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Penn State 'shorts' 2001 graduate

Underwear romp during fracas leads to revocation of degree

Tuesday, January 22, 2002

By Bill Schackner, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

In America, people who prance down crowded public streets in their underwear usually get arrested and fined. But should they be stripped of their college degrees, too?

Jason Nowak has two years to stew over that thought. His alma mater, Penn State University, revoked his diploma and won't let him reapply to the school until at least 2003. Only then, after completing community service, can he be reinstated as a college graduate.

Nowak, 23, was seven weeks shy of a political science degree in March when he was arrested during a violent street disturbance after Penn State's basketball team lost to Temple University in the NCAA tournament. For the record, Nowak wasn't accused of rocking lamp posts, smashing windows or engaging in any other violence that night in State College.

What put him in handcuffs were several laps he made down East Beaver Avenue wearing only boxer shorts. It created a spectacle, police said, as did his mullet, a short-on-the-sides, long-in-the-back-hairdo that led some in the crowd to chant wildly for the "mullet man."

Nowak went on to graduate with his class in May, and was found guilty months later of disorderly conduct, fined $2,000 with costs and placed on probation. That easily might have been the end of the mullet man's brief story.

But Penn State wasn't finished.

Call it an overreaction, as some contend, or the wholly justified response of a school embarrassed by three riots near campus since 1998 that produced dozens of injuries and student arrests and more than $150,000 in property damage. Either way, the punishment by Penn State's judicial system shows how the long arm of campus law can get its man -- even if he's already graduated.

Nowak did not respond to requests to be interviewed for this story.

But his lawyer, Lee Nollau, said Nowak meant no harm and only caught the attention of police because they already had cleared others from the street. He said Penn State is unfairly hampering his client's effort to start a career over a childish prank.

He can apply for jobs, Nollau said, but given the stigma of having his diploma pulled back, "it's not hard to guess who gets the job, and who's going to be told: 'Thanks for your time.' "

"Those who have never been young and foolish won't understand, but there is a difference between being young and foolish and being a criminal," Nollau said. "He was not trying to perpetuate a civil disturbance. The sanction, in my view, was way out of proportion to the offense."

Penn State disagrees.

The behavior of Nowak and the rest of the crowd was reprehensible, school spokesman Tysen Kendig said. After violent disturbances near campus had twice marred a local arts festival, Penn State and borough officials made it clear there would be zero tolerance for such upheavals.

Kendig said if Nowak is aggrieved, he's got company.

"There have been a lot of victims in these riots," Kendig said. "There have been innocent bystanders who have been injured -- in some cases, severely -- as well as police officers who have been injured.

"There has been enormous cost to taxpayers. It has been a disgrace to the borough of State College and to the university."

As of September, 83 Penn State students had faced campus charges related to the three disturbances, and 73 were either suspended, dismissed or left the university voluntarily.

But Nowak is the only one whose diploma was actually revoked.

He was finishing up the last of his classes while the charges against him were being reviewed. Once a decision was made to suspend him for at least two years, he already had graduated. The only way to enforce the punishment was to pull back his degree.

"We're not going to go more lightly on a student because they are nearing graduation," Kendig said. "If there's an event that warrants severe sanctions for a sophomore, we'll hand down the same sanction for a senior."

Whether that means Nowak got a fair shake is still being debated.

"I think it's absolutely ridiculous. If they took away diplomas for everyone who got a disorderly conduct charge, then 50 percent of the people wouldn't graduate," said Spencer Rouen, a Penn State graduate from Wexford and friend of Nowak. "That's a real common offense."

But State College police Detective John Aston said any man who strips in 40-degree weather before scores of riot police deserves what he gets. Police said that at one point, the boxer shorts weren't covering everything they were supposed to as Nowak ran down the avenue.

"He was the fuel to the fire, so to speak," Aston said. "He thought the whole thing was a joke."

It's not clear whether Nowak, who grew up in Palatine, Ill., near Chicago, is working right now. His friends said he spent much of the fall volunteering at and near the site of the World Trade Center collapse in New York City

Don Gehring, who has worked in campus judicial affairs and taught higher education law, said judicial panels are not required to prove allegations beyond a reasonable doubt.

"If he's just running around in his underwear, then yes, that [punishment] sounds pretty severe," said Gehring, a professor emeritus at Bowling Green State University. "It seems like it's not serious enough to revoke somebody's degree."

Michael Murphy, Carnegie Mellon University dean of student affairs, said: "Everybody wants a university to build character and hold the community to a high standard. At the same time, it's had to look at individual cases where someone pays a price. But you can't have one without the other."

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