A few days ago I sent a letter to David Gray, Penn State’s senior VP of Business and Finance to meet with me. Why? Because I want him to meet someone affected by the sale of land to the Toll Brothers. Maybe I wouldn’t change his mind or the actions of the university. But then at least he would know who a “stakeholder” was, someone who took the issue seriously enough to run for office and for him to talk with a person who as lived in the area for almost his whole life, and who loves this land more than almost anything else. For me, it was a chance to meet someone behind the curtain to humanize someone we know is a person and not the handle at the end of the machine nor Darth Vader. We are not angels and we are not demons. We are people.
“We are…” community.
He hasn’t responded. Silence.
But I can’t really be silent on this. My conscience won’t let me. And I’m a little scared of that because I don’t want my co-workers to be mad at me. I like to be liked.
For me, this is about belonging to this land. When I was kid, my mother drove me in our Duster from our home in Pine Grove Mills to Jack and Jill Preschool. I have this memory that I first counted to 100 in the car when I was four years old. Part of it happened passing the field that will now be sprawling luxury student housing owned by Toll Brothers, the morning sun coming over Tussey Ridge across those fields. I’ve ridden my bicycle past it countless times in every season and every weather condition. When the Musser Gap greenway was finalized, I celebrated. So did many others who have how many memories there? And so this sale and the pending conversion assaults all that. I have moments when I’m angry and despondent. Like right now.
I’m also beyond the anger that is still fueling many of us. When I say “beyond” I mean that I can work with someone who is willing to work with me. I’m seeking a meaningful future wherein sustainability guides our communities. Is that something that we can talk about?
And so now I see this as a matter of decency. There are times when I’ve wondered about my fellow activists’ vitriol and invective. And I think, Wow. Are you sure you wanted to say that? I’ll still wonder about it and maybe sometimes ask, “Are you sure you want to say that?” I ask myself that sometimes. I’m asking it right now. There’s a balance between productive anger and nastiness. I don’t want to be nasty. I want to work even if it means that someone says, “I hear you. We can’t work on this. Let’s see about next time.”
When someone comes to you with good will and asks you to just meet them out of decency, willing to be constructive, and you don’t respond…well…it’s hard not to take that personally. I guess now that I’m calling it out I’m part of the escalation. Will Gray respond?
I’m not even sure that there can be a reasonable public conversation about this anymore with activists and community members-people who aren’t historically activists-throwing bombs at Penn State. And just in case someone at Penn State is reading this in administration or Business and Finance, you’re not helping the community work through it.
Over at Steady State College, Katherine Watt has dropped a bomb. She suspects that the Toll Brothers-Penn State-BNY Mellon deal in Ferguson Township violates conflict of interest rules. Katherine has filed an ethics complaint with Penn State’s chief ethics officer. You can read her account here. I really hope none of this is true. This, sadly aligns with something I wrote about last week regarding Penn State and greenwashing. Despite some excellent overall performance, Penn State’s investments score is the lowest on the Sustainability Tracking and Assessment Rating System: it gets a .25 out of 7. If we have no sustainability investment policy (at time of assessment) do we have disclosure policies that prevent…? Just read Katherine’s complaint. I don’t have the capacity to brush this one aside. It can’t be brushed aside.
As a lifelong Penn Stater I have watched this institution get raked through the mud. When I was 12 the administration caved and did a late exit from South Africa. Then we sold the Circleville Farm and it’s mostly apartments and junk student housing (Ferguson Township), refused to act on behalf of African American students receiving death threats in 2001, got into the back-to-back natural gas pipeline and health care debacles. And of course there was Jerry Sandusky and the conspiracy that hid him. Thankfully, Penn State has been responding to some of these things the way they should. But it would be great if they happened beforehand and we weren’t in these quagmires. All of those aren’t morally equivalent but they all erode trust.
I’ll just be honest: Who wants to be support a university that even appears to be like a little Enron? Opaque. Elusive. Unaccountable. We want to be the Doctors without Borders or Oxfam of universities. Not perfect. But really good.
And in some ways we are so great! I can walk through hallway after hallway here and meet photographers and engineers, violists and landscape architects, philosophers, geographers, and nursing instructors, planners and advisers who are making the world work well and for the common good.
Look at this. Some of the people I’m criticizing in this are people I probably work with from time to time. I hate this. And the worst part for me: I might be part of the problem. It’s like a Gordian Knot and a labyrinth made of people.
Help us become the best that “We are” able to be. We can’t do that if you won’t speak with us, if you hide and act as if you are immune to the will of the community. Please. Please do yourself a favor and at least talk with us. Show us something better.
“We are…” heartbroken.
“We are…” angry.
“We are…” willing to work with you.
“We are…” waiting.