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Whistleblower intimidation at Penn State

Penn State Old Main Bell Tower. 

Photo by George Chriss//WIKIMEDIA COMMONS 


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Corporate Penn State’s fortress of secrecy and whistleblower intimidation is starting to crack. It’s an excellent development. 

In a June 4 letter to the Centre Daily Times, Barry Fenchak wrote about an incident at the June 2 Penn State Town Hall meeting. An audience member “raised the issue of university employees’ fear of retaliation for reporting wrongdoing. In his response, Vice President of Finance and Business, David Gray, acknowledged what the recent university-wide employee survey confirmed: ‘that particular issue — sadly — was most deeply rooted within finance and business. ” 

Fenchak pointed out that Gray is responsible for several programs in addition to F&B, including the Office of Physical Plant (OPP), Human Resources, Diversity and Ethics. Gray is perfectly positioned to support and encourage whistleblowers. 

“Fear of retaliation for reporting concerns is also real and justified for

staff and faculty — non-tenure line and tenure line — across the university.” He concluded: “At Penn State, retaliation is not isolated; it is systemic. It is part of a suite of condign ‘management tools’ that are deeply embedded in this very hierarchical institution's DNA." - L.S. Finn 


But instead of acting decisively to set up and enforce whistleblower protections, he simply laments the sad situation for which he is primarily responsible. It brings to mind the maxim attributed to Albert Einstein: “Never attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by stupidity, but don't rule out malice.” 

Further evidence for the malice theory of whistleblower intimidation is the February appointment of Margaret Gray, David Gray’s wife, as Penn State’s new Director of Local Government and Community Relations. Between the two roles, they personify Penn State’s corporate strategy: control institutional revenue streams from student tuition, public subsidies, donations, and endowment investments, and stifle or manipulate all attempts at public oversight by local governments and civilians. 

It’s worked for several decades, but the secrecy walls between town and gown protect only that small sliver at the hierarchical top, and the mere fact that Gray had to acknowledge, in a public forum, that the secrecy damages employee morale, suggests the control is slipping. 

On June 11, Lee Samuel Finn followed up on Fenchak’s letter, writing “fear of retaliation for reporting concerns is also real and justified for staff and faculty — non-tenure line and tenure line — across the university.” He concluded: “At Penn State, retaliation is not isolated; it is systemic. It is part of a suite of condign ‘management tools’ that are deeply embedded in this very hierarchical institution’s DNA.” 

I’ve run into this systemic fear a lot while gathering information to write about regional issues for the CDT, Voices, and Steady State College. I’ve encountered it in community organizing work as well, most recently during the ongoing fight to stop the Penn State/Toll Brothers attack on public drinking water wells and rich farmland designated as agricultural security land in the Centre Region Comprehensive Plan. 

For example, there are probably at least 50 paper copies of the 2008 Wiley & Wilson/Penn State Energy System Master Plan circulated during the drafting process to OPP staff, consulting faculty and student interns. I’ve sought access repeatedly, to report on corporate Penn State’s enrollment and energy consumption projections for the 2008 to 2038 period. These are internal University plans with profound implications for every external support system the University Park campus depends on, from regional water supplies and sewage treatment, to policing capacity 

No one with access will turn it over for public inspection, either to journalists or to local government officials who have made informal requests, but not yet resorted to subpoenas. 

It’s one local manifestation of what Bill Moyers recently observed, citing a mentor who told him: “News is what people want to keep hidden, everything else is publicity.” Moyers followed up with a Tom Stoppard quote: “People do terrible things to each other, but it’s worse in the places where everybody is kept in the dark.” In the wake of the Sandusky pedophilia scandal, the people of the Centre Region know this all too well.

David Gray and other upper administrators and trustees are essentially using the plain-view, publicity-friendly academic research, teaching and service reputations of tenured and adjunct faculty, staff and students as a human shield to hide their corporate acts – whether ethical, legal, or neither. 

Meanwhile, faculty, support staff and many local government officials are gagged and immobilized by their well- founded fears about job the impacts of corporate Penn State’s private financial and business decisions. Greater public understanding of the systemic corruption will deal Penn State – corporate and academic – significant political and economic blows. But dismantling the corrupt hierarchy is an essential part of laying the groundwork for a future transparent, responsive administration when today’s top tier are gone, whether through criminal prosecutions, or their voluntary departures when they decide the cash cow’s run dry. 

Further isolating corporate Penn Staters to accelerate that power transition means helping academics, support staffers and local government officials align themselves with local civil society and against the corporate elite. It means widening the corporate-academic split and sharpening the blurry boundaries that shield wrongdoers from public accountability. 

And it means painstaking construction of a community network to support whistleblowers morally as they work up the courage to speak out, and financially if they do speak, and then get fired.• 


Katherine Watt is a State College writer and community organizer, and the incoming editor-in-chief for Voices.

If you are interested in helping strengthen Voices coverage of local government and politics - including investigative 
reporting on corporate Penn State - contact Katherine Watt at [email protected] ‚Äč

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