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Penn State is a world leader in science, except for keeping its own kids healthy | Will Bunch Newsletter

Plus, the fall of Afghanistan is a stunning monument to American hubris

A student walks in the rain past Old Main on the Penn State main campus in State College, Pa., in this October 2015 photo.
A student walks in the rain past Old Main on the Penn State main campus in State College, Pa., in this October 2015 photo.Read moreGene J. Puskar / AP

I grew up thinking some things were certain in life — baseball, (a hopefully far-off) death, “Saturday Night Live” ... and that American cities were doomed to shrink into oblivion. Especially my adopted Philadelphia. But the new Census found Philly revived in the 2010s with 77,800 new residents and more diversity than any time in its storied history. This world will always surprise you — sometimes for the good!

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The GOP war on college takes an unhealthy turn

Pennsylvania state Sen. Mike Regan, a Republican, insists that he’s quite fond of Penn State University — his own kid went there, after all — but he also wants his constituents to know that there’s trouble right there in Happy Valley. He says the flagship state university’s muddled policies on coming back for a new school year with COVID-19 — which has already claimed the life of two students and is again on the rise — are only a side effect.

No, the big problem with PSU, according to a state lawmaker controlling some of the school’s purse strings, is excessive “wokeness.” In a recent op-ed, Regan conflates PSU’s dropping of the not-gender-neutral term “freshman” with a faculty senate resolution pleading with Penn State leaders to mandate COVID-19 vaccines on campus — which he insists “negates their embrace of independent, free-thinking students” — and with his outrage over cash lottery prizes for Penn Staters who get the coronavirus jab.

“As a State Senator,” Regan wrote, “it is difficult for me to be sympathetic to the University’s yearly budget requests for millions of your tax dollars, supposedly aimed at helping keep tuition down for students, when they are handing out cash incentives and doing exactly what they claim to be against — segregating and labeling using ‘classist’ terms such as ‘vaccinated’ and ‘unvaccinated.’”

First of all, what the hell is Regan even talking about?

But more importantly, it’s beyond sad to see Penn State — which, while too many of you were paying too much attention to Nittany Lions football, has also been a world leader in research in fields like meteorology and more recently climate change — flub the most important scientific challenge in its 166-year history, which is keeping its 90,000 students as well as its sizable faculty and staff healthy in the face of a pandemic. It’s even sadder that PSU’s confusing and contradictory policies around vaccines and masks seem largely the result of kowtowing to the cretinous know-nothing politics of GOP state lawmakers.

Last week, PSU president Eric Barron defended the lack of a vaccine mandate in a revealing open letter to the university community that was candid in casting blame south towards Harrisburg. He noted: “Public universities, in particular, have challenges with the mode of response to the pandemic. Regulations across the country clearly reflect state-level political realities. State funding for our university requires a two-thirds vote of the Pennsylvania Legislature, meaning that our funding relies on strong bipartisan support.”

» READ MORE: By wrecking state universities, GOP crushes American Dream for its own communities | Will Bunch

Translation: Republican hostility toward both public-health mandates around COVID-19 but also toward higher education in general is holding us hostage. The faculty senate and much of the Penn State community isn’t buying Barron’s excuses, though. After the letter, the faculty group again passed non-binding resolutions calling for the vaccine mandate and also expressing “no confidence” in the administration’s COVID-19 policies, including a confusing plan for when and how masks might be required on campus.

“For a major research university such as Penn State, requiring vaccines should be a no-brainer,” English professor Paul M. Kellermann wrote in a recent, anguished op-ed in The Atlantic. Instead, Kellermann wrote the unscientific response is destroying the once-ebullient “We are!” sense of community in Happy Valley. He wrote “we’ve grown dismayed with an administration that’s turned its back on the community it claims to nurture; an administration apparently unconcerned with the health and well-being of its students, faculty, and staff; an administration that seems to ignore the misgivings of its constituents.”

What’s mind-boggling about Penn State’s coronavirus response is that this is a university that not only had one of the highest rates of infection in the nation during the troubled 2020-21 academic year, but also saw two of its undergraduates die as a result of the pandemic — Neil Patel, a 20-year-old honors student from Upper Merion who succumbed this spring after fighting the disease “like a brave knight,” according to his family, and 21-year-old Juan Garcia of Allentown. PSU’s half-hearted response this summer is dishonoring their memory.

In 2002, the State Legislature passed — and a Republican governor, Mark Schweiker, signed — a non-controversial measure called the College and University Student Vaccination Act that required students to show proof of a Meningococcal conjugate vaccine (or get a medical or religious exemption) to live in public-university dorms. Penn State also, non-controversially, requires measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccination of all students. The political cowardice blocking the same standard for COVID-19 vaccines that have already been safely administered to millions of Americans and saved thousands of lives — manifested at Penn State, but also other public campuses — is a low moment for higher ed.

But the Penn State fiasco feels particularly infuriating because state lawmakers had already yanked much of PSU’s taxpayer support long before the COVID-19 crisis arrived. Those years of budget cuts have meant that Penn State gets a paltry 4% of its operating budget from Harrisburg, in a commonwealth that frequently ranks in the top 3 (”We are!”) in the nation for public-university tuition. It’s past time for Eric Barron and his team to stand up for those tuition-paying families, and against the medieval ignorance of the Mike Regans of state politics. Penn State needs to not only rediscover its science but also reconnect with its humanities.

Yo, do this

  1. The 2020s have been a frightening time to be alive, but also a fascinating one. The coronavirus has certainly caused Americans to rethink everything about the meaning of work in our current capitalist society. That’s perfect timing for writer Eyal Press to come out with Dirty Work: Essential Jobs and the Hidden Toll of Inequality in America, looking at the moral quandaries caused by undervalued yet “essential” jobs like drone pilot, prison guard or meat packer — and what it says about them, and us. At the top of my future reading list.

  2. OK, I’ll admit it — my pop-culture experimentation has dipped to nil in the last couple of weeks because I’ve been obsessed with the Phillies’ sudden arrival in the National League East pennant race. And while Bryce Harper is obviously the straw that stirs the drink, my love for the underdog has led to an obsession with the team’s unlikely breakout star, infielder Ronald Torreyes. He’s a little guy who plays baseball the right way and gets rewarded with clutch hits. Watch him this week in some late-night (or late afternoon) baseball at Arizona and San Diego.

Ask me anything

Question: How should Pa. handle taking in refugees from the failed [Bush/Cheney] war? — Via Angelique Yaich (@as_yaich) on Twitter

Answer: Angelique, your question inspired me to some digging into the aftermath of the Vietnam War that ended in 1975. Pennsylvania was the processing site for some 32,000 Vietnamese or Cambodian refugees through Fort Indiantown Gap, in an era when 14,000 Vietnamese settled in the commonwealth including a thriving community in South Philadelphia. With the chaotic end of the war in Afghanistan, our state can do even better, and we must. The new Census showed how immigrants revitalized Philly and other nearby communities in the 2010s. Welcoming our Afghan allies is a win-win for everyone.

History lesson

There are history lessons and then there are unlearned history lessons. Possibly the most thought-provoking three minutes of television that I’ve ever seen aired in 1975 on the night that Vietnamese forces inevitably overran Saigon, prompting the iconic images of the frantic helicopter evacuations near the U.S. Embassy there. NBC’s news legend, the late David Brinkley, filmed his commentary in front of the vast field of headstones at Arlington National Cemetery. “When some future politician for some reason feels the need to drag this country into war, he might come out here to Arlington and stand right over there somewhere,” Brinkley said, “to make his announcement and tell what he has in mind. If he can attract public support speaking from a place like this, then his reasons for starting a new war would have to be good ones.”

» READ MORE: Let it go: Leaving Kabul is the right call | Will Bunch Newsletter

George W. Bush didn’t go to Arlington in the fall of 2001 when he started a new war in Afghanistan. And while his initial reasons — going after al-Qaeda’s terrorist sanctuary after 9/11 — had broad support, Bush’s horrible execution of the plan that drifted into two decades of murky, unsuccessful U.S. nation building that wasted $2.2 trillion will go down as one of the greatest blunders in our history, and a symbol of the hubris of a nation too drunk on its fantasies of American Exceptionalism to pay any mind to what just happened in 1975. In 2019, the Washington Post published the Afghanistan Papers showing Americans had been lied to on a massive scale — similar to Vietnam — about U.S. progress in the region. Apparently the Biden administration — stunned at how quickly the Afghan government collapsed to the Taliban — didn’t read them. Biden will surely pay a political price for not acting sooner and more aggressively in getting translators and other U.S. allies out of Afghanistan. But the Kabul government’s rapid failure also shows Biden was right on the big picture. America had no business being there.

Inquirer reading list

  1. In my Sunday column, I looked at how success for President Biden’s economic plan that aims to aid the middle class — on everything from child care to community college to infrastructure — hasn’t translated into any support from white working-class voters, who instead seem obsessed with the culture war. I argued that Biden should keep doing the right thing, which should hold his coalition of college-educated white people and the non-white middle class.

  2. Over the weekend, I wrote about a shocking incident in Plymouth, England — the UK’s worst mass killing in more than a decade — that didn’t receive enough attention in the U.S., considering that the murderer picked up his ideas about “incel” misogyny, gun rights, and Trump-fried freedom from American right-wing ideology. It’s regrettable to see this virus of warped political thinking jump the Atlantic.

  3. How far gone is Trump Country? This past weekend, The Inquirer’s Andrew Seidman went to tiny Lehigh Township in northeastern Pennsylvania, which voted for the 45th president last November and then tried to pass an “election integrity law” to codify the tenets of “the Big Lie” that Biden stole the 2020 election. Under pressure from county officials who said the local law was probably not constitutional, the measure was reversed — but the craziness lingers. The Inquirer hasn’t taken its foot off the gas since last year’s election, but we need fuel to keep going. Please consider subscribing today.