Opinion: What happens when there is no message in the chaos?

Story highlights

  • Students at Penn State were interested in only one topic this week: Joe Paterno
  • Like the media and the university, the students were wrongly focused on Paterno and not the young victims.
The events at Penn State University this week forced many instructors to toss their lesson plans into the trash. Students were interested in only one topic: Joe Paterno, the legendary Nittany Lion football coach, whom the Penn State Board of Trustees fired in midseason. My classrooms were no exception. My largest class, Introduction to Public Relations, which normally has 232 students, went far beyond that as former students and others joined us, interested in what my discussion of the unfolding events might be. I specialize in crisis communications and teach the class every spring semester. There is a host of lessons to be learned, and unfortunately, many of them are needed by the leadership, not the students.
Students are by nature idealistic, and I believe even more so here on the Good Ship Happy Valley. They think with their hearts (which isn't always a bad thing) rather than their brains. Emotion has a way of clouding objective thinking. I refer affectionately to State College, Pennsylvania, as the largest piece of insulation in the world. Nothing bad can happen here, or so people think. I must admit that it is one of the reasons I have spent nearly 19 years here. The alleged child molestation by a former Penn State football coach must have been a rude awakening to many in this idyllic town. But it isn't Jerry Sandusky (the accused); Graham Spanier, the university president; Timothy Curley, the former athletic director; Gary Schultz, retired finance director; or even current assistant coach Mike McQueary - all central players in this drama - that the students focused on. It is, of course, the 85-year-old coach, Joe Paterno, the winningest coach in Division I college football.
The students were not alone. The media focused on Joe Paterno as well, rather than the real issue: the young victims. The news media can't take all the blame. For several days the university remained silent, allowing Penn State critics and the news media to craft the message, a major error in effective crisis communications. Penn State alumni worldwide were outraged, hurt, disappointed - pick an adjective - and someone out there was feeling it, including me. I earned two degrees at Penn State.
Let's return to thinking with one's heart and not one's brain. The trustees held a press conference at 10 p.m. Wednesday to announce the dismissal of both Spanier and Paterno, not thinking about the thousands of students gathered in the streets of State College ready to explode if the unthinkable were said. Not a rational decision on the part of the students, but expected. The decision was met with a student riot, which could have been much worse. Like the media and the university, the students were wrongly focused on Paterno and not the young victims.
The classroom setting is a wonderful place, almost a refuge for students and faculty to voice unpopular opinions without fear of retribution (although there are limits to everything). Students could vent, but it was interesting because they would vent, and they would ask why certain things were occurring. It wasn't, at least in my classroom, a one-way conversation. They were listening, but their hearts put up a stiff defense. Intense media focus on Paterno caused an equal amount of focus by the students on Paterno. The silence by the university in the wake of the scandal contributed to the message that this was about a legendary coach not being permitted to finish a long and illustrious career with dignity, instead of about the young victims.
One of the great things about teaching is that if you do it well, if you teach students the skills they need to survive outside of a textbook, they remember the lessons learned. Most gratifying to the instructor is that they contact you and tell you what the principals should have done. It's wonderful to see how much students mature when they leave the insulated confines of academia and apply what the old guy at the front of the classroom talked about and quizzed them on.
The initial firestorm has passed, Joe Paterno watched Saturday's football game on television, and the students and fans filled Beaver Stadium dressed in blue as part of an awareness program for child abuse. The initial uproar on campus at midweek had been replaced with the realization that the larger, more important issue in this dreadful event was the sexual abuse of children, and Penn State's students re-focused their attention and in the process crafted the message the university had failed to do. This has been one more example of instructors learning from students.