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Opinion

opinion | JOAN VENNOCHI

A teachable moment for Penn State

University should use Paterno statue in a course on accountability

 A 2-year-old girl looks up at the statue of Joe Paterno outside Beaver Stadium on Penn State’s campus in November 2011. School officials removed the 900-pound bronze statue and surrounding tribute last Sunday and moved it to an undisclosed location.

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A 2-year-old girl looks up at the statue of Joe Paterno outside Beaver Stadium on Penn State’s campus in November 2011. School officials removed the 900-pound bronze statue and surrounding tribute last Sunday and moved it to an undisclosed location.

If those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it, maybe the removal of Joe Paterno’s statue from the front of Beaver Stadium isn’t such a great idea.

Left in place, the 900-pound iconic bronze monument could have warned future Penn State presidents and students about the danger of false heroes. Instead, university officials hauled off the statue to an undisclosed location.

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They bowed to the notion that ridding the campus of the statue was a way to rid it of the evil that occurred when Paterno and others closed their eyes to more than a decade of horrific child sexual abuse carried out by former assistant coach Jerry Sandusky.

And maybe they were also thinking, out of sight, out of mind.

If so, JoePa in transit mocked them. The disgraced coach’s hand, with right index finger raised in a “We’re No. 1” salute, stretched beyond the blue tarp that workers draped over the famous visage.

Covering up the past won’t be any easier than covering up that statue. Putting it under wraps does not relieve Penn State of its duty to confront the good, the bad, and the ugly of Paterno’s legacy and learn from it.

The world knows the penalties imposed on Penn State — a $60 million fine, a reduction in football scholarships, and no bowl games for four years. The NCAA is also vacating Penn State’s wins from 1998 to 2011.

Denying Paterno the cherished designation of being the major college football coach with the most wins is another attempt at deleting the past. But how the university plans to change the culture that led to Penn State’s disgrace is unclear.

In a statement after the NCAA announced its penalties, Penn State president Rodney Erickson said the university accepted all action required, including the mandate that it become a national leader to help victims of child sexual assault. Head football coach Bill O’Brien also said he would do everything in his power to “not only comply, but help guide the university to become a national leader in ethics, compliance, and operational excellence.”

But Penn State’s message remains muddled. Erickson said he took down the statue because it had become “a source of division and an obstacle to healing.” Yet the school’s library still bears the Paterno name, and Erickson said it would stay that way.

“The library remains a tribute to Joe and Sue Paterno’s commitment to Penn State’s student body and academic success and it highlights the positive impacts Coach Paterno had on the university,” Erickson said.

Some are suggesting the statue should be relocated to the library. But if it is hidden in a dark corner, or turns into something to walk by, it loses its value to shock and educate.

How about putting it in a lecture hall and building a serious curriculum around it? That could send a real message about a shift in Penn State priorities.

The course of study wouldn’t be football, it would be accountability, from the top down and the bottom up. The lessons wouldn’t be about victory on the field, they would be about moral responsibility. For case studies, students could examine other institutions in business, politics, religion, and academia that did the wrong thing — or the right thing, if examples exist — when faced with ethically challenging situations. The consequences could also be studied, and how long it takes before the public loses interest and moves onto the next outrage.

It is comforting to think of the Penn State scandal as an aberration, the kind of perfect storm that occurs when sports, money, and ego come together in a volatile mix. The victims were children, making it especially heinous, but certainly not unique.

What happened at Penn State is a microcosm of the clergy sexual abuse scandal that riddled an even bigger institution, the Roman Catholic Church. Church officials did not relocate statues, they relocated priests. The larger theme behind both scandals relates to power and the willingness to trample the powerless in the misguided interest of preserving the institution.

Tucking away the Paterno statue doesn’t change that history. It makes it easier to forget and harder for Penn State to confront and change course.

Joan Vennochi can be reached at vennochi@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter@Joan_Vennochi.

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