In central Pennsylvania, where I grew up, Penn State is big. Huge. Penn State sports dominate the local news. Many area high school graduates aspire to attend Penn State's main campus. The Nittany Lion logo is everywhere. Whenever I drive home for a visit, the PSU blue-and-white bumper stickers on the road around me seem to multiply exponentially.
The sighting of a "We Are Penn State" bumper sticker recently started me thinking: "We Are Penn State" proclaims a pride in affiliating oneself with the university. Every sticker, paw logo and PSU golf club cover reflects Penn State's success in building people's enthusiasm for branding themselves with the institution. It's considered an honor to support the university, to promote publicly: "I love Penn State!"
But as accusations, convictions and cover-up details have unfolded in the Jerry Sandusky scandal, the wider Penn State community has had its sense of branding shaken. What does it mean to identify oneself with Penn State now, in a time when the university's character reeks more than usual of cronyism and a distorted perspective of "humane"? How does the shift in PSU's image impact those who proudly proclaim, "I'm part of the Penn State institution"?
I'm interested in whether a long-term change will occur in the relationship between PSU and its fans. I wonder whether the enthusiasm of individuals for the institution will convert (through intentional marketing or through popular protest) into an earnestness of the institution for its fans. How will the community's focused adoration on the university convert to the university focusing its attention on reassuring and strengthening its fan base? Will "We Are Penn State" eventually become "Penn State Is Us"?
There is a tension in identity between every institution and its community: whether the institution sets itself up as the core of a collective identity, or whether the community shapes the institution's identity as a reflection of its diaspora. That is, whether the institution has its identity in "We the People" or the people have their identity in "We the Institution." Do institutions identify with their constituents, or do constituents identify with their institutions?
We see it in the Penn State saga. Will universities like Penn State consume our adoration and support as we brand ourselves with school logos -- or will universities shape their identities in response to alumni and community networks?
We see it in government. Do our local, state and federal governments presume citizens' commitment of affiliation (in both patriotism and protest) -- or do citizens' needs and voices constructively shape governmental identity and work?
We see it, too, in religion -- especially, lately, in the business of Christian denominational gatherings. Do the institutions of denominations command the identity and loyalty of their congregations-- or do congregations and congregants insist that denominations shape their identities to accommodate the diversity of individual theological stances and social values?
In recent weeks, I've been "listening" (via Twitter) to the working and wrestling of several denominational meetings.
During the PC(USA)'s General Assembly, Presbyterian constituents and the denomination strained for a singular theological identity as it relates to marriage. The Episcopal Church's affirmation of transgender clergy at its General Convention represents the denomination's evolving ministerial identity; the Executive Council of the Episcopal Church now has the duty of encouraging provinces to reflect this identity.
As Presbyterians and Episcopalians respond to the decisions of these national meetings, will members challenge their denominations to identify more with their own theologies, or will members allow their theological identity to be shaped by denominational decisions? It all increases my appreciation for the polity of the United Church of Christ, which strives to honor that tension between institution and members, to balance the purpose and identity of both denomination and congregation. Not perfectly, I'll grant you, but with the ability to converse about ecclesial identity without compromising the national denomination or the local congregation.
How do our institutions shape who we are -- brand us, even, with singular identity -- and when do our institutions' identities alter in response to the communities they represent? Is a balance between "We the People" and "We the Institution" ideal, or is it necessary for one to preempt the other? Our churches, our politics, our schools, our communities will continue to reveal our appetite (and our distaste) for identifying ourselves by institutions.