In Penn State Classrooms, Lessons Are Drawn From a Scandal

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November 09, 2011

When Steve G. Manuel walked into his Introduction to Public Relations class at Pennsylvania State University on Tuesday, he knew students wouldn't want to hear his previously planned lecture.

"The only thing they wanted to talk about was the case," Mr. Manuel said of the sexual-abuse scandal that has engulfed the university this week. His usual class of 230 students had grown by 100, he added, as former students packed into the lecture hall. He said his colleagues have told him their students have wanted to talk about little other than the explosive charges of sex abuse that have roiled the campus.

Penn State Scandal: Read Complete Chronicle Coverage

Several faculty members declined to comment on the allegations, although officers of the Faculty Senate and members of the Senate Council issued a brief statement about the events of the past week. "This is a difficult time for our entire university, including our students, staff, alumni, faculty, and administration," the statement read in part. "We call upon all members of the university community to rededicate ourselves to ensuring the integrity of our institution."

Mr. Manuel, who is a senior lecturer in the College of Communications, drew on his experience handling crisis communications for the Department of Defense and told his class about what institutions like Penn State should do when they find themselves in a crisis.

"There are three things you say, which I didn't see for first 48 hours," he said. "You offer sympathies to victims and their families. You tell the public, 'Here is where we are in the process right now,' and 'This is where we're headed.'"

Mr. Manuel said that he found it unbelievable that Penn State seemed to be caught flat-footed by the scandal, when the leaders of the institution allegedly knew about serious claims of child sexual abuse against Jerry Sandusky, former defensive coordinator for the football team, and that the state was investigating those allegations for at least two years. "They wouldn't be in this position if they followed the PR axiom: Tell the truth and tell it quickly," he said.

Escalating Questions

Since the scandal broke on Saturday, events have accelerated, and the quickened cycle of revelations and recriminations has been reflected in classrooms. On Monday morning, students talked a bit about the news, said Donald E. Heller, a professor of education. By Wednesday, he said, students in the hallway were asking what the scandal might mean for the university and the quality and reputation of their degrees. Alumni were asking the same questions, he said.

Others on campus have described the revelations as being devastating, while stressing that the alleged actions—or inaction—of a handful of people should not be allowed to mar the achievement of tens of thousands of students, faculty, and staff. The central academic mission has continued, those sources have said, despite the glare of international media attention.

Some faculty members have said the scandal has rocked them to their core. While scandal has soiled other campuses, where athletes have been arrested or been paid by boosters, some Penn State faculty said they once took comfort that the motto of their football team, "Success With Honor," had helped to burnish the university's image.

But no more. "I would kill for this to be about tattoos right now," Mr. Manuel said, referring to the revelations that football players at Ohio State University had sold memorabilia in exchange for discounts on tattoos, which led to the resignation of the team's head coach, Jim Tressel.

For Tony Barbieri, a professor of journalism, the fact that Penn State has been on the front page of national newspapers and on the nightly news has offered his students a rare opportunity to watch a major news event unfold on their doorstep, however unwelcome it may be.

"This may never happen to them again," he said. "For journalism faculty, it's almost a lesson sent from heaven."