When Is It OK to Destroy Your Diploma?

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The big story from the sports world is the potential ouster of Joe Paterno as head coach of Penn State -- which, strangely enough, leads us to a question: Is it ever OK for someone to destroy his or her college diploma? Because that is exactly what one Penn State graduate did Tuesday afternoon: he burned his 1975 diploma before a crowd gathered at Old Main, the University Park campus's central building. A few photos (including the one above) of the incident are making the rounds on Twitter.

"It probably means nothing to anybody else, but it means a lot to me, because I worked hard for my degree and now I want nothing to do with these people," diploma-burner David Baran tells The Daily Collegian.

While we agree that the sexual abuse that former coach Jerry Sandusky is charged with -- along with the cover-up that might have followed -- should be taken seriously indeed, maybe burning your diploma over it is somehow an incongruous response.

With that in mind, let's take a quick look at a few other times people have destroyed their diplomas to see if we can determine when doing so is justified and when it isn't.

When your alma mater fires you: This September, after Ralph Friedgen was canned as head coach of the University of Maryland's football team, he got hotheaded and decided to torch his own Maryland degree. He told Baltimore radio station WNST-FM, "I could care less about Maryland, I've burned my diploma. I'm flying a Georgia Tech flag right now," according to ESPN. Flying the flag of intraconference rival like Georgia Tech (where ex-Terrapins coach was an assistent) is high treason in college football. Friedgen just came off bitter in the whole spat: he burned his diploma not for some greater cause but only because of his own peevishness. Can you destroy your diploma after your alma mater fires you? No.

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When you alma mater invites a dictator to speak: Many people both inside and outside of Columbia University were upset at the school after it invited Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to speak there in 2007. But few went to the extremes that Aliza Davidovit, a graduate of the university's journalism school, did when she decided to rip up her diploma in front of cameras, so that footage of it could be posted on YouTube. She says in the video that she is destroying her degree because Columbia "failed all of us and victimized the integrity of the freedom of speech." O.K. Maybe protesting your alma mater's hosting of a brutal dictator isn't such a terrible reason to tear up a diploma -- but Davidovit comes off as a little self-aggrandizing in the whole episode. "I'm sacrificing my diploma," she tells a cameraman. "It took a lot of work for me to get into Columbia University. It took even more work for me to get out." Like nearly every other school, Columbia will replace lost or damaged diplomas. Perhaps Miss Davidovit shouldn't have acted as though she had lost her degree forever as a result of the episode. Can you destroy your diploma when your alma mater invites a dictator to speak? Yes, but probably not in the way she did it.

When you can't find a job: One man got the attention of netizens across China last year when he posted a video of him as he "burned his diploma out of rage" over being unable to find work. "The subject of the video explained that he was born into a poor family without any connections and he did not graduate from some famous university," the state-run People's Daily reports. "The diploma is totally useless and most employers don't give me a chance to even interview," the man said in the video. The video drew a lot of attention, according to the paper, as joblessness after graduation is "a major social problem now" in the country. So maybe a bit of diploma-burning isn't a bad way to highlight some societal problem. Especially if, as we said above, getting a replacement degree is a piece of cake. Can you destroy your diploma when you can't find a job? Yes!

When you want to make a dramatic YouTube video:

There are simply too many of these over-the-top videos posted on YouTube that offer no real explanation for why the diplomas are burned. As another degree-roaster -- this one supposedly a Harvard Law grad -- writes, "Sometimes you just need to say goodbye to your past in order to move forward." "Saying goodbye" should never involve matches. Can you destroy your diploma for YouTube? For the love of God, no.

And, finally, burning a diploma in the name of slapstick humor:

Why not.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.