Penn State doesn’t want to tell people not to argue, but this week, a letter from dozens within the administration is asking people to fight nice.
“For decades, few universities could match the considerate manner in which Penn Staters treated both friend and opponent. In particular, to see someone wearing a Penn State T-shirt while traveling was a guarantee of a common bond and warm conversation no matter how distant the location. Today, that rather remarkable bond is under stress,” the letter, posted Friday morning, started.
It went on to encourage both sides of the ongoing debate between those who support the actions of the administration and the board of trustees and those who think former head coach Joe Paterno was used as a scapegoat in the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse scandal to conduct themselves with decorum.
“The question is whether a lack of civility in discussing these issues will create a deeper divide, one that alters the remarkable bond that exists between all those who are a part of the Penn State community,” the letter said.
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“Debate and disagreement are critical constructs in the role of universities in testing ideas and promoting progress on complex issues. But, the leaders of your (u)niversity at every level, from the administration, faculty, staff and students, are unanimous in deploring the erosion of civility associated with our discourse. Reasonable people disagree, but we can disagree without sacrificing respect. The First Amendment guarantees our right to speak as we wish, but we are stronger if we can argue and debate without degrading others.”
The letter was signed by President Eric Barron and others, including athletic director Sandy Barbour; provost Nick Jones; a slew of vice presidents, chancellors and deans from the university’s various colleges and campuses; the Faculty Senate’s advisory committee; the staff advisory council’s executive officers; and the presidents of three student leadership organizations.
Penn State spokeswoman Lisa Powers said the letter is not a reaction to any individual incidents, but “comes from discussion at many levels in the university, arises from several examples the president and others have recently observed.”
“The leadership of Penn State felt that the beginning of the semester was a good time to begin a conversation on civility and respect. The issue of incivility is a national issue, as witnessed often in the media, and it’s a growing problem that is touching every area of our society — including our universities. The message from leadership is meant to get everyone on the same page so that we can discuss challenging topics with respect and debate in order to come to acceptable conclusions and remain unified in our purpose to educate students, make great discoveries and serve the public. Put simply, the letter is about making sure we can talk about important issues,” Powers said.
Jay Paterno, son of the late head coach and a former member of the football staff, took to his blog to reply.
“You ask us for respect. You say ‘we are likely to never have the full story’ — I will say this as civilly as I can — that’s a cop out. ... Respect is earned and is a two-way street,” he said. “Stating the truth is not incivility and is not disrespectful.”