How the Penn State Scandal Has Made Me Face My Privilege

By Leah R. Warner
December 4, 2011

As an instructor of feminist psychology one of my fundamental lessons is to encourage students to look for instances where unseen privilege has benefitted them. I tell them to be mindful of the consequences that one’s own privilege has on others who do not possess that same privilege. But my experience as an alumna of Penn State’s graduate school during the Sandusky abuse crisis has made me realize how much I still need to learn from my own lessons.  When I speak with alumni, many express frustration over the fact that all of Penn State is now seen in light of the abuse and the cover-up.  They rightly point out that Penn State is a complex university that possesses many rich and wonderful qualities in its students, faculty, research, and philanthropy. And it is unfair when people act as if everyone at Penn State was complicit in the cover-up. At the same time, however, the entire Penn State community has benefitted from the reputation that Penn State had acquired from silencing injustices.

Joe Paterno, Graham Spanier, and others at the top of the administration did a whole lot to create the squeaky clean, spirited, good old boy image for which Penn State athletics is so famously known. Not just by building one of the largest university libraries in the nation and by requiring high academic standards of its athletes, but also by ignoring criticism of problematic aspects of the athletic program, for example openly tolerating former women’s basketball coach Rene Portland’s “no lesbians” policy for another 6 years after Penn State adopted a nondiscrimination policy.

So now that this image has been broken, I find myself in the position of feeling self-conscious about the Penn State sticker on my car. This position is unnerving because I never would have thought that I would have been in this position. Like I tell my students not to do, I had taken my own privilege for granted. I benefitted from being associated with the image that had been created through Penn State’s athletics. I had come to trust that I myself could be seen just as wholesome in my endeavors, and I did not notice who was sacrificed in the maintenance of this image.

Few have argued for acknowledging the role that the community at large played in allowing such abuse to occur. While we could not have known about Sandusky’s actions, there were incidents that were more public, and we granted the administration a great deal of power by not confronting the culture of cover-ups. While social justice groups did challenge incidents, the community as a whole did not make them a priority, because arguably we were just as invested in the status that Penn State gave us as Paterno and Spanier were.  When I was in graduate school women’s basketball coach Rene Portland was ousted for prejudicial behavior against women she perceived as lesbians. She had engaged in this behavior for many years before it was properly addressed. When she was forced to leave, I too quickly went on to assume that this was a severe case rather than as an example of the extremes to which the administration was willing to go to ignore or hide practices that could threaten Penn State’s image.  When I was thinking that justice was finally served, I should have been thinking: is there anything else they have been hiding?

I have never been interested in sports. I haven’t even been to a Penn State football game. But I have benefitted from Penn State athletics. And I now must address the consequences that have come along with such privilege.

Dr. Leah R. Warner, Assistant Professor of Psychology, Ramapo College of New Jersey, and Recipient of a PhD in Psychology and Women’s Studies from Penn State