One Woman's Account of How Abuse, Corruption and Silence at Penn State Perpetuate a Poisonous Culture
This piece has been corrected.
These days, it seems, the downfall of Penn State’s beloved football program makes national headlines every few days. Just as the news cycle exhausted the Sandusky conviction and the Freeh report, on Monday the NCAA announced harsh sanctions against Penn State that are likely to gut the football program for many years to come.
As an education journalist, I have watched Jerry Sandusky’s downfall with a mixture of horror and fascination. But as a graduate school alumna of Penn State, it has been difficult to separate my own experiences as a student and instructor from what I am seeing in the news. Based on my own observations of abuse and misconduct while at Penn State – none of them related to the football program – I have every reason to suspect that the allegations released last November, and the punishments leveled just this week, mark only the beginning of a long and painful fall from grace for the institution as a whole. After all, Sandusky is just one man, but it took a proverbial village to hide three decades of overt abuse.
Mainstream news sites like the Daily Beast have suggested that we need to start asking how the popularity and wealth of Penn State’s football program may have contributed to silence about Sandusky’s crimes. Others, like Jay Jennings at CNN, have asked whether America’s high-stakes sports culture is to blame. These seem like reasonable questions, given just how much money is attached to the sport. Last year, Penn State football program was valued at $446.9 million, third highest among public schools in the NCAA.*
But in focusing our ire and outrage on sports culture alone, it’s easy to lose sight of broader problems -- like school administration or local context. These elements, too, played a role in creating the culture of abuse, corruption and silence that allowed a man like Jerry Sandusky to operate untouched for so long. But his is not the only case of misused power or abuse at Penn State. In fact, many of these cases have nothing to do with the football team. Since I started writing about education, many former students and staff have contacted me to share details about the various kinds of abuse they say they experienced at Penn State, leading me to believe the problems I witnessed were not one-offs. They were, and remain, systemic.
The Place: Hate Culture
The main campus of Pennsylvania State University is located in State College, PA, a tiny exurb of the aptly named Centre County, the geographical center of Pennsylvania. When I first visited in 2007, I thought the university was nestled in a pleasant enough college town. A place of great natural beauty, State College sits deep in a valley just east of the Allegheny Mountains. It’s a town that seems lovely on the outside. It took some time for me to realize just how oppressive the environment could be.
Central Pennsylvania is often denigrated as “Alabama in Pennsylvania,” largely because of its extremely conservative political landscape. Sure, the residents of State College usually vote for Democrats, as towns that revolve around large universities often do. But Central Pennsylvania as a region is hate group central. It houses the national headquarters of both the Aryan Nation and the Association of Independent Klansmen Knights of the Ku Klux Klan. The latter is located in Lemont, just a 10-minute drive from Penn State. Plus, smaller militia and/or neo-Confederate groups are sprinkled throughout the area, and continue sprouting up. People in the region commonly note that State College has the “highest per capita hate group membership” in the United States.
It’s hard to find reputable statistics about hate group numbers since many are inclined not to mention their membership when statisticians ask. But anyone who lives in the region – and pays attention – can attest to the open presence of hate group activity. This was particularly shocking to me, a product of suburban North Carolina, where racist institutions and stereotypes are far more common than actual hate groups campaigning on behalf of “white power.”
In North Carolina, the Confederate flag bumpersticker often suggests that the driver is an undereducated but nonviolent “heritage, not hate” type. But Civil War nostalgia is by no means a “heritage”-based element of white Pennsylvania culture. In Pennsylvania, it’s safe to bet anyone flying the Confederate flag is a member of the Ku Klux Klan. I spotted far more Confederate flags – dozens, at least – in and around “liberal” State College, PA than I had ever seen in my Southern-raised life.
The election of President Barack Obama in 2008 was particularly fraught in Central Pennsylvania. Though the Secret Service never confirmed that someone actually screamed, “Kill him!” at that Sarah Palin rally in Scranton, the Scranton Times-Tribune (which originally reported the incident) stands by the story today. In any case, the veracity of the report wouldn’t have been a shock to anyone who has lived in the region. I saw a skinhead contingent about a dozen strong waiting in line to be admitted into a Palin rally that year, white men unashamedly boasting white power and swastika tattoos. Acquaintances spoke about seeing open Klansmen and Aryan Nation members in the audience as well.
This was not a surprise to black students at Penn State, whose student associations received an onslaught of death threats in 2000 that culminated in the killing of a young black man. Long before this, in the 1980s, several black men were targeted in violent assaults in town.**
Students whispered to me of other disappearances in State College, as well. Indeed, when the Sandusky allegations became public, former PSU professor of African American studies Robyn Spencer published part of her journal from 2001 in an attempt to expose the long history of violence at the university. She wrote:
My concerns were as basic as survival. Hate mail, death threats, and sit-ins thrust this school into the national spotlight before the ink on my job contract had time to dry. Unclaimed black corpses were found in surrounding areas, student leaders were assigned bodyguards and attendees of graduation had to pass through metal detectors.
The university’s students of color know this history well, up to and including the fact that students whose lives were threatened received precious little support from the university administration or Joe Paterno – whose black players were specifically targeted As student activist Assata Richards told one reporter last year, “We asked him to talk to the players because we were concerned about their safety…and he said in that meeting that he would never do anything to put the university in a bad light. So we said, ‘Then you are choosing the university over students’ lives.’”
In 2008, a graduate student in another program told me that a black student group, fearing for the safety of its members, had advised students of color to stay home the day after Obama’s win. One of my students shared these concerns. Through tears, she spoke of a friend who found notes attached to her front door reading, “N****r, leave.” Some friends, she said, became too exhausted and fearful to stay, so they did leave.
Not surprisingly, State College, the town, can feel oppressive in a visceral and suffocating way (quite literally, given the poor air quality). Though it is not nearly as well-documented as the race problem in the community, members of the LGBT campus community reported death threats as recently as 2010. LGBT students and graduate instructors had to consider whether being “out” in their classrooms might jeopardize their safety, and many of my own friends and acquaintances -- particularly those perceived as “gender non-conforming” -- were targets of harassment and ridicule.
In my experience, many people associated with the university who do not belong to minority groups often look the other way when incidents like these occur. When a majority of students in my 2009 class suggested that racism is no longer a problem for the US because of Obama’s election, I received no support from faculty in trying to organize anti-racism training or education for my class. Many of my white students, despite the open hate group presence in the town they lived in, insisted without irony that “racism is really just a Southern problem.”
“It’s just a tough egg to crack here,” one professor told me, resigned to the state of things and unwilling to take action to change them.
The University: Rape Culture
Just as racism and, to some extent, homophobia, are omnipresent in State College in ways that seep into everyday life, the university culture itself is also particularly dismissive of sexual harassment, assault and rape allegations.
For decades universities across the country have been plagued by what many have termed a “rape epidemic,” in which about one in five college women is raped. (A 2009 study suggests that the real incident rate actually far exceeds this ratio, because so many survivors fail to report.) As someone who has had more than a bit of experience on different college campuses -- I graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill in 2002, completed my first master’s degree at American University in 2006 and then spent a year in Montréal, Québec at McGill University -- I can tell you that I saw plenty of rape culture at all three. At UNC, in fact, I once opted to leave a class when faced with an ongoing sexual harassment problem.
I was, in other words, no stranger to these problems when I entered Penn State. But neither had I ever seen a university close ranks with such precision against students who decided to go public about assault or rape. At PSU, it soon became clear, you simply cannot take any abuse public without suffering severe consequences. Maybe that’s what makes Penn State culture so unusual.
When I first arrived on campus in fall 2007, I was required, along with all new instructors, to take what I thought was a routine training seminar on sexual harassment. Looking back, I clearly should have seen what transpired as a red flag. At this particular seminar, we were taught that it’s perfectly fine for instructors to have sex with their own students. It was considered “unwise” to engage in these sexual relationships during the course of the semester, but it wasn’t exactly prohibited. We’d simply need to alert the proper administrative authorities, and make certain the sex didn’t affect our grading.
It didn’t end there. About half an hour of this training was spent fielding one participant’s complaint that provocatively dressed women were in fact sexually harassing him. This was treated by the seminar facilitator as a legitimate concern. Never did the facilitator mention that the “problem” of revealing dress is frequently (and erroneously) used as a justification for sexual assault and rape.
In retrospect, I should have been prepared for the kind of abuses this type of “training” enabled. Some graduate students whispered about colleagues in my department having sex with their 18-year-old students. Several acquaintances saw one colleague escort two drunken 18-year-old female students back to his apartment one night. Another colleague spoke of finding a graduate student in a compromising position with an undergraduate in our student lounge.
It isn’t clear whether or not any of these young women, particularly those seen at the bar, were intoxicated past the point of meaningful consent. In other words, I can’t be sure whether or not either of my colleagues committed a criminal offense or was just culpable of a despicable misuse of power. I’m not terribly comforted either way.
A graduate student from another department told me of being sexually assaulted by a drunken colleague from her department. She was never quite sure whether or not the perpetrator, known to experience alcohol-related blackouts, remembered what he’d done. She said he pushed her down on a bed one day and tried to have sex with her without her consent. She didn’t dare tell any faculty members or administrators what had happened; she’d known too many other graduate students in other departments who were forced out of the university for revealing less. In another department, a faculty member hadn’t been punished for assaulting a student at all. His one sanction? He had to keep the door open while working in his office.
In 2009, the Princeton Review famously ranked Penn State the number-one party school in America, prompting NPR’s This American Life to report on the drinking culture organized around the football team at Penn State. Then in 2011, after the Sandusky allegations came out, the radio program revisited that broadcast to consider whether or not something specific to that culture had allowed the abuse to happen so openly for three decades.
It’s something that many have scratched their heads over since the allegations first came out: Did the football culture cause it? Did some kind of lawlessness aided by out-of-control alcohol consumption play a part? Was it the corrupting influences of high-powered college athletics? Was it a university adept at covering up scandal and crime?
I can’t answer these questions. All I know is that I found the place poisonous from the outset, as did many – perhaps most – of my acquaintances and friends. I saw the university respond to serious allegations with impotent coverups. And I know graduate students who were excised from the university because they chose to speak out about the abuses they saw. I happen to be one of them.
Business as Usual
I have always been a person who speaks out. But no academic institution before Penn State ever marginalized me for it. Back in 2005, I was part of a group of activists at American University who protested the far-too-gentle treatment of then-president Benjamin Ladner, who had used university funds for personal expenses. One day, we rented a U-Haul and drove it around campus with a billboard that said, “No golden parachute. We’ll help Ladner move.”
This protest was featured in The Washingtonian magazine, and I cowrote a letter urging no mercy for Ladner that was published in the Washington Post. Yet in spite of all this, I always felt safe at American; and despite all my rabblerousing, I was awarded the top prize for academic achievement in the School of International Service.
Such a thing never would have happened at Penn State. You can’t get away with “treasonous” behavior there and survive.
Since I have never been good at keeping my mouth shut for political reasons, it’s probably not surprising that I was systematically pushed out of the Penn State system after I raised private concerns with administrators about the sexist and racist behavior I observed in a class. That was never forgotten; indeed, I was marked as a troublemaker out of the gate. The department escalated its abuses for the remainder of my three semesters at Penn State. In the end, they waited until I was vulnerable to make their final move.
Ultimately, I was more or less denied a one-semester medical leave of absence after I was diagnosed with lupus in 2008. On the one hand, I was told that I could leave for a semester, but I was also told I would not receive health insurance while I was gone, nor would I be guaranteed funding on my return. Faculty half-heartedly suggested that this wasn’t actually termination, but of course it was termination, as later meetings with administrators made plain.
When the university finally moved to push me out of my department in 2009, I felt so beaten down by the two years of struggle I’d undergone that I lost the resolve to stay and fight. By then, I just wanted out. I had been the subject of a targeted bullying campaign that culminated in a letter written by the department’s then-graduate director to the administrators handling my case. Through them, I learned that the very graduate director who had continuously assured me he was trying to be my advocate, had written a letter filled with trumped-up charges and outright lies about me.
The day I found out about that letter, one officer dealing with my case noted to me that I was “unwittingly getting caught up in dysfunction that started long before you even got here. I don’t even understand why you want to work with them.” Indeed, just before my arrival, my department (philosophy) had been embroiled in lawsuits and was placed in receivership. Due to swirling allegations of sexual harassment and faculty infighting, the department was not permitted to govern itself or admit new graduate students for a few years. During this time, many students were pushed out of the university for political allegiances seen as disloyal to the department. Several faculty members left, some of whom later sued as a result of what they viewed as campaigns to remove them from the university.
Looking back at the timeline I ultimately prepared for legal counsel, I am once again shocked by how meticulously calculated my expulsion from the university was. Nevertheless, the graduate director who purged me (and another student in similar circumstances the year after) has since been promoted to a deanship. For a long time, I have stayed quiet about what happened to me and others at Penn State. Then Sandusky happened, and it seemed wrong to keep quiet any longer.
At the end of the day, this is what I have concluded: University culture in general runs on a certain degree of dysfunction. As a result, many who go public with their experiences of abuse are told, “Oh, that’s just academic politics.” A graduate of my former program at Penn State -- from long before my time -- recently found me via Twitter. He said it’s sometimes difficult to communicate just how bad his experience was to people without direct knowledge of the culture. “Sometimes I think they may not even believe me,” he said.
When I entered Penn State, I thought I was already cynical about politics in higher education. In the course of those years, I began to learn that this university’s dysfunction could be far more treacherous than what I would call the "normal" university dysfunction of my previous institutions. In some ways, I was lucky that the experience only ruined my academic career and personal finances. Compared to many others, I am largely unscathed.
Ultimately, I hope that the Sandusky case will have an important public impact, empowering others like me to speak out and motivating the public to demand answers about just what goes on in State College – even beyond the football stadium. The ongoing criminal investigations and NCAA sanctions are a good start, and will likely have wide-ranging consequences for the university. But the public has yet to truly understand how deep and wide this culture of abuse runs within the university as a whole.
It will be crucial for the public to watch carefully as Penn State tries to redeem its image. Right now, it would be very easy for the administration to use Sandusky and Paterno as sacrificial lambs, and the university’s acceptance of the NCAA penalties as “proof” that the place is changing -- while continuing to operate, off the athletic fields, much as it always has. Citizens and taxpayers should demand more. If the state of Pennsylvania cannot or will not hold Penn State accountable as an institution, we have a responsibility to do it ourselves.
* An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Penn State spent $446.9 million on its football program last year; that number is in fact the valuation of the entire program, not the amount spent on it by the university.
** Additionally, the original article erroneously characterized the murder of Langston Carraway as a hate crime;such a claim has been removed from this version of the article.
Kristin Rawls is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in the Christian Science Monitor, GOOD Magazine, Religion Dispatches, Killing the Buddha, Global Comment and elsewhere online. The author can be found on twitter @kristinrawls.