The Present Situation of Perpetual War on Students

The following address was delivered by Ben Novak in 1998 during his time as a Penn State Trustee, addressing student riots, the aims of President Spanier’s administration, and student alcohol culture.

Throughout Centre County there is a tenseness and a feeling of danger that have never before been experienced in our valleys. Police helicopters were brought up to State College to fly over the town at night shining powerful spotlights upon individuals and any gatherings as though were were in a war zone in Bosnia. Police forces in the rural and outlying communities around State College are being trained in riot control with billy clubs and tear gas to do battle with students. The police presence on the streets of State College has become so obvious and visible as to be intimidating. Raids on students fill our newspapers almost daily, while arrests skyrocket. Under cover agents proliferate while students are being recruited by the University and the police to spy upon and turn in their fellow students. The University admits to issuing ID cards to help the process of spying and intimidation. Liquor Control Board agents have been detailed to Centre County in force to lie in wait on the street outside State stores and bottle shops.

What is going on?

Three years ago Penn State got a new president. Without doubt the greatest challenge to Penn State at the time was the improvement of undergraduate education. The largest complaints were large class sizes, too few faculty, and the fact that students rarely got to meet a professor. It was estimated by the former president of the Penn State Faculty Senate that Penn State would need 1,050 new professorships to restore class size to what it had been twenty years earlier when the relationship between students and their professors had been one of the points of pride of our University.

At the same time reports proliferated at universities across the nation that undergraduate tuition was being used to subsidize administrative drives for research projects. The Vice President for Research at Penn State reported that research grants and income met only 85 percent of research costs resulting in a deficit of over $50 million which had to be made up from tuition or state appropriations.

Obviously, there was very little funding left for improvement of undergraduate education.

At the beginning of the 1990s the administration wanted research so badly that it concocted the idea of a Penn State Research Park. Tens of millions of dollars were spent for land acquisitions and development of a huge site. Supposedly hundreds of corporations were eager to come to Penn State to establish research units. Administrators were projecting that thousands of new, high-paid research workers and staff would be employed in a vast complex of new buildings at the Research Park by the year 2000.

As we well know, the Research Park fizzled. The vast projected complex of buildings has never materialized, and the development is largely still open fields. The millions of dollars invested still have to be paid.

What to do about all this? The failure of the Research Park had to be covered up. The cost of research which was so much higher than the income from research grants had to be forgotten. Something had to be done to get students to forget the large classes, the lack of faculty, and the problems of finding advisors.

For the administration, the big money, the big excitement and the big glory lay in their meetings with corporate executives, big government and big business. Their goal was not education but business. So Penn State got involved in the health care business, becoming one of the largest health care providers in Pennsylvania.

The entertainment business also beckoned. So Penn State set out to get into the entertainment business with one of the largest entertainment centers in Central Pennsylvania, the Bryce Jordan Center. Providing rock stars, country music, concerts and every form of entertainment became big business for Penn State.

But there were still all those pesky students. It was hoped that their minds might be diverted by all of the entertainment at the Bryce Jordan Center. Something had to be done to get rid of all that talk about undergraduate education.

Penn State’s new president hit upon a most ingenious plan. Surveying the condition of undergraduate education he saw one bright spot. The Honors Program was giving an education to about 1,200 students which was as good an education as Penn State had once given two or three decades earlier to all students. So, he thought, let us say that we are improving education by building up the Honors Program. Let’s get one big grant for the Honors Program and tell the world that that is what we are doing for undergraduate education. We can start with 1,200 students out of 34,000 undergraduates at University Park and slowly expand it. It might take years or even decades to spread the improvement to as many as twenty thousand or thirty thousand of Penn State’s 34,000 undergraduates, but that is okay.

And for the rest of Penn State’s 34,000 undergraduates at University Park during the years or decades that the Honors Program will take to grow, let us have another new program based on team teaching. The basis of this program will be: “Let the students teach themselves.”

But still there were those pesky students who didn’t buy all of this. So a third plan had to be found. It was precisely the kind of plan one would expect from bureaucrats, and its simplicity was perfect: Blame it on the students.

It undergraduate education was not up to par at Penn State, the new president declared, it was the students’ fault. They were drinking too much alcohol. Blame it on binge drinking, blame it on beer, blame it on anything except large classes, too few faculty, or lack of faculty advisors. The problems of education were not the problems of the administration. Rather, they were all the fault of the students.

This issue was perfect: There had always been drinking among students from the beginning of time. There are even records on papyrus from ancient Egypt complaining about student drinking. Therefore, the new president realized that his war against drinking among students could be a perpetual war.

And the beauty of his plan was that if the students at all reacted to the new president’s tightening of the screws, each incident would provide a greater impetus to new power. Headlines about riots and raids, about undercover agents and police helicopters would fill the newspapers. No one would remember the problems of undergraduate education.

One of the beauties of the new president’s plan was also that it was impervious to facts. The new president declared himself to be against student drunkenness. He insisted that student drinking is the “greatest problem facing higher education today.”

Now, whom do you know that is in favor of student drunkenness? I know of no one. We are all against student drunkenness.

But while the new president constantly talked of “binge drinking” and student drunkenness, his war was not against student drunkenness, but against underage drinking. Thus, the raids and search lights, undercover agents and spies. They are not looking for drunks, they are looking for normal students to arrest.

Now the facts of alcohol consumption in State College certainly belie the new president’s war against students. Let us look at those for a moment.

The official figures of the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board clearly prove the lie to the new president’s issue. Under the former President of Penn State, Joab Thomas, sales of liquor in Centre County State Stores actually declined in three of the five years in which Joab Thomas was president. These figures were:

Fiscal Year/Alcohol Sales in Gallons (Rounded)
1989-90 — 234,000
1990-91 — 231,000 (decline from previous year)
1991-92 — 253,000
1992-93 — 233,000 (decline from previous year)
1993-94 — 230,000 (decline from previous year)
1994-95 — 243,000

Thus, under Joab Thomas, sales of alcohol in Centre County were lower in the three years before Graham Spanier than they had been in 1991-92.

Graham Spanier became Penn State’s 16th President in September 1995. Despite lower sales of alcohol in Centre County than previously, President Spanier declared alcohol to be the “greatest problem” facing the university.

Of course, as soon as President Spanier focused the attention of everyone in Centre County on alcohol, sales of alcohol soared. Sales of alcohol since he became president have dramatically increased:

1995-96 — 260,000
1996-97 — 273,000
1997-98 — 296,000

The new president knew that this was precisely what would happen. He is a social science professor, and knows that being “banned in Boston” guarantees the sales of any book, and that a college president insisting with a serious face that student drinking is the largest problem “facing higher education” would be enough to lead any thoughtful observer to reach for a drink.

President Spanier is asking the students and the public to forget one basic fact: The biggest problem students face is found in the classroom—not in a bottle.

The president can blame the bottle all he wants, but the basic fact remains that the administration refuses to hire the necessary number of faculty that the students need.

For fifteen decades Penn State has lived with students drinking alcohol. Most students coming to college expect beer parties as much as they expect good teachers in the classroom. For Graham Spanier to declare war on this is as foolish as King Canute ordering the tide to stop coming in. For him to fail to meet the need for good teachers in the classroom is infinitely more serious.

There are problems in higher education which college presidents have ignored for decades. The present war on drinking is just another diversion to avoid facing the real problems. The police, the helicopters, the riot training, the undercover agents, the raids, and the arrests are all designed to take attention from the problems that educators refuse to face. It is the old story: Blame the victim for all the problems.

As I began this letter, I say again: We face an unprecedented situation both at the University and in Centre County. The problem only exists as a diversion from real concerns, which are focused on the state of undergraduate education at Penn State. The administration will stop at nothing to avoid dealing with the real problems.

I have several recommendations to make; first, to the students, and next, to the alumni and townspeople:

To the Students

1. First of all, I recommend to the students that they give up alcohol for a while. Just give it up. This president will gladly ruin the educations and careers of hundreds or even thousands of students to achieve his King Canute-type aims. It is up to you to prove him wrong. You cannot prove him wrong by continuing to drink alcohol. You can only prove him wrong by giving up alcohol for a while and forcing him to face and deal with the real problems in education.

I cannot imagine a more beautiful sight than 34,000 sober undergraduates demanding that Graham Spanier reorient the University to actually providing the quality undergraduate education that all of you are entitled to receive.

I tell you, in all seriousness, that you will not defeat King Canute by continuing to drink alcohol. If you attempt this strategy, there will be more police, more undercover agents, more raids, and more distrust.

However, you can defeat him by calling his bluff, by taking him up on his dare. I urge every student to call his bluff, take up his dare. Stop drinking alcohol. Let the world know that drinking at Penn State is not, and was not, a problem.

Let every student become his brother’s and sister’s keeper. Each of you can help each other to show up this brazen war. For a few months, let the bars be empty, the liquor stores unpatronized, the beer distributors silent. Show a unity and a determination as a student body that will attract the attention and admiration of the nation.

2. My second recommendation is that students show in this period the most serious concern about your education. Go to the alumni, to the townspeople, to the legislature, and to the media. Tell them of your overcrowded classrooms, of the lack of professors, and of all of your deepest concerns about what is going on during your four or five years in college. You have many friends out there who will support you, and are only waiting for you to express your true concerns about your education.

But I warn you: they do not want to hear only that you want things cheaper and easier. What they are waiting to hear is that you really want to be educated, that you want to be pushed and challenged. They want to hear and see that students want greater demands put upon you, that you want to be formed by your education to be much better and stronger when you graduate than when you came to college. They want to hear that you care as much about your character as you do your job prospects. They want to hear that you really want your elders to care about you—and not just send more money to bureaucrats for programs to keep you fat and happy.

3. My third recommendation is more subtle, but not less important. For several decades the unity of the Penn State student body has been eroding. The old traditions are no longer honored, the old songs no longer sung, the old legends and stories no longer told. The erosion of all of those things has been consciously and deliberately furthered by the administration. For the administration finds it much easier to deal with students if they lack unity.

You may not believe this at first, but the old traditions, songs, legends, stories and symbols are your strongest weapon against the administration. For it is through the old songs, stories, legends and symbols that the student body connects with alumni and townspeople. It is just these things which signal—and always have signaled—that students care about something more than themselves. These things are also the symbols of your bonds with each other. They are the visible signs of your unity.

Learn the words to the Alma Mater and all the old Penn State songs. Make them your symbols. Let the administration know—every time you sing them—that those songs are a protest against the unconcern of the administration with the true goals of undergraduate education. If thousands of students gathered on the Old Main lawn to sing the Penn State songs as a protest against the mercenary spirit of Old Main, the student body would win friends all across the country.

4. Have a sense of humor. Think of the image in President Spanier’s mind of the entire edifice of American higher education being threatened by just one more student having a beer.

Penn State and Centre County are facing an unprecedented situation. More force has been called into Centre County to use against students than ever in the history of Penn State. No previous Penn State president has ever provoked such a violent reaction from students nor called for preparing such violent retaliation against them.

The entire problem arises because educators across the country refuse to face up to the fact that they are responsible for the problems in education today. Rather, they have embarked on a strategy to “blame the students.”

This is a total bluff; it is simply an attempt to direct attention from the real problems of education. However, this bluf will probably work, unless the Penn State student body “gets it together” to call the bluff. To do that, there will have to be a strong enough feeling among the students to take this challenge on—not by continuing to drink alcohol, but by giving it up, and forcing the administration to deal with the real problems of undergraduate education.

If the students fail to do this, the “war” will go on indefinitely. The police, the raids, the undercover agents, and the mistrust will become a permanent part of the Penn State student experience. But that will not be the worst of it. The worst result will be that the administration will be able to go on indefinitely “blaming the students” for the problems of undergraduate education. Every time students are caught drinking, the administration will say, “See! It’s the students’ fault that undergraduate education is a problem.”

But if all the police, spies, undercover agents, raids and stakeouts come up with negligible arrests for an entire semester, this whole charade would be shown up for what it really is. If, in addition the vast majority of Penn State’s undergraduate student body at University Park coolly and soberly demand that the real problems of undergraduate education be faced, then the tables will truly have been turned. And if, finally, the student body recovered the old Penn State “college spirit” as seriously as students have done in the past, and regained their sense that “We’re all in this together,” then this entire episode will not go down in history in the negative way the administration presently plans, but as one of the shining pages in Penn State’s student history.

As we all have seen, a war has been declared and it is going on all around us. We have yet to see how it will end.

All of us—students, alumni, townspeople and faculty—have a stake in the outcome. All of us can contribute to restoring the feelings of trust and goodwill that once earned us the name “Happy Valley.”

As they say on the radio, “That’s my opinion. What’s yours?”