Once in a career

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When news of the allegations of sexual abuse by former Penn State assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky broke, the second response, after horror, by several hundred people who happen to be alumni magazine editors and writers was, “Oh man, what does Tina Hay do with this?” If you are fortunate as an alumni magazine editor, this sort of situation occurs only once in your career. And for better or worse, fairly or unfairly, it is going to be a benchmark for that career.

I think it is fair to say that, among our crowd, the Jan/Feb 2012 issue of The Penn Stater was the most anticipated university magazine edition in many years. The cover—if you don’t have a print copy of the magazine, you really do need to click on the thumbnail image above to appreciate art director Carole Otypka’s brilliant cover design—announced the magazine’s intent to step up and address the scandal, not minimize the damage or deflect criticism or “just put this behind us,” to use a particularly odious phrase that should be left to politicians. The inside front cover made the same point with a collage of photographs that included Sandusky in handcuffs, head football coach Joe Paterno besieged by reporters, a protester holding a sign reading “They All Knew,” and rioters overturning a television news van.

By email I asked Hay what her first magazine-related thought was when she heard about the scandal. “I think I had kind of a delayed reaction to it,” she wrote. “When it was just Sandusky being arrested, I think I figured we’d need to do a story in our sports section on it. The next day, a Saturday, the newspapers were saying that our athletic director and a VP were being charged as well (for perjury and failure-to-report). That same day, our president came out with what many people saw as an ill-advised statement of full support for the AD and the VP, and things got wild from there. By Sunday night, it was all over the media, and our senior editor, Ryan Jones, sent me an email saying: ‘Literally cannot stop thinking/reading about all this, and one thing that occurs to me is how, at some point, if this entire university is going to regain any credibility, people are going to have to start being open about things. . . . The responsible thing to do, for every Penn State alum who’s ashamed and horrified by this, would be to dedicate an entire issue of our magazine to this story. I’m sure that won’t happen anytime soon, but I like to imagine a near-future where there’s a . . . really serious self-examination of everything Penn State claims to be about. I’d love to see us play a part in that. It should be our responsibility.’”

If ever there was a touchy story for The Penn Stater to deal with, this was it. Said Hay, “We’ve published some fairly candid stories in the past, so we had a bit of a tradition in place in terms of being able to cover bad news. I also thought early on that the sheer magnitude of the crisis would work in our favor, in a weird way—it was just so big and so widely covered by the media that surely no one would be able to say, ‘Surely you’re not going to write about this in the alumni magazine, are you?’ But, thinking like an administrator, I could imagine someone saying ‘It’ll be old news by January; you’ll just fan the flames’ or ‘You can’t write about stuff that’s the subject of court proceedings’ or whatever. As it turns out, nobody said those things.”

Much of The Penn Stater‘s planned issue had already been written when Hay decided they would have to scrap everything and throw together a new issue in five weeks. “Throw together” refers to the pace—this was one edition of the magazine that had to be written and edited with the utmost care. The stakes were extraordinarily high for all involved. Hay’s biggest decision on editorial content was to gather a collection of essays written by faculty, alumni (including former Penn State football players), and students. Several of them had already been published by other publications, particularly online. The closest thing to reportage in the magazine is a timeline of events, starting with Sandusky’s arrest on November 5, and a few pages on the new president, the fired president, and the most important administrative changes. Hay: “We thought of that approach early on because it seemed to be perfect for the situation in two ways. One, there was so much hysteria and finger-pointing going on in the media, and we wanted to provide a thoughtful, reflective counterbalance to that. And two, we figured that essays or thought pieces had a pretty good chance of holding up from the time they were written until the time the magazine actually got printed and mailed. They wouldn’t be rendered irrelevant by whatever events might transpire while the magazine was on press.”

Hay and her crew divided the primary editorial content into five sections: Collapse: How Could This Happen?; Darkness: Understanding Child Sexual Abuse; Identity: Everything We Thought We Knew; Legacy: What Joe Paterno Leaves Behind; and Responsibility: On Pride, and Going Forward. The essays get off to a provocative start with Penn State sociology professor Eric Silver addressing the question of why no one acted on the first suspicions about Sandusky, if you can call an eyewitness report of rape in a campus shower “suspicion.” Silver minced no words:

I realize that everybody likes to think they would be the whistle-blower. They are the ones who would risk their job, their livelihood, their future, their letters of recommendation. This belief fuels our righteous indignation at those involved. What I told my class was this: Statistically, you’re full of crap. For every 1,000 people, you’re lucky if there are two or three whistleblowers.

Silver, who by all indications is a fine writer in service to an incisive mind, added:

The real problem, I told the students, is that we don’t see ourselves as moral agents in the workplace. We see ourselves there to do our bureaucratically defined jobs. The lesson this brings to light is that there’s a huge distinction between doing what’s legally right and what’s morally right. . . . Loyalty may be one of the most subtle undermining sources of morality there is.

Associate professor of communications Russell Frank was blunt in his assessment of State College and Penn State’s student body:

Too many of our students come here for the fun and games. Eavesdrop on their conversations as they shuttle between classes. You’ll hear a lot about drinking plans or drinking exploits and very little about the content of their courses.

Cross College Avenue and look for a downtown bookstore. You won’t find one. In a college town with 45,000 students! This is not, in short, a very intellectual place.

The section on sexual abuse included a wrenching anonymous letter from a Penn State student that had been read at a campus candlelight vigil shortly after the scandal broke.

Then came high school. I was being sexually abused two to three times a week—sometimes more, but never less. My school got a resource officer, whose job was to be the police of our school. I decided I needed to talk to someone, and one day I went to this officer and told him everything. I opened up for the first time in three years—and when I finished talking, I was laughed out of his office. I had just opened up and told a police officer my entire life story, and he laughed at me and told me not to tell lies.

The Penn Stater had the courage and integrity to publish voices questioning the primacy of football at the university. Alumnus and former NBA player John Amaechi wrote:

It’s not the entirety of Penn State that’s broken. It’s just that bits of it are disconnected from others. Specifically, you’re talking about parts of the athletic department, and football in particular. It’s the tail wagging the donkey. The disproportionate relevance of athletics, especially football, has become pretty pervasive among the student body. I think people have lost sight of what it means when we say, “We Are Penn State.” It’s become so associated with football games—in academic circles, we tend not to chant at each other.

It might sound like I want to remove sports, but I don’t. It’s not just about saying Penn State is an academic institution and sports doesn’t matter. I’m not naïve. But clearly it has contributed to a bending of the internal culture, and not just at Penn State. I’ve been to high schools where parents would stand and nod approvingly while their children are berated by coaches. If a math teacher had done it, they would’ve complained immediately and tried to get them fired. People have drunk the Kool-Aid, that Penn State is in fact its athletics. We’ve got to reassert the fact that Penn State is a lot more than that.

Hay put her experience at dealing with controversial material to work. “Early on I sent the boss (Roger Williams, executive director of the Alumni Association) an email outlining in broad terms what our plans were. He forwarded it to his higher-ups—the VP for alumni and development and the president of our Alumni Association. Nobody squawked, that I know of, but the whole time we were working on the issue, I definitely was thinking ahead to how we might have to sell it. I even started a Word file of arguments that I might use if I needed to make my case: things like ‘One of the five promises of the new president is “transparency”’ and ‘Alumni have already told me they’re anxious to see our coverage; our credibility is at stake here.’

“In the end, I sent a PDF containing the Jan-Feb copy (no designs or photos, just text) to Roger, and he read the whole thing and loved it. He forwarded it to his higher-ups, and to the VP for university relations—not so much to ask their blessing as to just give them a heads-up so they wouldn’t be surprised when it came out. He also gave us a pretty enthusiastic endorsement: ‘In my view, they have put together a truly superlative issue—a masterpiece—that addresses, through a multitude of voices, the most dislocating crisis in our 156-year history. In the process, they have rendered outstanding service to the Alumni Association members who will receive this issue in a few days. I am astounded at the imagination, creativity, and incredibly hard work on both the editorial and design sides that the staff put into this issue in just a few short weeks (though it seems more like a year).’ We got back a few small corrections and suggestions in response. We incorporated some of the suggestions and decided not to incorporate others. But, basically, at no time in the process did anyone tell us, ‘Hey, you can’t do this.'”

So they did it. Hay described the response, as of the end of January: “Well, the reaction from readers has been overwhelmingly positive. The mail (and there’s been a lot of it!) is running 4 to 1 in favor of what we did. I’m told that when the VP meets with donors in person, the reaction is more mixed, but he’s nevertheless supportive of us. I gave him a very detailed report of how many emails, letters, phone calls, blog comments, etc. we’ve received; what the mix has been; what the general themes are; and who are some of the notable alumni who have commented. That way he has a fuller picture of what people are saying.”

Reflecting on the experience, Hay said, “We tried to cover a lot of different angles to the crisis: what there is to know about child sexual abuse, how the scandal affects our identity as Penn Staters, what to make of Joe Paterno’s complicated legacy, and so on. In some cases there are pieces that I think we didn’t quite do justice to, where I think we addressed bits of the topic but not all of it. We already have a long list of stories to pursue for future issues.”

One comment

  1. Kim Davis

    How do you convey immense admiration for an incredible job so well done on such an awful topic? “Great job” just doesn’t seem enough, and certainly “I wish I was Tina” in this case is so NOT true. But hopefully you get the gist.

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