Skip to main content

The end of 'Joe Paterno University'

By Thomas L. Day, Special to CNN
July 13, 2012 -- Updated 1129 GMT (1929 HKT)
  • A new report says Penn State showed "consistent disregard" for victims of sex abuse
  • Thomas Day: The old Penn State was a top-down autocracy
  • Before the Sandusky scandal erupted, the school leaders were accountable to no one
  • Day: New Penn State should have a code of ethics that rivals that of the U.S. Military Academy

Editor's note: Thomas L. Day, a graduate of Penn State University, is an Iraq war veteran and former reporter for McClatchy. He recently founded, an organization dedicated to uniting emerging public leaders behind a core set of principles. Follow him on Twitter @PSpledge.

(CNN) -- I remember attending a speech by Bob Woodward when I was a senior at Penn State. Woodward, then completing "Bush at War," his first of four inside-the-room books about the Bush administration, opened his lecture by thanking the audience for welcoming him to "Joe Paterno University."

Penn State may have been "Joe Paterno University" then. Most in the audience seemed to embrace the label.

News: Penn State leaders disregarded victims, 'empowered' Sandusky

That was the pre-Sandusky Penn State University, defined by one man who, along with the school's president, athletic director and senior vice president, were accountable to absolutely no one.

Thomas L. Day
Thomas L. Day

It wasn't just the football coach who did as he pleased.

When he was president, Graham Spanier signed off one construction project after another, remaking Penn State's University Park campus block by block, to the point that few of the Class of 2003 (my class) could recognize the school they attended a decade ago. In part because of the construction bonanza, tuition more than doubled during Spanier's tenure. Penn State is now the most expensive state school in the country.

Freeh report blasts PSU officials
PSU victims' attorney: Report devastating
Jay Paterno: Freeh report is not the end
Should Penn St. president be prosecuted?

In 2006, an internal report found that women's basketball coach Rene Portland had for years sought to remove players from her team if she thought they were lesbians. Portland's outrageous behavior did not go unnoticed. Athletic Director Tim Curley ordered Portland into much-needed counseling and levied a fine on her. But incredibly, he permitted her to coach the 2007 season. Nobody held Curley accountable for letting her coach the women's basketball team.

Then came the Sandusky scandal. Immediately after Curley and retired Senior Vice President Gary Schultz were indicted for lying to the grand jury, Spanier issued this statement: "I have complete confidence in how they handled the allegations." It appears that in their minds, not even the law could hold these men accountable for their actions.

As the report from Louis Freeh makes clear, at Joe Paterno University, those in a position of power played by their own rules.

"We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them," Albert Einstein is often quoted as saying. The former Penn State administration embodied a wrong kind of thinking: They believed it was more "humane" to defend the interests of a colleague than the safety of children, according to e-mail exchanges produced by Freeh's report.

Now is the time to move on from Joe Paterno University while remembering and learning from the mistakes of the past. Let the Freeh report be a line where from Joe Paterno University ends and the new Penn State begins.

The old Penn State was a top-down autocracy, with its name attached to its football team before its academic achievements and welfare of students. The new Penn State should be just the opposite: a school infused with a communitarian ethic, where all who attended or once attended Penn State are empowered to build and maintain our school's name.

The new Penn State should be a place with a code of ethics that rivals that of the U.S. Military Academy, mutually reinforced by the students and faculty.

News: Penn State review recasts story of football hero Paterno

The new Penn State should be a school that produces not just leaders, entrepreneurs and innovators but leaders, entrepreneurs and innovators committed to earning profits only while maintaining one's principles.

The new Penn State should be a school that produces public servants dedicated to serving the common good ahead of their own selfish interests.

The new Penn State should be a place where students are driven by a sense that we all have a stake in the events around us. This could not have been made clearer by the Freeh report.

Following the firing of Penn State's legendary football coach Joe Paterno and the school's president, hundreds of students take to the streets in State College, Pennsylvania, early Thursday, November 10. Following the firing of Penn State's legendary football coach Joe Paterno and the school's president, hundreds of students take to the streets in State College, Pennsylvania, early Thursday, November 10.
Penn State students take to the streets
Penn State students take to the streets Penn State students take to the streets
Former Penn State football coach Joe Paterno died on January 22. He was 85. The legendary coach, seen here in 1988, was fired in November 2011 during his 46th season at the helm of the Nittany Lions program. Former Penn State football coach Joe Paterno died on January 22. He was 85. The legendary coach, seen here in 1988, was fired in November 2011 during his 46th season at the helm of the Nittany Lions program.
Paterno as Penn State coach
Photos: Paterno as Penn State coach Photos: Paterno as Penn State coach

Since November, we have seen how the misdeeds of a few can threaten the moral authority of the entire institution. The new Penn State should never forget that.

Indeed, the new Penn State has already begun to emerge. In February, Penn State students raised $10.69 million for cancer research and treatment through the school's annual Dance Marathon, well above any previous sum of money raised by Penn State or any school's dance marathon. This week, a group of Penn State students launched a campaign urging every attendee of the school's September 22 game against Temple to wear blue, not only to raise awareness for child abuse prevention but to demonstrate that "the Penn State family remains dedicated to making things right."

Restoring the good name of Penn State will not come through beating Ohio State or revising society's final judgment on Joe Paterno.

The process of disillusionment with Paterno is not an easy one for Penn Staters and should not lend itself to good-or-evil evaluations of him. I still believe Joe Paterno was a great man in the earlier part of his life, even if in the final chapter of his life, he was a tyrant.

News: Reactions to Penn State report flood social media

But the new Penn State isn't about Joe Paterno anymore. It's about the students, the faculty and the 560,000 Penn State alumni. It's about redefining what it means to be a Penn Stater.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Thomas L. Day.

Part of complete coverage on
September 1, 2014 -- Updated 1221 GMT (2021 HKT)
Carlos Moreno says atheists, a sizable fraction of Americans, deserve representation in Congress.
August 31, 2014 -- Updated 1625 GMT (0025 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says Democrats and unions have a long history of mutual support that's on the decline. But in a time of income inequality they need each other more than ever
August 31, 2014 -- Updated 0423 GMT (1223 HKT)
William McRaven
Peter Bergen says Admiral William McRaven leaves the military with a legacy of strategic thinking about special operations
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1611 GMT (0011 HKT)
Leon Aron says the U.S. and Europe can help get Russia out of Ukraine by helping Ukraine win its just war, sharing defense technologies and intelligence
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1724 GMT (0124 HKT)
Timothy Stanley the report on widespread child abuse in a British town reveals an institutional betrayal by police, social services and politicians. Negligent officials must face justice
August 30, 2014 -- Updated 0106 GMT (0906 HKT)
Peter Bergen and David Sterman say a new video of an American suicide bomber shows how Turkey's militant networks are key to jihadists' movement into Syria and Iraq. Turkey must stem the flow
September 1, 2014 -- Updated 1554 GMT (2354 HKT)
Whitney Barkley says many for-profit colleges deceive students, charge exorbitant tuitions and make false promises
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1434 GMT (2234 HKT)
Mark O'Mara says the time has come to decide whether we really want police empowered to shoot those they believe are 'fleeing felons'
August 28, 2014 -- Updated 1432 GMT (2232 HKT)
Bill Frelick says a tool of rights workers is 'naming and shaming,' ensuring accountability for human rights crimes in conflicts. But what if wrongdoers know no shame?
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 0243 GMT (1043 HKT)
Jay Parini says, no, a little girl shouldn't fire an Uzi, but none of should have easy access to guns: The Second Amendment was not written to give us such a 'right,' no matter what the NRA says
August 30, 2014 -- Updated 1722 GMT (0122 HKT)
Terra Ziporyn Snider says many adolescents suffer chronic sleep deprivation, which can indeed lead to safety problems. Would starting school an hour later be so wrong?
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1330 GMT (2130 HKT)
Peggy Drexler says after all the celebrity divorces, it's tempting to ask the question. But there are still considerable benefits to getting hitched
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1849 GMT (0249 HKT)
The death of Douglas McAuthur McCain, the first American killed fighting for ISIS, highlights the pull of Syria's war for Western jihadists, writes Peter Bergen.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2242 GMT (0642 HKT)
Former ambassador to Syria Robert Ford says the West should be helping moderates in the Syrian armed opposition end the al-Assad regime and form a government to focus on driving ISIS out
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1321 GMT (2121 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says a great country does not deport thousands of vulnerable, unaccompanied minors who fled in fear for their lives
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1319 GMT (2119 HKT)
Robert McIntyre says Congress is the culprit for letting Burger King pay lower taxes after merging with Tim Hortons.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2335 GMT (0735 HKT)
Wesley Clark says the U.S. can offer support to its Islamic friends in the region most threatened by ISIS, but it can't fight their war
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2053 GMT (0453 HKT)
America's painful struggle with racism has often brought great satisfaction to the country's rivals, critics, and foes. The killing of Michael Brown and its tumultuous aftermath has been a bonanza.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1919 GMT (0319 HKT)
Rick Martin says the death of Robin Williams brought back memories of his own battle facing down depression as a young man
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1558 GMT (2358 HKT)
David Perry asks: What's the best way for police officers to handle people with psychiatric disabilities?
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 1950 GMT (0350 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says it's not crazy to think Mitt Romney would be able to end up at the top of the GOP ticket in 2016
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 2052 GMT (0452 HKT)
Roxanne Jones and her girlfriends would cheer from the sidelines for the boys playing Little League. But they really wanted to play. Now Mo'ne Davis shows the world that girls really can throw.
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 2104 GMT (0504 HKT)
Kimberly Norwood is a black mom who lives in an affluent neighborhood not far from Ferguson, but she has the same fears for her children as people in that troubled town do
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 2145 GMT (0545 HKT)
It apparently has worked for France, say Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider, but carries uncomfortable risks. When it comes to kidnappings, nations face grim options.