that, despite our perpetual protests, Penn students are more closely tied than the average viewer to the events we have been watching unfold on television and Twitter. Having adopted Pennsylvania as our home, we need to think of ourselves as residents of the state rather than just as members of the Penn community.
We like to make jokes at the expense of Penn State and to criticize those who confuse it with Penn, but it is not just by coincidence that our names are so similar. When we vote for governor, the same candidates are on our ballots; when we select a president, we speak with one electoral voice.
In addition to a geographical connection, Penn and Penn State share a mission as universities. Whether known for academics or athletics, universities are places where people go to find their passions and themselves. This position in society does not, however, make campuses mythical spaces immune from real life, real pain and real crime. But it does make them ideal settings to help the world learn from the messier things that happen within their halls.
We didn’t choose to go to a school because it would constantly be confused with another, nor did Penn State students choose to have their campus turned into a crime scene. What makes us more innocent than the thousands of Penn State students who are not being accused of committing or trying to hide a horrific crime? Why should they have to wrestle with their conscience more than the rest of us?
Penn is not immune to ugly and painful scandals of its own. Were students to blame when former marketing professor Scott Ward was sentenced on charges related to creating and importing child pornography in 2007? What about when former economics professor Rafael Robb killed his wife in 2006?
Given recent events, by announcing that we are “not Penn State,” we are also declaring a moral superiority that history shows simply does not exist. It is not right for us to perpetuate negative feelings toward an entire university rather than just the few who allowed atrocious things to happen there. Like the Penn State fans that supported both their school and victims of sexual abuse by wearing blue to Saturday’s game, we need to stand up for Penn State students and against sexual abuse.
After news of the scandal broke and multiple media organizations very publicly confused the two universities, some members of the Penn community (including an alumnus who started an online petition) called on the trustees to change Penn’s name to something — anything — that would avoid future misunderstandings.
But this loses sight of the larger issues. We should not be saying “not Penn State” but instead joining our fellow students in their chants of “We are Penn State.”
Samantha Sharf, a former Managing Editor for The Daily Pennsylvanian, is a College senior from Old Brookville, N.Y. Her email address is email@example.com. Elements of Style appears every Wednesday.