Penn State’s

Sometimes you see two separate stories in the same newspaper that seem so perfectly related you wonder why they weren’t combined. Look for example at the May 14th edition of the Centre Daily Times, the local paper of State College, home to Pennsylvania State University (PSU). One story there reports that PSU’s legendary football coach Joe Paterno “has received a four-year contract extension, keeping” him “with the team through the 2008 season.” The terms of the agreement are not reported, but it’s safe to assume that Paterno’s compensation will run well into the millions of taxpayer dollars.


The story retells Paterno’s impressive 38-year win-loss record at PSU. It also notes that his team went 3-9 last year, including 1-7 in the Big Ten conference, and that Paterno has taken his squad to just one bowl game in the last 4 years. No problem, Paterno says, explaining that “I still enjoy coaching” and “I am excited about the upcoming season.” PSU President Graham Spanier is quoted saying that Paterno has had “a positive impact on society” (www.bradenton.com/ mld/ centredaily/news/local/ 8665831.htm). “Joe is an extraordinary person,” Spanier told the local NBC affiliate, “and a treasured resource for the institution. He has meant so much to Penn State and we wanted to continue a long term relationship that recognizes everything that he has done to bring the university…to the highest standards of excellence” (www.nbc10.com/sports/3304591/detail.html).


Paterno, it is worth noting, is a staunch Republican, a strong supporter of a regressive political party that works consistently to starve public education at both primary and secondary levels and to hand American educational structures over to private/corporate control. The university has different feelings about its leading former professor Henry Giroux.


A second Centre Daily Times story in the same issue reports that Giroux will be leaving PSU for good after the school’s administrators refused to make any serious effort to retain him in the wake of a teaching offer he received from McMaster University in Canada.


“Before McMaster’s offer,” the paper reports, Henry and his wife Susan (herself a highly productive academician), “attempted repeatedly to stay at Penn State.” After the offer, Giroux asked Penn State for a two-year leave of absence to give the university a chance to retain the couple if McMaster didn’t work out – a fairly standard bargain for highly successful senior academics. Penn State wasn’t interested.


According to one of Giroux’s students, Scott Morris, “if [Penn State administrators] value his work, his dedication, his critical important contributions in the manner they deserve to be valued, Henry would not be leaving.” By any reasonable academic measure, those contributions are remarkable. For more than two decades, Giroux has combined left social, cultural, and educational theory to defend American youth, public education and democracy against the depredations of racism and authoritarian capitalism. The result is a prolific body of morally engaged scholarship, spread over more than 40 books and 300 articles, citing an impressive range of empirical and theoretical sources.


Along with the impressive teaching and lecturing record, these publications have established Giroux as one of the world’s leading intellectuals and the inventor of the field of critical pedagogy. According to the Centre Daily Times, Giroux has been named “one of the top educators of the 20th century…Giroux’s work has been translated throughout the world and many of his students say that the only reason they came to Penn State was to study with him. One of his students says Giroux is to Penn State what Noam Chomsky is to the Massachusetts of Technology and Edward Said [was] to Columbia.”


Giroux is a shining light of prolific, politically engaged left scholarship and inspiring pedagogy: a “treasured resource” – one would think – “for the institution” (“Departure of PSU Professor Stirs Higher-Education Debate,” available online at http://www.centredaily.com/ mld/centredaily/8665832.htm).


Unlike Paterno, moreover, Giroux has had a consistent recent string of winning seasons. The last six years have seen the publication of at least six (I’m probably leaving out some books) impressive Giroux monographs: Channel Surfing (1998), the Mouse That Roared: Disney and the End of Innocence (1999), Stealing Innocence (2001), Breaking in to The Movies (2002), The Abandoned Generation (2003), Private Spaces, Public Lives (2003), and (co-authored with Susan) Taking Back Higher Education: Race, Youth, and the Crisis of Higher Education in the Post-Civil rights Era (2004) (I get arthritis just thinking about that much writing).


The last book, it is worth noting, is an especially important critical reflection on the modern American university. Based on careful analyses of U.S. higher education’s leading institutional and intellectual developments, it shows show how academia is implicated in the wider society’s retreat from democracy, racial inclusion, and social justice.


Giroux and Giroux make a passionate, richly informed case for the university’s role as a safe democratic and public space, not a haven for the privileged and powerful few. Take Back Higher Education belongs on the shelves of all concerned public thinkers, including the all-too rare such intellectuals that survive within the interstices of the corporate, neo-liberal university. It’s no wonder that Paterno/Penn-State administrators received a flurry of e-mails from students and faculty inquiring about Giroux’s departure and what Penn State intended to do to prevent it. “Not much,” is the answer, and thus Penn State‘s loss is McMaster’s gain.


Beneath its stated commitment to “the highest standards of [academic] excellence,” PSU has curious higher-educational priorities. It spends an untold fortune to retain a failing, nearly octogenarian football legend, who happens to be a reactionary supporter of American education’s chief political opponent party. At the same time, it refuses to retain, at much lower cost, one of the planet’s leading anti-authoritarian intellectuals. But then that makes sense given the analysis presented in Take Back Higher Education (1).




1. Yesterday the online version of the Centre Daily Times’ article on the Girouxs’ departure from Penn State included a picture of Henry and Susan Giroux. Directly above them was a picture of Laura Bush, accompanied by the slogan “Education is My Passion.” Today the couple’s picture is placed beneath one advertisement for “online professor” services and another advertisement looking for part-time teachers at the corporate and online “Phoenix University.”


Paul Street ([email protected]) is an urban social policy researcher in Chicago, Illinois.



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