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Keep Rec Hall, IM, and other campus spaces open to town and gown

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Can a basketball court in an old building on a college campus contribute anything to the strength and vitality of a university?  For those of us who haunt the hardwood at Rec Hall or the Intramural Building, two of the venerable landmarks at Penn State University, we think that the enduring history of free and public access to Rec Hall, IM, and other recreational facilities has indeed contributed to what makes the University a great place.  Recent policy changes at Penn State, however, have imperiled one of the important traditions that have created powerful bonds between town and gown in Happy Valley--bonds not often seen in other places.  With these changes, the vast majority of Centre Region citizens will be locked out these spaces, since the University will offer only 200 hundred “community memberships,” open only to dues-paying members of the PSU Alumni Association.

One of the strengths of Penn State has historically been that it has served as a leader and not a follower.  It became a world-class institution in higher education not because it “bench-marked” itself against other schools and tried to be just like them but because campus leaders went against prevailing fashion and led Penn State in novel directions.  Penn State was one of the first universities to focus not just on providing education to the sons and daughters of the elite but to the daughters and sons of the working classes.   Penn State promoted the study of agriculture and engineering when such subjects were “beneath” the interest of more refined universities.  Penn State was the first university to develop programs in American literature when every other institution thought only English literature was worth studying.  Penn State’s persistent willingness to take risks, to explore uncharted territory, to pioneer in new areas has long been its hallmark.  For many who feel a powerful connection or an abiding affection for “Dear Old State,” the phrase “We Are” evokes a sense of uniqueness and difference.

At this moment in Penn State’s history, the University and some of its leaders increasingly seem committed not to maintaining the institution as a leader but to making sure that it follows the dominant trends, regardless of the consequences.  The claim that “We Are” seems to be that we are just like everybody else and not that we are a fulcrum of innovation and a cultivator of uniqueness.  As Penn State increasingly “benchmarks” every aspect of its operations, it risks undermining the very qualities that propelled it from a “Farmer’s High School” into a global leader. 

One small, but to those of who composed this open letter, significant example of this trend toward generic conformity is the University’s decision to change its policies in regards to public access to recreational facilities--in particular to the basketball courts, racquetball courts, and other spaces at places like the Rec Hall and the Intramural Building that have for generations been open to everyone in Happy Valley.  The University has announced a strict new policy whereby it will bar many of the people in our community from access to what have long been places where everyone could freely play.  The central justification for the change is benchmarking.  Since many other universities do this--walling off their campuses from outsiders and using recreation facilities as revenue generators--Penn State should do the same thing.  Many of us have been students, staff, or faculty at institutions where campuses are bastions of insularity and security that keep the world out by severely limiting public access.  One of the strengths of Penn State is that we have not been a place that erects fortresses between town and gown, or that walls off the world of higher education from the worlds that exist outside of campus. 

Those of us who have spent time playing basketball or racquetball or squash or other sports in freely accessible campus facilities--not just with students, staff, and faculty but also with the public--have come to understand that these free spaces provide us with more than just a little exercise.  They help to build what political theorists call social capital, a fancy term for the essential chords that bind together democratic communities.  In these games the broad cross-section of our community mixes and mingles across socio-economic, ethnic, religious, and gender lines.  Our basketball games include men and women, custodians and physicists, lawyers and bartenders, pastors and politicians, police chiefs and ex-convicts. Some of us play for a few years, some play for decades, some even play for lifetimes.  Playing basketball, racquetball, and other games has enriched our stocks of social capital and created lasting bonds.  We build enduring friendships with people whose worlds would not normally intersect with our own.  We don’t just play games. We share life’s triumphs and travails.  We attend one another’s weddings and funerals.  We laugh, and sometimes we cry, at the news we get of our fellow players. 

The fact that Penn State has created these spaces and provided free access to them has contributed enormously to healthy town and gown relations and built rich reservoirs of goodwill between the university and the public.  Now, however, because Penn State has relentlessly benchmarked and discovered that other universities may not open their spaces without charging stiff fees, we’re rushing to join the herd heading toward mediocrity rather than serving as leaders.  What’s next, closing the library to all but a few dues-paying alums who pay a $500-a-year fee to get in the door?  In this process of sheepishly tagging along, we risk losing some of the most important components of what makes us unique.  Penn State did not become a world-class institution by following other universities.  We ask that the University rescind its new policies--made without input from those of us who regularly use them--and keep these recreational facilities open to everyone.  We hope that “We Are” continues to mean that Penn State is an innovator and a leader--and not that we are just like everyone else.

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