Tom Shakely

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I live in Philadelphia, where I run a nonprofit. I wrote Conserving Mount Nittany, and write daily here.
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Rallies, not riots

Lexi Shimkonis writes that what happened in Beaver Canyon on Saturday night after Penn State’s Big Ten Championship win was a rally, not a riot:

Students at Penn State always seem to find a way to congregate when something significant happens. Typically, thousands assemble downtown in Beaver Canyon without any official organization.

It happened in 2008 when the football team beat Ohio State on the road and thought it had a shot at a national title. It happened in May 2011 when Osama bin Laden was shot and killed. It happened again in 2011 when the university fired Joe Paterno late one fateful November night. It happened in 2014 when the bowl ban was lifted. And it’s happened now three times this semester. …

These post-football game and clown-hunting celebrations aren’t riots. I’ve been berated for insisting they be called rallies, and while that might not be the right word, “riot” certainly isn’t.

My point is, riots are spurred with protesters that are unhappy, disenfranchised, or have something to stand up for. They are violent from the get-go and the intent is to cause destruction.

The large majority of Penn State students didn’t run out of their apartments with the intent of destroying State College Saturday night. In a celebration like we’ve had twice now, people just want to be with one another and rejoice the victory and the fact that we are Penn State.

First, what the students are doing is almost entirely normal and healthy. That is, just wanting “to be with one another and rejoice the victory and the fact that we are Penn State.” This is the entire purpose of a town, to have occasions for this sort of festival and merriment and togetherness—especially spontaneously.

Second, while most of the criticism I hear of what isn’t normal and healthy in Beaver Canyon deals with the students reckless/physically destructive behavior. I want to suggest a different basis for the unhealthy character these rallies often take on, and that is the physical character of Beaver Canyon itself. In other words, what’s not “normal” in the context of an otherwise walkable, humane, and lovely downtown State College is Beaver Canyon’s physical design, especially at the intersection of Beaver and Locust where Penn Tower and Cedarbrook meet.

What we need from the borough and developers is better physical design that does justice to the historic character of downtown and the considered architecture and larger campus environment. There’s an inescapable reason that these rallies occur in Beaver Canyon, and not in East Halls or another high-density student area.

What’s wrong with Beaver Canyon? It’s an environment that’s poorly designed, architecturally alienating, and too physically close-in while at the same time containing nothing of value within it. And when there’s nothing of value, it’s easier to wreak havoc. What do I mean by “value”?

No one damages nice things on campus, but they do damage Beaver Canyon because there is nothing “sacred” there. No murals. No places to sit. No place to linger even, on sidewalks so jammed between towers and the street. No statues, fountains, symbols, artwork. It’s a mass of plain concrete, ugly balconies and barely functional walking space. It’s the sort of place that invites the destruction it suffers.

The fastest way to raise the tone and character of Beaver Canyon (assuming the demolition of Penn Tower is off the table) would be for one of the developers there to erect a well-designed statue to someone like Wally Triplett in a well-designed space. Creating a place of honor in Beaver Canyon would give students something to rally around, rather than having their energy channeled into an us-versus-them street spat with police eager to disperse a crowd whose otherwise healthy energy is driven back into the caverns of a thousand atomized apartment blocks until the next time it bursts through the cracks of those concrete walls.

A separate, but related thing, that should be happening by the way? A post-victory rally in front of Old Main. These should include short, 15 minute standardized programs with permanent speakers ready to play the fight song, Alma Mater, etc. Creating an intentional time and space for victory rallies, with their own traditions, are another antidote to “riots” downtown that are little more than cries from the heart for Penn State to show some meaningful sign that there’s room for organic, healthy, spirited togetherness.





Who’s next in line

I sat a nonprofit board committee a few years ago tasked with an overhaul of the organization’s bylaws. The bylaws hadn’t been updated in decades. It was an important and overdue task. An institution’s board mentality should be responsive to the realities of the time, and best practices change. As discussion on the new bylaws unfolded, a comment from one of the older board members that has stuck with me was a criticism of something we added: term limits. There were two parts:

What if we have problems attracting younger members? If they can only serve 12 years won’t that be a deterrent?

This was asked in an honest and well-intentioned way, but it underscored how sclerotic that board had become. The predominant mentality at that time was that board service in that organization was essentially a lifetime commitment. At the same time, those who had put in the most time were often the least intentional about outreach to potential new additions.

I’m generally a big fan of term limits. I think they force institutional clarity about the work being done, because there’s particular sensitivity to the need to perpetuate the culture of an institution whose board and leadership changes at specific times. And because we’re human, term limits of a higher order already exist. It makes sense to me to operate with specific terms in mind and stick with them, even if you decide not to enshrine them in your bylaws.

Fred Wilson’s Turning Your Team and Corporate Board Member’s Who’s Next In Line are both great for thinking about the importance not only of personal/mental term limits, but also about intentionally regenerating the youth of any board, committee, etc.





‘Cultural appropriation’

I think when people use the phrase “cultural appropriation” in the sense of condemning someone’s behavior, they’re generally doing it out of a sense of appropriate righteousness and a desire for respect of a people they believe are being maligned. The problem is there’s a meaningful difference between personifying and stereotyping—the former being admirable, the latter usually being derogatory. I think Freddie deBoer sums up the problem well: “no one has the slightest idea what is and isn’t cultural appropriation:”

The noble purpose of moral critiques is to try and inspire better behavior. The destructive purpose of moral critiques is to elevate the person making them in relation to those being critiqued – “you are bad and I am good and saying so gives me power over you.” Most of the time, I sincerely believe people are operating based on the first purpose, even when I disagree with them about what right behavior entails. But I have never encountered an argument about cultural appropriation that does not fall squarely in the second group. Not once.

Read this complaint (in Cosmopolitan, which is funny a number of levels) about how a Nepalese woman being inspired by other cultures for Victoria’s Secret is an act of shameful  cultural appropriation. Then let’s ask ourselves: what vision of better, alternative behavior does the writer suggest? If this is indeed cultural appropriation, what would righteous inspiration from other cultures look like? In other words, what would it take to get to a place where you don’t get the righteous satisfaction (and clicks) of finding other people below your moral standards, but where people are no longer guilty of the behavior you say is immoral?

I think anyone who complains about cultural appropriation who actually cares about getting to a more just world, as opposed to getting the personal, social, and career benefits of sitting in judgment, has to answer these basic questions.

What is “a culture”? What are the boundaries of “a culture”? Are they only national borders? Aren’t there very distinct cultures within national boundaries? Can a person from the Midwest appropriate Southern culture? Can someone from Guangdong province appropriate Sichuan cuisine? Are there varying degrees of appropriation based on your geographical proximity to “a culture”? When does “a culture” become sufficiently defined that it gains the right to demand that its cultural objects not be appropriated? What if someone is raised in two or more cultures, are they allowed to cross-pollinate them? What if they themselves were not raised in either cultures but their parents were?

His conclusion is that it’s ultimately about personal (not cultural) behavior: “If you intend to be seen as part of a group that you know you would not naturally be perceived as part of being, then it’s wrong.” I’m not sure that I agree with this conclusion, because it seems like a recipe for cutting the even the good festivity out of every holiday, but it’s at least an attempt at a reasonable, non-absurd guide for collegial behavior.





College football playoffs

Penn State’s 38-31 win second half over Wisconsin last night has put them in the Rose Bowl on January 2nd against USC. Penn State’s #5, USC’s #9.

This means Penn State won’t be competing in the College Football Playoff, despite its Big Ten Championship win last night and despite beating Ohio State, which will be in the playoffs. There are lots of layers to this conversation, and I don’t mean to disrespect the value of different schools of thought entirely out of hand. I understand, for instance, the idea that Ohio State’s overall season record (one fewer loss than Penn State) should hypothetically count for something. At the same time, I discount that. Why?

Since shifting from the Bowl Championship Series model to the College Football Playoff model, it seems like we’re shifting toward real playoffs, where the best teams compete. But the role of selectors is still enormous, and so “best” becomes not a product of the overall system, but “best” in the mind of an opaque system that practically no normal person knows anything about.

The value of division champions is what, exactly, in a world where selectors pick the final semifinalists for playoffs anyway? I saw Paul Clifford, Penn State Alumni Association CEO, share Urban Meyer’s 2006 comment: “If you don’t win your conference, you shouldn’t be playing for a national championship.” I think that’s right—and not just because it would mean Penn State would compete for the national championship this year, but because the current system devalues the division championships.

We’re moving toward a playoff model. In a playoff model, overall wins matter less than performance at key points in the season. The playoff model should allow for the rise of magical and unexpected teams like Penn State has proven to be this year, and who knows who’ll be next year.

I think we should probably move toward a system where the national champion is the result of division-victor playoffs.





Penn State in Indianapolis

Penn State plays Wisconsin tonight in Indianapolis in the Big Ten championship game. Few expected we would be 10-2 at this point in the season, and fewer expected we would be playing for the Big Ten title.

I’m excited for tonight’s game, but I don’t want to write about football today. I want to write about Paul Clifford and the tremendous job I think he’s doing as CEO of the Penn State Alumni Association. He came into his role in January with an energy that I’ve rarely seen in the administrative ranks, and continues to be public-facing, relationship-focusd, and serious about making Penn State great not just in the way it talks about itself, but in practice through the relationships that are the engine of the community.

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These screenshots are from a Facebook Live that Paul did when he got into Indianapolis yesterday, where he visited Hoagies & Hops which is owned by a Penn Stater. He did a short interview with her that you can watch here.

I understand that there’s probably a traditionalist expectation that the head of an alumni association’s job is primarily internal/institutional fundraising, and I’m sure that occupies a big slice of Paul’s time. But what he’s doing through Facebook, Snapchat, Twitter, and more broadly by being a ubiquitous (and responsive!) public figure for Penn State is the foundational, important work. It will help Penn State earn a spot among the alumni associations of the future, because this being “First Public Booster” is increasingly the role of this figure, if it wasn’t already. And more than that, it makes the hundreds of thousands of regular alumni and friends who follow the Penn State Alumni Association, (or Paul personally) feel genuinely good about Penn State, and about the time many of us are volunteering to help make Penn State better.

Paul’s love is obvious and infectious. I’m positive it’s paying dividends, because building relationships and spirit are the most traditional things a leader must do. I think too many institutional managers have forgotten this. Paul represents a return to form.





Witness v. outreach

I’ve been thinking lately about the words “witness” and “outreach” and what they imply.

Witness means you’re testifying to the truth of something; to its essential nature. We do this when we wear great a great pair of jeans, or Warby Parker glasses, or sum up something complex in a simple way. Witness is like a magnet.

Outreach, meanwhile, means you’re working to engage others; working to engage the dis-engaged. You’re trying to bring people to where you are by reaching out. Think networking sessions, a good-will campaign, or information efforts.

You’re “reaching out” when you witness, in a sense, but there’s less strain and effort there. Outreach can fail because of poor execution. Witness works based on the strength of the thing you’re testifying to. If witness fails, it’s probably because what’s being testified to is weak.

So I don’t want to do outreach. I want to witness. I want to share and testify to something by living it, rather than going around and raising awareness for a principe. Witness is like its own attractive secret, or a vision of something convincing.

One requires a plan for convincing and implicitly a sort of argument. The other requires simply that whatever you’re pushing be true.





St. Anthony Mary Claret

Catholics need an empowering identity in the wider culture. If we say we’re guided by a specific moral ethic, there should be clearer manifestations of that ethic than there are at present.

st-anthony-mary-claretWe speak about relativism, but it falls flat because we’re speaking about an abstraction. A concrete manifestation of relativism? The poverty that excessive consumption wreaks financially and mentally.

We’re told we’re empowered in the market. What if the Catholic world said no. What if Christians were called to obvious restraint? Pope Francis seemed to be doing this early in his papacy, though he’s become distracted with other things. At the same time, what if Catholics saving their money as aggressively as immigrants do became a thing? This would be a call to a different financial life as a way to set ourselves free.

The Great Recession has been, by historical/global standards, still pretty gilded. But St. Anthony Mary Claret as the patron of savings could help us recapitalize ourselves.

This seems to me like a way for Christians to stand out as a unique and remarkable people, as a people known for saving not because we want to be wealthy but because we know spending won’t satisfy.





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