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chapter 2 Penn State Presidents Cheerleading the Teams to Victory “A prince . . . cannot observe all those things for which men are esteemed, being often forced, in order to maintain the state, to act contrary to fidelity, friendship, humanity, and religion.” —Niccolò Machiavelli (1515) At Penn State, “It was an uneven contest between the quest for intercollegiate success and the desire to maintain institutional integrity.”1 Wise beyond his age, a Penn State alum and 1990s graduate student, Scott Etter, typed the comment as he concluded writing his dissertation about the early Penn State administration of athletics. If the two collided, success on the playing field won out, Etter believed, over academic concerns. Nowhere was this clearer at Penn State than with the historical role of the presidents in the conduct of men’s intercollegiate athletics. This set of priorities was not, however, unique to Penn State. College presidents in the United States, as far back as the nineteenth century, have seldom held institutional integrity above the welfare of athletic teams, especially football and later basketball. Those presidents who have, have often been “burned.” As an example, the University of North Carolina’s President Frank Graham in the mid-1930s attempted to do away with preferential financial aid to athletes on the basis of athletic ability at North Carolina and in the Southern Conference to which North Carolina belonged. He ran into unstoppable opposition from coaches, athletic administrators, and especially alumni in his quest. On the subject of the organized criticism from alumni groups, President Graham confided to a presidential colleague at Yale: “This is the hottest wire that I ever got my hands on.”2 And it probably was. He was burned and lost the battle but surprisingly saved his job. A generation before, the president of the University of Alabama, James Abercrombie , had ruled a player ineligible because of academic failure, and Alabama lost a football game. Abercrombie was on the hot seat. “I do not consider the mere winning of athletic games,” stated Abercrombie in 1909, “to be the chief objective of an institution of learning.” This did not sit well with the Alabama Board of Trustees, and Abercrombie soon resigned, a victim of trying to esteem academic Smith_text.indd 12 12/7/15 11:11 AM Penn State Presidents: Cheerleading the Teams to Victory 13 integrity over victories. Abercrombie was no “cheerleader” for victories “on the gridiron,” and he was soon gone.3 Most college presidents, however, for more than a century, have been cautious to do anything but defer to athletics. Penn State leaders have, in like manner, often deferred to athletics from the nineteenth century well into the twenty-first. From President George Atherton in the late nineteenth century to Presidents Graham Spanier and Rodney Erickson in the twenty-first century, Penn State presidents have often acceded to those who supported athletics above other aspects of higher education.4 This is not illogical; for it can be argued that intercollegiate athletics, while not generally considered educational in themselves, have done much good for higher education since 1852 when the first intercollegiate contest was held between Harvard and Yale. University presidents have seen the benefit of successful athletics at least from the time of President Andrew D. White of Cornell University, when Cornell’s 1875 crew won the prestigious collegiate Lake Saratoga Regatta. When President White heard of the victory over Harvard and Yale, he had the university chimes rung and canons fired and wrote in his diary, “Everybody is ecstatic here.” He soon had the university absorb the $1,100 debt of the crew and said that this one event did more to publicize Cornell than if the governing board had spent $100,000 advertising.5 Paradoxically and without foresight, President White, two years later, strongly opposed Cornell playing the new game of football against Michigan by telegraphing Michigan, “I will not permit thirty men to travel four hundred miles merely to agitate a bag of wind.”6 White was a cheerleader, but he had his limits. Other presidents, such as Penn State’s Graham Spanier at the dawn of the twenty-first century, knew the value of successful athletics. University administrators since nearly the beginning of higher education in America have known the importance of publicity, and after the Civil War of the 1860s, nothing gave more publicity than winning college athletics in the key sports. Institutions of higher education in America have been fiercely independent, with historically almost no regular federal government support...


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