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Some Things I Think About the Future of Penn State

Changing the University Governance to a More Open Model

The current Alumni Association Board of Trustees election, and possibly the next several, is not about Jerry Sandusky, Graham Spanier or even Joe Paterno.  While I disagree with the Board’s knee jerk reactions to the current situation, and while I believe JoePa needs to be justly honored by the University, the larger question before us is the governance and future of the Pennsylvania State University itself.

For over 40 years, I have watched Penn State evolve into a world class educational institution.  This growth, both in facilities and academic programs, came from an insular, top-down management structure without participation from those most affected, specifically the faculty and students.    This type of administration has historically proven to be, over the long term, counterproductive.  The first challenge facing the Board of Trustees is establishing a new, open leadership that incorporates the views of the entire University community must be established.

Making Penn State Affordable…Again 

The leadership at Penn State must also demonstrate to all funding sources, public and private, that the University is doing everything possible to enhance it’s “spend management” (read “save money and cut costs!”). Routinely crying poor, while showing cost increases well above that of the general rate of inflation, does not resonate well with the public.

This means making difficult choices each and every budgetary cycle, not just when the State and private dollars are tight, as they are now. Questions such as “do we absolutely need this and can we afford it” need to be asked on a daily basis. Every employee vacancy needs to be evaluated to see if a reorganization of current personnel can get the job done.

The rapid growth of facilities and programs over the past 20-30 years, and all future plans for expansion, requires a thorough and ongoing review. Like most educational institutions, the focus needs to be on the organization’s core offerings.  Marginal programs may require renewed scrutiny to determine their continued efficacy.

I am the son of a middle class family, who sacrificed to provide me with the Penn State education that has helped define me.  Nearly all my college friends’ parents were steelworkers, farmers, or small business owners.  Today, a Penn State education for middle class families is becoming increasingly difficult to obtain.  I know first-hand because our family has just recently provided a Penn State education for our two daughters.  The second challenge is to make Penn State more affordable for the masses, keeping true to its land grant institution legacy, the ideal that a college education should be available, at low cost, to all who desired one.

The question of the affordability of a Penn State education is inexorably linked to the “spend management” referred to above. Every dollar saved on the expense side can be freed up to assist a Penn State student. Expense savings gleaned by a department or college could be directly targeted to assist students enrolled in that entity.

A greater emphasis needs to placed on reducing individual student costs, not just through financial aid to the most needy, but in a general lowering of tuition and fees. Admittedly, scholarships or other means of tuition assistance aren’t as “sexy” as a new building or facility. Perhaps the future planning for Penn State should be geared toward the affordability of a Penn State education, and not on the expansion of the physical plant. All the fancy new buildings in the world will be useless if the students can’t pay their tuition bills.

All of the above ideas are not new. During the most recent economic downturn, every successful organization has done most of these things and more. If Chrysler, Starbucks and Ford can do it, so can Penn State. I’m sure we have some really smart people at the University that can study these success stories and employ the “best practices” used elsewhere.

Back to the Future

Justin Smith Morrill, author of the Morrill Land Grant Act, was the son of a blacksmith who could not afford to educate all his children. Morrill’s vision was a system of universities throughout the country to provide a college education at a low cost to all those who desired one. This education was to be focused on the “agricultural and the mechanical arts.”

Having worked with or in education for the past 15 years, I have observed a variety of institutions re-evaluating their programs in an attempt to match expenses with the shrinking revenues available.  Cutting the fat without trimming to the bone is the challenge. As I stated above, focusing on the core competencies of the University would be the first place I believe the organization should place its efforts.

Focusing on the core competencies does not mean ignoring the impact new emerging technologies and their impact on main mission. The challenge is remaining true to that mission while being innovative and progressive. If Penn State can stick to these core offerings, and do it better than anyone else, they will in fact fulfill their land grant university mandate.

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