The Penn State Grassroots Network: Not So Grassroots

The Penn State Grassroots Network isn’t quite as “grassroots” as its name implies. The Network, founded in 2003, is an official arm of the Penn State Alumni Association, and it is professionally funded and staffed by salaried administrators.

Strange for a supposedly “grassroots” network to have from the start received such strong institutional and financial support from the administration.  Typically, to be “grassroots” is to be volunteer-based, to be an informal movement or to have started something on a small scale in an attempt to influence large scale change.  The Penn State “Grassroots” Network fails this simple credibility test.

In fact, “grassroots” is defined as being “of the common people” and not pertaining to the “elite,” which is a word that could reasonably describe administrators operating a nearly $4 billion dollar per year educational business at Penn State.

The Network, though, is problematic not just because it’s run by a former public relations spinster from the administration’s dubiously named “Office of Public Information.” It raises eyebrows here at SOS because it claims to advocate on behalf of all Penn Staters, posing as some sort of populist movement, despite being commissioned by President Graham Spanier.

Words mean things; they have consequences, and the word “grassroots” carries with it specific cultural connotations.  In the clever application of the term here, we see yet another example of the administration’s tendency to twist language to serve its own purposes with little regard for substance or truth.  Thus, words like “tradition” and “honor” are slickly repackaged to actually effect the methodical deconstruction of the same.

The Network boasts an e-mail database of over 34,000 interested Penn Staters. How many of them understand that this network is used mainly either to boost public relations for the actions and programs of the administration or to lobby Pennsylvania legislators for more taxpayer funds?

While the latter fails annually due in no small part to the Spanier administration’s stubborn refusal to make the University fiscally transparent and operationally accountable, the former is a scandalous example of the type of broad information control that administrators use more often to boost support of their interests and improve their job security, rather than focusing on the academic and operational issues that will allow Penn State to be genuinely competitive into the future.

Ultimately, The Network’s goal of increasing taxpayer appropriations to Penn State is admirable. Equally commendable are the leadership’s efforts to advocate for Penn State University by publicly underscoring its economic and communal impact on the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.

Fundamentally, though, the means might not justify the ends. It’s difficult for The Network to claim that what it’s doing is “grassroots” when it is funded, staffed and overseen by a larger corporate entity.