Penn State Student: I’ll Leave School if PSU Honors Paterno

Ian Riccaboni, an Upper Dublin resident, calls the decision to honor Paterno “at best highly insensitive and at worst honoring an accessory to child sexual abuse.”

Ian Riccaboni / Penn State logo

Ian Riccaboni, shown with Ring of Honor wrestler Veda Scott, says he’ll try to transfer if the school goes through with honoring Joe Paterno | Photo courtesy Riccaboni

Ian Riccaboni is a man who wears many hats. The Upper Dublin resident is a senior manager in pharmaceutical field reimbursement, a writer for Phillies Nation, an adjunct instructor at Holy Family University and a professional wrestling announcer for the well-regarded Ring of Honor promotion. He has a Wikipedia page. He’s also a Penn State student getting a graduate certificate.

When he heard yesterday’s news that Penn State would commemorate the 50th anniversary of Joe Paterno’s first game as head football coach this month, it made Riccaboni angry. It made him rethink his decision to attend the school entirely. 

Riccaboni told Philadelphia magazine he chose Penn State because its World Campus allows him to fit classes into his schedule while he’s traveling for his jobs in pharmaceuticals and wrestling. The good reputation of Penn State’s instructors, too, pushed him toward the school.

He had misgivings, due to the child sex abuse scandal. Riccaboni was a sexual health advocate while he was an undergraduate at NYU; part of his work involved working with a team that acted as a resource for on-campus sexual assault survivors. He’s also worked with Women Against Abuse, a Philadelphia-based domestic violence advocate and service provider.

“Before enrolling, I had to reconcile my education and the benefits of that education with their response to the allegations leveled against many involved with the football program,” he tells Philadelphia magazine. “The abuse of power was graphic and disturbing and the lack of immediate response showed a lack of accountability. But I was able to reconcile my choice to attend with the steps Penn State took to move forward and do the right thing.”

He takes classes online for a graduate certificate program for public budgeting and financial management. “I am very interested in contributing to my local community,” he says, “but I didn’t know where to start so I had hoped to learn how townships and municipalities operate before jumping in.”

Now, the pre-game ceremony for Joe Paterno has him rethinking his decision to attend Penn State. He calls it “at best highly insensitive and at worst honoring an accessory to child sexual abuse.” He says he’s liked the experience with Penn State so far. He has had positive experiences with his instructors and with fellow students. And, he says, if the university decides to honor Paterno, he’ll try to leave.

“But when Penn State University said they would change, I listened and chose to be a non-traditional student at their university… [if Penn State honors Paterno] I don’t believe I can continue to be a student at a university with a rich history of education and graduates,” he says. “If they follow through with this, I will seek to transfer my credits. I hope that they choose to do the right thing.”

This may seem like not a big deal. But colleges are heavily investing in online learning. Colleges are making money by charging for these classes, which have lower overhead than on-campus ones.

Penn State has been an early innovator in online learning. It opened its World Campus in 1998. More than 12,000 students take classes online in 90-plus programs. It’s rated highly by U.S. News’ rankings.

And Penn State says its World Campus is equivalent to its campuses in University Park and around the state. “Whether you take courses online or in a traditional classroom, you are a ‘Penn Stater,’” the school tells prospective students. “The first question a potential student frequently asks is, ‘Is this a REAL Penn State degree?’” Craig Weidemann, vice president for Penn State Outreach, told an alumni publication in 2013. “We can proudly state that World Campus programs have the same admission standards, quality faculty and program requirements as on campus.”

So Penn State can’t just hide in Happy Valley. Its reputation was tarnished by the fallout from the child sex abuse scandal. And Penn State’s reputation outside its campus means even more as education moves online and the school increasingly recruits students globally. As Riccaboni says, honoring Joe Paterno before a game certainly does open up old wounds. If you’re a prospective online student like Riccaboni was, given the choice between two roughly equivalent schools — why not choose the one that isn’t tainted with the stain of a child sex scandal?

Riccaboni may just be one student. But he shows the dilemma Penn State is facing: Some alumni vehemently support honoring Paterno’s legacy. But what if that turns off too many prospective students? “This is just another unforced error by a university that refuses to continue the progress that it had made,” Riccaboni says, “and to do right by the victims that live with this abuse on a daily basis.”

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