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Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Re-Engaging Penn State


Like many other alumni and, especially, current and former faculty/staff, I have felt deeply the problems that Penn State has been experiencing as a result of the Jerry Sandusky scandal.  Unlike many of those Penn Staters, I am not a football fan.  To me, Penn State is first and foremost a great land grant university.  While football is not a part of my life (other than the occasional Saturday traffic snarl), I do love this institution, which has given me more good things in life than I could ever have expected.  The challenge facing Penn State is not simply how to recover its sports reputation—that will take care of itself as the new coach builds his team—but how to help the various publics that we serve better understand the rest of the University.  I’d like to share some ideas about how we might move forward.

First, some context.  I grew up in Western Pennsylvania, in what is now Hermitage in Mercer County.  I came from a poor family and had no expectation of being able to go to college unless, like an older cousin, it was through the military.  However, when I did well on my SATs (which I took on a dare from a friend), several teachers talked to my mother and encouraged her to apply for state scholarships so that I could attend the new Shenango Campus of Penn State, which opened when I was a senior in high school.   I did get a PHEAA scholarship, which allowed me to attend Penn State full time while living at home and keeping my part-time job. 

So, for me, one of the essential qualities of Penn State is the way it has provided access to education for thousands of Pennsylvanians through its system Commonwealth Campuses.  Without that system, many Pennsylvanians might never have achieved a college education.   Today, we can add the World Campus, which uses online technology to extend access well beyond the Commonwealth.

When I transferred to Penn State in my junior year, I needed a job and was lucky to get one at WPSX-TV (now WPSU-TV) as a part-time production assistant, operating a camera in the studio and, occasionally, on remotes around campus and beyond.   After graduation, I moved to a full-time position and eventually became Director of Instructional Media, helping faculty develop media materials for both on-campus and off-campus use.  Throughout this time, I was able to see the incredible diversity of Penn State’s academic community at work.  With the College of Education, we produced and broadcast television lessons on science (Introductory Science for Elementary Education) and social sciences What’s in the News) and with the College of Arts and Architecture, a series on art (Art for the Day) so that even students in small, rural schools would be assured a good head start on their educations.  With the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences, we produced The State of the Weather/the Shape of the World (now called Weather/World), extending Penn State’s international leadership in meteorology to Commonwealth residents.  And, of course, with the College of Agricultural Sciences WPSX broadcast a daily series that extended the knowledge and expertise of Cooperative Extension Service faculty.  With the College of Health and Human Development, we produced series on parenting, family food shopping, aging, and many other topics that reflected the intersection between the research specialties of faculty and the needs of the community.

We also produced formal college courses for delivery via broadcast and cable television, including courses on accounting and business logistics from the College of Business Administration and a series of innovative interdisciplinary courses (examples include The Behavioral Revolution and The Finite Earth) in Science, Technology, and Society in collaboration with Temple University and the University of Pittsburgh.   In the 1990s, with the establishment of the World Campus, we greatly expanded this concept, working with faculty across the spectrum of university academic departments to put complete undergraduate and graduate degree programs online.

In my last years at Penn State, I was also involved in a wide range of continuing education activities that included Conferences and Institutes, which helped faculty members develop research and professional development conferences that brought academic leaders and practitioners from around the world to Penn State to share ideas and discoveries in their fields. One of these conferences eventually contributed to the establishment of a new discipline--Astro-Statistics.

This, then, is Penn State as I know it:  an incredibly rich and diverse public institution whose faculty and staff are committed to reaching and teaching students, conducting and sharing the results of research, and serving the public interest through a wide array of outreach and research transfer activities. 

The Sandusky scandal and the resulting firing of a legendary football coach and a nationally respected president have given rise to serious concerns about the internal organizational culture that has developed over the decades and distracted the public from our mission.  President Erickson is committed to addressing the organizational culture issues.  The remaining question is how to re-establish a public understanding of Penn State’s role within the Commonwealth.

More than a decade ago, former President Spanier chaired the Kellogg Commission on the Future of State and Land Grand Universities.  The report, Returning to Our Roots, called for institutions like Penn State to become “engaged universities.”  Engagement, the Commission emphasized, goes beyond what most of us think of as traditional outreach/extension and toward an ideal based on a commitment to sharing and reciprocity.  By engagement,” notes the report, “the Commission envisions partnerships, two-way streets defined by mutual respect among the partners for what each brings to the table. An institution that responds to these imperatives can properly be called what the Kellogg Commission has come to think of as an ‘engaged institution’.”

The Commission identified three characteristics of an engaged university:

1. It must be organized to respond to the needs of today’s students and tomorrow’s, not yesterday’s.
2. It must enrich students’ experiences by bringing research and engagement into the curriculum and offering practical opportunities for students to prepare for the world they will enter.
3. It must put its critical resources (knowledge and expertise) to work on the problems the communities it serves face.

The best way that Penn State can respond to the Sandusky scandal and all of the issues that have arisen around it is to self-consciously re-commit itself to the ideal of engagement. 

The first step in that direction is to define what we mean by the “communities it serves.”  Certainly, Penn State serves the local communities that host Penn State campuses.  The Commonwealth itself is also a community.  However, there are also other communities:  the agricultural community is a traditional focus of some kinds of engagement; other industries and professional fields affected by Penn State’s education, research, and service work—from mining to K-12 school teachers—are also communities.  Not all of these communities are bound by geography; in some cases, the “community” may be global.  So the first step is to articulate what “community” means to Penn State and then to create an engagement strategy around that meaning.

A second step is to ask representatives of those communities a simple question:  “What problems can we help you solve?”   Penn State is well situated to conduct a community-based needs assessment.  Within the state, there are Cooperative Extension offices in each county and campuses with links to diverse communities, including alums, in nearly every region.  The results could feed a University-wide engagement strategy that would touch all three facts of Penn State’s mission—teaching, research, and service—and serve to ensure that current programs are meeting emerging needs as the Commonwealth shifts from its historical base in agriculture and industry and finds it role in the global knowledge economy that is reshaping society in the 21st century.