Gary Levitt: Kool-aid

We’re not drinking that kool-aid here.

Tell the truth, how many of you would list Statistics as one of your favorite college courses?  I thought so.

Well, I was an English Major that loved Statistics  That puts me in a very small subset of human beings on this planet. It did help me, though, to earn a pretty good living as a marketing consultant to clients like the Pennsylvania Lottery, Wendy’s, the University of Pennsylvania, Comcast, the Philadelphia 76ers, and a number of media companies and political candidates.

I mention this because I have just reviewed the Penn State Alumni Survey and I am about to give some unsolicited pro bono advice to those responsible for managing my Alma Mater: I know your well-paid consultants will be going over these numbers with you and their PowerPoint presentations will try to reassure you that the Titanic is not really sinking under your watch; it’s just taking on a little water.

Don’t drink that kool-aid.

This devastating report is just the tip of an iceberg that is ripping a gaping hole in the University’s  superstructure. Penn State has grown from a provincial agriculture college into one of the country’s premier research and educational institutions in large part because of its remarkably supportive alumni base. That support goes far beyond donations. And it is eroding by the day.

Half a million of us have been happily drinking the Blue&White kool-aid and sharing it daily with our family, friends and coworkers. That’s why Penn State continues to get so many applications and continues to rank so highly among recruiters. It’s the kind of person-to-person, word-of-mouth public relations that can’t be bought at any price. It’s what Malcolm Gladwell calls a tipping point.

In 2006, 70% of alumni had a Very Positive attitude towards Penn State. That is a remarkable number. Seven out of ten weren’t just satisfied, they were enthusiastic kool-aid drinkers  In 2009, that number went up to 73%. Project that over 557,000 alumni  and you have 407,000 active ambassadors selling Penn State.

This year, that number fell precipitously to 47%. More than 1/3 of all those Very Positive alumni now have doubts. We are in very real danger of losing 150,000 of our most ardent and credible ambassadors. No organization can tolerate that kind of nosedive for long.

And it is not Jerry Sandusky’s fault.

Penn Staters understand that we have our share of bad actors.  We also understand that the media always looks for sensational headlines and seldom waits for evidence or due process.   But …

We expected better from our own Board of Trustees. They knew Joe Paterno. Some of them had been coached by him. All of them basked in the Success with Honor glow that he kindled. Joe wasn’t just the coach of our football team, he was the embodiment of our pride. That’s why 9 out of 10 alumni disagree with the Board’s actions. That’s why 48% of us feel more negatively towards our University than we did before November 9th. That’s why 29% are less likely to make a donation. That’s why 23% are less likely to promote Penn State to a friend or family member. That’s why 87% feel it is time to publicly honor the Coach for his 61 years of service.

And that’s why only 13% of us trust the Board of Trustees. And only 23% trust the current administration.  Even after all the millions of dollars spent, the “listening” tours, the new websites, the press releases. 13% and 23%. That’s the level of trust. And it is not going to get better until the ducking and weaving stops.

The consultants have been giving textbook advice but this is not a textbook situation. They underestimate the intelligence, the passion and the anger of the Penn State community. They have no template that approximates the impact Coach Paterno had over 61 years on campus.

It’s been reported that when Mimi Barash a non-voting Emeritus Trustee warned the Board that it was a mistake to fire a man as widely respected and revered as Coach Paterno without even giving him a chance to speak, vice-chair John Surma snapped back, “we’re not drinking that kool-aid here!”  Surma expected to be the next chairman of the Board.  Instead he will be remembered as the man who fired a Legend with a curt telephone call. And helped to create the worst crises in Penn State history.

So here’s the question, Penn Staters. Short of a mass resignation which is highly unlikely to happen, what should the Trustees do at their July meeting?  Should they wait for the Freeh Report to confirm that Joe wasn’t hiding a closet of dirty little secrets or should they apologize now for their rush to judgment, admit they made a mistake in not accepting his resignation, and ask forgiveness for the damage they’ve done?

Let me know what you think. And have another sip of that Blue&White kool-aid with me!

23 thoughts on “Gary Levitt: Kool-aid

  1. I think that they should acknowledge their rush to judgement at the July meeting and apologize to EVERYONE for the lack of due process. They need not wait until the Freeh Report. There may be some information as to specifics that they do not know, but I am sure they know enough to do what is right by the Paternos and Penn Staters.

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  2. I have no respect for any one of the BOT, as constituted on November 5, 2011, but if I were counsel to the Board, or to any member, my strong advice would be to say nothing in defense of their screw-ups. Liability is a real possibility for the failure of the Board to take action to ferret out the facts, after the late January, 2011 revelation that administration officials were being subpoenaed., And, we should hold each and every one accountable for such failure.

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    1. Appreciate your comment, Brick. Liability is an issue, and I’m not a lawyer. I would hope they can find a way to do the right thing without making matters even worse.

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  3. Without question, the board needs to follow your suggestion and apologize to the Paterno family and to the alumni for their incompetent handling of the entire situation.

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  4. BTW, Rich, I remember well your Penn State Sports Updates on our Sunday morning radio show. You’ve been sipping the kool-aid for a long, long time. And you’re a 4-alum family!

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  5. Okay. This is a mea culpa only an English Major would bring up, but it really should be, “I was an English Major WHO loved statistics.” And I know it’s Malcolm with a second “l”. My apologies.

    See, BoT it’s not that hard to admit a mistake or two.

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  6. Although I agree that an apology is in order, I do not expect that to happen in the immediate future. The July Board meeting will probably be just another business-as-usual meeting. The University seems to be thriving in spite of the inadequacies of the Trustees and administrators, i.e., applications are up, faculty still in place, and $102M for a new ice hocky arena w/scholarships. I may be unique but I have been dropping some large hints about looking into PSU to someone who’s 14-year-old son plays ice hockey. I’ve often wondered how much professional jealousy played in the Trustees’ decision to fire JoePa. How many of them have a statue on campus, a library, fellowships, and an ice cream carrying your name, have expanded the football stadium several times over, conducted very successful donation campaigns, made many sizeable donations, and who knows what else?

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    1. Thanks Kaye, and keep dropping those hints. You’re always doing someone a favor when you recommend Penn State. I’m a little concerned that much of what you mention was well underway before November 9th. What will happen in the coming year? As for jealousy, I believe this was an old fashioned Alpha Male head butting. Governor Corbett, Chairman Garban, Vice-Chairman Surma, and David Joyner saw that the old Lion was vulnerable and they pounced. Then they used their newly acquired power to make perhaps the worst decision in School history. Instead of graciously accepting Joe’s resignation and allowing him to retire with dignity, they fired him.

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  7. As someone who has been your partner all these years, I have known that you are the best writer and loudest cheerleader PSU ever helped educate. Great that you are writing a blog about your idol and your Alma Mater. For the glory…

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  8. I couldn’t agree with you more, Gary. The BoT needs to do this immediately. When that happens, the healing can possibly begin. I, for one, will never forget what they did to our beloved Joe Pa in his last days. I honestly don’t know how the members of that board can sleep at night.

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  9. Don’t hold your breath waiting for an apology from the BoT. You don’t need to be a statitician to conclude the collective hubris they demonstrated during this tragic episode would absolutely prevent them from acknowledging any rush to judgement orlack of transparency. And, I ask, could you accept any such apology as genuine? Healing must begin without any participation by the BoT. It is not their University, despite their lofty opinions of their duty. But I do ask alumni to continue their advocacy and generosity to our beloved PSU. If Sue and the Paterno Family can continue to support the University, so should we. Looking forward to the upcoming football season and the success with honor tradition to be continued by Coach Bradley and our beloved Nittany Lions.

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    1. Ed — you and Maria are the kind of fiercely loyal Penn Staters who have built the brand.
      I could respect a Trustee who expressed sorrow. Admitted, in hindsight, that he or she, would have made a different choice. And resigned, effective at the end of the current term. That’s what a Mensch would do. (Sigh).

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  10. Gary, just need to say that I, also, found statistics fascinating! And I took it in a 4 week summer course. My friends thought I was crazy 🙂 I’m enjoying my tumbler of blue kool-aid – – thinking I would love the BoT to entertain the motion to make a formal apology to the Paterno family – – but that will probably be a cold day in . . . Right now I’m just praying that the University can survive the microscope focused on it with the Sandusky trial!

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    1. I also agree that an apology is in order, but I do not expect that to happen. With regard to the Freeh Report, don’t forget that the BoT will get to review a draft of the report before the final version is released. Do we really think they will let the report be issued with a finding of guilt on their part? Hell no. I expect more blame to be thrown at JoePa for not doing more. Lanny Davis will see to that. There is also more coming out each day that proves others involved in the Sandusky investigation dropped the ball long before Joe even heard Mike McQueary’s watered down version of what took place in the shower. We know that child protective services knew about Sandusky before the 1998 incident – no action taken. We know that one of the victims reported it to his high school guidance counselor – no action taken, We know that after the 1998 incident that no action was taken because Ray Gricar refused to prosecute and closed his case file on Sandusky. We also know a janitor saw Sandusky in the shower with a young boy and reported it to his supervisor who did nothing. I have to ask why this guy (the supervisor) gets a pass for not calling the police but JoePa is crucified for following the chain of command and actually reporting what he was told to his superiors? We all know the answer. The BoT and Governor needed a scapegoat. Let’s not forget our esteemed Governor in all this. He dropped the ball time after time. If he was really protecting the children, why did he only assign one investigator to the Sandusky case compred to 14 or more for BonusGate? To become Governor, that is why. Let’s also not forget The Second Mile and some of its board members. They kept Sandusky involved with the charity even after hearing the 1998 report and Jerry admitting he showered with a young boy!!! They are just as guilty as the BoT. Why don’t we hear about them being investigated by the AG’s office? Thanks to campaign contributions totalling over $650,000.00 to Tom Corbett from the Second Mile, its board members and the companies they worked for, we were told they were not under investigation for any wrongdoing. I guess that kind of money buys you a lot of protection from the Governor. I have said it many times before and I will continue to say it, the fish stinks from the head down. Saying the JoePa should have done more simply tells me that those who blame Paterno do not know this man. To think that Joe would put himself or his football program above the welfare of a child is ludicrous (to quote Anthony Lubrano – thanks Anthony). I say vote out the BoT and recall Corbett.

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  11. Too bad that Surma couldn’t hear and heed Mimi Barash’s advice back then but what would you expect from the CEO of a corporation — they rarely listen to anyone other than themselves and when their corporation augers into the ground they open their “golden parachute” and float away. This time, although he’s not board president, Surma is still on the plane that is crashing.

    My concern has always been that other than Barash, it appears that not one other member of the BOT had the brains or the guts to speak up and try to prevent this disaster and for that — every one of them should resign. I suspect that if we ever hear the full story, there were some members through the years who heard rumors about Sandusky and when they heard the report by Baldwin and Spanier that members of the administration were being questioned by a grand jury, they were concerned and did raise some questions — only to be squashed by a snarly response from the Surma, Garban, Joyner triumverate. Then the issue becomes how many other issues were dismissed, ignored etc over the years that cost Penn State in ways of which we are unaware.
    Bottomline the BOT has a fiduciary responsibility to protect the university and by allowing the school to become entwined with Sandusky’s Second Mile they exposed the school for years to precisely this sort of mess. The predatory behavior could have been accomplished by another employee of the Second Mile and he too could have done his molesting at camps on the various PSU campuses. No BOT that is truly concerned with it’s responsibilities would have allowed this kind of alliance to exist without having direct oversight in regard to the hiring practices and training of people who were working with kids and bringing them on the PSU campus. The BOT has been failing the university for years — the Sandusky case just showed the world how incompetent they’ve been.

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  12. Gary, thank you for everything you do for Penn State. I drink the Blue and White Kool-Aid too. I have been shocked and saddened by everything that has gone on in this disgusting situation, but it has not stopped my love for Penn State nor my support for our university. My younger daughter will be a freshman at University Park this fall, which has been a dream of her’s for many years. My older daughter had a meeting last week with the MBA Department concerning admission to the program. She did her undergraduate studies at Ball State, because she wanted to play field hockey in college and was not recruited by Penn State. Had Coach Morett recruited her, she’d be an alumnae also. Hopefully she’ll be admitted to the MBA progam.

    I was lucky enough to be able to take my younger daughter to the Memorial at the BJC for Coach Paterno. I told my daughter the Memorial was a once in a lifetime experience, because Coach Paterno was a once in a lifetime man.

    I met Coach Bradley in a restaurant several weeks ago and thanked him for everything he did for the university during his 30 plus years on the football staff and specifically for what he did this past fall. He clearly demonstrated the class and honor that Coach Paterno demanded from his assistants, as he kept the program together and helped the young men on the team continue to achieve.

    I too wish this BOT would resign, save the three new members, but I don’t see that happening. Unfortunately the Kool-Aid they are drinking is spiked with something bad. As alumni we need to keep fighting for our university by continuing to donate and by continuing to urge good, quality young men and women to attend. Collectively, we can rebuild our University that one person has hurt and the BOT has continued the hurt. WE Can, because We Are.

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