When I worked in the news office at Penn State in the 1970s, I interviewed a noted sociologist, David Gottlieb, who was leaving the faculty for a position at Michigan State. He told me it was past time to refresh himself personally and professionally.
I’ll never forget his sociologist’s warning: “Something happens to people who stay too long in a valley.”
I don’t recall him using the word “insular,” but his fear of the isolation of Nittany Valley living — of staying too long in a comforting womb — reflected it.
“Insular”wasthe exact word used to describe Penn State by Edward Eddy, the president of Pittsburgh’s Chatham College who at about the same time came to Penn State to serve as provost.
The community didn’t take kindly to Eddy’s first-impression assessment. We are world class; how could we be insular? His stay was brief. Happy Valley’s jewel — “equally inaccessible from anywhere” — provided the perfect set for a higher-education Brigadoon.
There was no State College bureau of the Associated Press or for the Pittsburgh Post- Gazette or the Philadelphia Inquirer. Penn State refused to release budget and salary data made public by most state universities in the country.
Thanks for asking. The no-need- to-know canons of the valley were declared from Old Main; and, to be fair, they were accepted with little push-back. WearePenn State. And you’re not. No wonder many thought Penn State was private.
A few years later, when I was public relations director at another university, whose football team was to play at Penn State on an upcoming Saturday, I was called into the president’s office. As I walked in, the president said, “Coach here is upset. You lived there.Youtell him why the team has to bus over seven mountains to get from the Harrisburg airport to campus!”
It was left to me to explain to an angry Bear Bryant the geopolitics of central Pennsylvania. I remember the exact words Bryant used. Insular surely was not one of them, but, dang, he got the idea.
“They don’t want us to get there,” he grumbled. No sociologist could have said it better.
Over the years, the University Park airport was expanded, high-tech enterprises sprang up and Penn State became by most measures an elite global university. State College joined East Lansing and Ann Arbor, Mich., Madison, Wis., and some others as Big Ten homes. Yet in many ways, perhaps too many, Penn State still considered itself in a league of its own.
A few months before the scandal broke last year, I visited my old office in Old Main. We did a lot of shop talk, and the topic shifted to Big Ten rebranding efforts. Universities were spending a lot of money repositioning and redifferentiating themselves in various marketplaces.
A friend and respected marketing pro then said, “We’re lucky; the Penn State brand is secure.”
I didn’t argue; as an alumnus and former communicator there, I took some pride in that assessment. But very honestly, I recognized that claim as a residual of the warning Gottlieb had given years before.
“It can’t happen here” had become a Penn State tagline, especially in football. Penn State wasn’t just an exemplar for doing things right and doing the right things — it was the Holy Grail. The Grand Experiment had gone from noble quest to undenied — and unquestioned — success. The Grand Experiment was not just for the newspapers and magazines, it was for the history books. And, to some, philosophy, ethics and management texts too.
That success carried with it humility and hubris, fact and fiction, visibility and cover. Penn State was on the mountaintop; yet it remained in a valley. During the peak of the Grand Experiment’s success, I wrote an article for the Penn State alumni magazine. The topic was Joe Paterno’s take on what was right and wrong with college football. I had Paterno update my master’s thesis on how journalists helped reform college football in the nation’s progressive era.
What’s been fixed? What remains? I shiver each time in these post-Sandusky trial days I look at the article’s bold, shockingly ironic title: “Locker Room Muckraking.”
I’m not smart enough, informed enough or wise enough to assess personal responsibilities. Juries, Louis Freeh, trustees and others can do that. History will. But if we are to learn from all that has happened at Pennsylvania’s land-grant university, maybe we ought to investigate the cultural, sociological, psychological and maybe even geological stories behind the story.
Maybe, just maybe, Gottlieb was right. In the valley, something strange does happen.
Maybe, just maybe, Eddy was right. Penn State is a victim of insularity.
Maybe, just maybe, Bryant was right. They don’t want us to get there.
Brigadoon wasn’t real. Was the Grand Experiment? We need to know — by plodding to answers, not jumping to conclusions. For years to come, one major caution: To those who have lived there, the Nittany Valley is famously remembered for its fog, mist, clouds. The valley resists easy exploration.
And the answers, like the valley’s weather, will come in many shades of gray.
Terry Denbow is a vice president emeritus of university relations at Michigan State. He earned a master’s degree from Penn State and worked in Old Main from 1971 to 1978, before becoming director of university relations at the University of Alabama. Readers may write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.