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Campus cools after protests

At Penn State, a call for unity and peace

By Mark Viera
The New York Times / November 11, 2011

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STATE COLLEGE, Pa. - Only a few hours after a raucous protest broke out downtown following the firing of Joe Paterno, the Penn State campus took on a funereal feel yesterday, with students struggling to come to grips with the magnitude of a sexual abuse scandal that has shaken this small college town to its core.

Students returned to campus on an overcast, chilly day to find that examinations had been canceled in some classes and lectures instead became impromptu group therapy sessions where students discussed their emotional reaction to the news from Wednesday night, when thousands of them poured into the streets, clashed with police, and caused damage to property in a display of their anger at the Penn State Board of Trustees’ decision to fire the 84-year-old Paterno, the head football coach since 1966.

Yesterday, student body president T.J. Bard issued a call for unity and peace on campus while speaking from the steps of the administration building, Old Main, a popular protest site the past few days. Bard asked students to stand together peaceably.

“We are full of questions,’’ Bard told a crowd of students, who locked arms, swayed, and sang the university’s alma mater after the address. “We are eager for answers. And we will not stop until we get them. But we cannot allow our anger to dominate. Last night, we watched as mayhem built a false sense of community.’’

On Wednesday, Paterno said he would resign at the end of the season in the wake of the charges against former top assistant coach Jerry Sandusky, which had already led two top university officials to step down. But later that night, the Board of Trustees decided that Paterno would be removed immediately. The board also fired Graham B. Spanier, who had been Penn State’s president since 1995.

Sandusky, a former defensive coordinator, has been charged with sexually abusing eight boys over a 15-year span. Neither Paterno nor Spanier was charged in the case, but questions have been raised about whether they did as much as they could to stop Sandusky.

While longtime defensive coordinator Tom Bradley was introduced as interim head coach, many students were still discussing Paterno’s departure while walking across a mostly quiet campus. The anger over Wednesday’s announcement seemed to have morphed into sadness and confusion for many students, a significant percentage of whom did not believe Paterno should have been fired. Many students wore Penn State T-shirts or football jerseys, but the mood was anything but celebratory.

“It’s like a mass 45,000-person funeral,’’ said Bree Feibischoff, a 20-year-old junior from Marlboro, N.J. “Just the whole mood seems so different than a normal Penn State day.’’

Change, of course, came to the football program. Bradley has taken over, beginning the transition process Wednesday night after Rodney A. Erickson, the acting president, called to offer him the position on an interim basis.

Bradley contacted the team’s captains that night, and the 12th-ranked Nittany Lions practiced under his direction for the first time yesterday. They host No. 19 Nebraska tomorrow in the final home game of the season.

“We are obviously in a very unprecedented situation,’’ Bradley said at a news conference yesterday. “I just have to find a way to restore the confidence and to start a healing process with everybody.

“As I said earlier, it is with very mixed emotions and a heavy heart that this has occurred, that we are going through this.’’

Pennsylvania’s governor, Tom Corbett, asked students to refrain from violence after police had to use pepper spray to break up Wednesday night’s protest that attracted an estimated 4,000-5,000 people, according to authorities. The protestors overturned a TV news van and threw objects at police. Investigators said they were reviewing video footage to identify suspects.

“I believe in your right of assembly and your right to express your opinions,’’ Corbett said. “I do not believe, nor does anyone believe, in your right to violence.’’

Penn State police chief Tyrone Parham wrote in an e-mail to the Associated Press that his force is “taking extra precautions and has added additional resources for [tomorrow’s] game.’’ Yesterday, a Nebraska regent expressed concern over security measures for the Cornhuskers and their fans, but Nebraska athletic director Tom Osborne said Penn State officials assured him safeguards will be in place.

The stunning end to Paterno’s 46-year tenure has given rise to complex emotions at a university inextricably connected to the coach. And because Paterno, who has more victories than any major college football coach, was for many the embodiment of the university and its values, the scandal surrounding the football team has affected some students’ view of the institution. The front window of a clothing store downtown had a painting of the Nittany Lion logo shedding a tear.

“Penn State students invest an extraordinary amount of energy into this school,’’ Sam Richards, a senior lecturer in sociology, said during a lecture yesterday. “It’s not just Penn State. This is my identity.’’

Even the White House weighed in on the events, with press secretary Jay Carney saying that if the allegations were proven to be true, “then the allegations are outrageous.’’

Richards dedicated his 700-seat class on race and ethnic relations to addressing the situation facing the community. The lecture was titled, “Group Think, Personal Responsibility and the Breakdown of Moral Order: The Crisis at Penn State.’’

The theater-style classroom was filled with students, some of whom were not enrolled in the class. With the seats mostly filled, students sat in the aisles and stood in the back of the room. Richards started by offering students the opportunity to stand and describe their emotions.

“I feel distraught,’’ the first said.

Others said they were betrayed, embarrassed, heartbroken, sad, frustrated, lost, and numb. All of those words seemed to encapsulate the mood on campus as Penn State started the long process toward developing a new sense of normal.

“It’s a dark day in Happy Valley,’’ said Logan Roger, a 19-year-old sophomore from Raleigh, N.C., who was wearing a No. 1 Penn State jersey. “I understand the Board of Trustees’ decision, and I feel it was necessary. But it doesn’t make it any easier to bear.’’