Penn State to rethink role of football (Updated)

Rodney Erickson held his first major interview and discusses some steps the University will take in the wake of the scandal (more here).

He says a lot of positive things, both from a PR point of view and from the point of view of basic human goodness. Among others, $2 million of bowl proceeds will be used to set up a Center for the Protection of Children in Hershey. Personally, I'd be very proud if one of the outcomes of this whole mess is that Penn State becomes a leader in prevention. Another good statement is about making sure that academics comes first, as it should be at any University.

But one excerpt made me a little upset:

President Rodney Erickson said Tuesday that he seeks to transform the university's public face from a football factory to a "world class research institution".

"We want that to be the front face of the university"

OK, I get that Penn State is more famous with the public at large for football and Joe Paterno than for academics, but have we ever been considered a "football factory"? The academic success and overall integrity of our players has always been a source of pride for Penn State and something that set us apart from many other big time football programs. I think this sentiment really sells Penn State's identity short. Not only that, but I work in academia and can tell you that the Penn State name is very well regarded. And let's be honest here, as long as we have a successful football team, that is always what the majority of people will associate with Penn State. 107,000 people aren't going to fill Beaver Stadium to watch the Quiz Bowl, and millions more won't tune into watch. As much as I like what I've heard about James Franklin, we don't need to turn into Vanderbilt.

So like I said, some things to like here, but some things that I would take issue with. It is good to see Penn State trying to put its best face forward. But let's remember that we can be a world class academic institution AND a football powerhouse that prizes the academic achievements of its players. In fact, we already are. What we really need to do is just remind everyone of that.


A more extensive version of this story appeared in USA Today. It includes a longer discussion and feedback from some alumni. Among others, here is a quote from Damon Sims, VP for Student Affairs:

"I don't think we need to promote ourselves as simply a football school," Sims said. "I think the way we present ourselves to the world as an institution we ought to talk about things that are more oriented to seriousness of purpose that is deeply embedded here."

I thought about this a lot after reading some of the responses here, specifically from spakajewia, and I understand that the Administration isn't saying that Penn State needs to become a world-class research institution--I am sure they know that it already is. What they do seem to be saying is that they want that to be the first thing that comes to people's minds when they think of Penn State. That's silly. The vast majority of the public cares a lot more about football than academic rankings and nothing is going to change that. And it doesn't need to change, because as many have already said, Penn State already is known for both its football and its academics (and the academics of its football). I don't think we have ever "promoted ourselves as simply a football school". We should be emphasizing the good things football does (including for the University's academics) instead of acting like we are ashamed of it.

I will say this though--if they want people to start taking the University's academics more seriously, they can start by changing this.

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