FILE – In this Nov. 11, 2011 file photo, people gather in front of the Old Main building for a candlelight vigil on the Penn State campus in State College, Pa., in support of the alleged victims of a child sex abuse scandal involving a former assistant coach. As Penn State leaves a harrowing week behind and takes tentative steps toward a new normal, students and alumni alike wonder what exactly that means. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke, File)
STATE COLLEGE, Pa. (AP) — For Penn State University, there was the past week — a week of unimaginable turmoil and sorrow, anger and disbelief and shame. And then there is tomorrow.
As Penn State leaves a harrowing week behind and takes tentative steps toward a new normal, students and alumni alike wonder what exactly that means. What comes next for a proud institution brought low by allegations that powerful men knew they had a predator in their midst and failed to take action? What should members of its community do now?
“Our best,” said Julie Weiss, 19, a sophomore from Wayne, N.J., pausing outside her dorm to consider the question.
Last week, the worst in its 156-year history, the place called Happy Valley became noticeably less so. Students and alumni felt betrayed as child sex abuse allegations exploded onto the nation’s front pages, bringing notoriety to a place largely untouched by, and unaccustomed to, scandal.
As the school’s trustees pledge to get to the bottom of the saga, many Penn Staters are feeling sadness, anger, a sense of loss. Some can’t sleep. Others walk around with knots in their stomachs or can’t stop thinking about the victims. Wherever two or more people congregate, the subject inevitably comes up. Even Saturday’s pregame tailgate parties were muted with the subject that hung low over everything.
“Everyone’s been struggling to reconcile how something so bad could happen in a place that we all think is so good,” said senior Gina Mattei, 21, of Glen Mills, Pa., hours after Penn State played its first game since 1965 without Joe Paterno on the sidelines as head coach. “It’s sad to think that something like that could happen HERE, in a place where everyone is really comfortable and has a lot of community spirit.”
Penn State’s former assistant football coach, Jerry Sandusky, was charged Nov. 5 with molesting eight boys over a span of 15 years, and two university officials were charged with failing to notify authorities after being told about a 2002 incident in which Sandusky allegedly sodomized a boy in the showers of the football building.
The scandal quickly metastasized, costing two more key figures their jobs — Paterno, the face of Penn State football since 1966, as well as university president Graham Spanier. It also tarnished the reputation of an institution that preached “success with honor” — that, according to its own credo, was supposed to be better than this.
“Everyone kind of feels like this is just the beginning. We still have a (long) way to go for Penn State to redeem itself and get back to the place where we were,” said Mattei, who was selling cupcakes, bagels and Rice Krispie treats on College Avenue on Saturday night to raise money for her honors psychology society.
Some students argue that the question itself — “How does Penn State regain what it’s lost?” — is flawed. This remains a world-renowned research institution, they point out. It’s still the place where students hold THON, a yearly dance marathon that raises millions of dollars for pediatric cancer research. It’s far more than football and far bigger than Sandusky, Spanier, even Paterno.
“I don’t think that our name is tarnished at all,” said Amy Fietlson, 19, a sophomore and aspiring veterinarian from New Jersey. “The integrity of a few individuals who have been involved with this school is definitely tarnished, but for the rest of us that had no way of preventing it or had no involvement in it, we are not tarnished at all. Our integrity remains.”
Mattei’s boyfriend, Adam DiAntonio, a 22-year-old senior from Chester Heights, Pa., said that “99.9 percent of the university is still committed to the Penn State that everybody has known.”
Determined words. In reality, though, it won’t be easy, even with a commitment from new president Rodney Erickson to restore confidence and “rebuild our community.” Too much damage has been done during a week of growing revelations, mounting anger and shock after nationally televised shock.
The U.S. Education Department is investigating whether the university violated federal law by failing to report the alleged sexual assaults. Some donors are expected to pull back, at least in the short term. One football recruit has already changed his mind about attending Penn State next year. Moody’s Investors Service Inc. warned that it might downgrade Penn State’s bond rating as it gauges the impact of possible lawsuits.
Then there’s the risk that new allegations of wrongdoing — more abuse victims coming forward, perhaps, or evidence of a wider cover-up than what’s already been alleged — could jolt the campus again.
“I hope and I pray that it doesn’t go any further than what we’ve already seen, which is as tragic as it gets,” said George Werner, 47, a Penn State graduate who was tailgating with friends Saturday in the shadow of Beaver Stadium.
Werner, 47, who lives outside Ann Arbor, Mich., said he has struggled with the scandal every day, waking in the middle of the night and unable to go back to sleep. He fears it will be a long, long time before the university gets back to normal. “Maybe not in my lifetime,” he says.
His friend and fellow alumnus John Jackson, 49, of Doylestown, Pa., said he doubts Penn State can move on until the depths of the Sandusky case are plumbed.
“They need to do a deep dive and investigate everything and everybody. It’s going to be starting from scratch in a lot of ways,” Jackson said. “We know how serious this is. The focus needs to be on the children, the harm that was done.”
Still, Jackson said, “there’s way more good than bad and that’s how you move on, as much as people want to lump us in.”
On a warm Saturday afternoon, Jackson and Werner joined a crowd looking for catharsis. Beaver Stadium pulsed with its usual energy as more than 100,000 fans waited for kickoff.
“WE ARE! PENN STATE!” they roared in thundering unison. The old chant seemed to take on new significance after a singularly horrific week. It was an incantation, as if saying the words could restore things to the way they were. It was affirmation. It was a chance to show the world that Penn State is still Penn State.
The university is so big — it’s basically a small city unto itself — that very little can alter the daily routine. Students still took tests, wrote papers, did research. Penn Staters still showed characteristic pride in their school. Saturday night crowds still packed College Avenue’s bars, pizza parlors, galleries and clothing stores.
Yet the Sandusky case reached beyond the confines of the football program into every corner of campus and across the vast alumni network, too.
At the Paterno Library, Alexandra Santoyo bent over a table, looking at a USA Today with “VICTIM 1,” a reference to one of the children whom Sandusky is accused of abusing, splashed in big letters. Santoyo, a university administrator from Mexico City who’s at Penn State for a yearlong study program, said she felt terrible.
Earl Holt, a 2005 graduate who teaches school in Washington, D.C., said students and colleagues have asked him about Penn State. He came to State College over the weekend to see for himself, catching the game and gauging the mood on campus. He said he sensed “an atmosphere of disappointment, but also of wanting to heal the situation and move forward and progress.”
After a week in which the focus was on Paterno and the football program, students and alumni moved at week’s end to put it back where they felt it belonged — on the victims. Thousands massed on the lawn of the Old Main administration building for a candlelight vigil Friday night. Students took part in a “blue-out” Saturday, wearing the color of child abuse prevention. Taking a page from THON, a group of Penn State alumni began raising money for sexual violence prevention — and has already collected more than $300,000. It felt good to do something, people said.
Indeed, 38-year-old Matt Bodenschatz, a Penn State student and a survivor of childhood sexual abuse himself, urged his fellow students to move beyond symbolic expressions of outrage and past their “desperate insistence that “‘We are still Penn State.'”
In a column posted Sunday on the website of the local paper, the Centre Daily Times, Bodenschatz said more is needed.
He wrote: “Until and unless you find a way to do something genuine, lasting and sincerely sympathetic for someone at the receiving end of these very real, crippling crimes in our headlines — even if you never get to meet them or to know any of their names — then your indignation is unearned and misplaced.”