Capital Day

Each spring for the past dozen or more years, Penn State administrators craft roughly the same narrative, which is:

“The rising costs of academic instruction, combined with flat or decreasing state appropriations, will necessitate a 3-6 percent increase in tuition. If the Pennsylvania legislature would only commit to a significant increase in state appropriations, perhaps the rate of increase wouldn’t need to be as significant.”

Administration typically works with student leadership to advance this argument, putting students in Harrisburg for Capital Day to sing for their supper. The problem with all of this is that it’s a fiction.

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There’s plenty of nuance in budgeting for a $4+ billion university operating budget, and plenty of that nuance will be lost in little pie charts like this. But unless I’m seriously misunderstanding this data, Penn State more than covers the cost of educating her students through tuition and fees.

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If tuition and fee income outpaces the expense of the academic experience, then what does the $275M+ state appropriation address?

And relating to that, it’s alarming to think about what it does to an institution’s character when it consistently advances a fictional rationale for the nature of its income and expenses to the public.

It’s distasteful to me that Penn State administration encourages student leadership to adopt a fictional narrative in advocating for more funding from the state while simultaneously glossing over the administrative choices which shape the budget and rate of increase in the first place.

I’m hopeful that Eric Barron will develop a new approach, and I’m hopeful that approach will consider the value of candor. An approach that values candor:

“We’re actively choosing to increase tuition. Yes, it more than covers the cost of the academic experience. Yes, it supports our other institutional interests, like research that shapes our shared future. As a land-grant institution, we aren’t here to imprint facts into minds as machines shape metal into a consumer product. We’re here to cultivate a spirit of inquiry vast in its scope and unknowable in its ultimate impact. This requires investment, and like any investment it requires sacrifice that we believe is worthwhile.”

If there’s not serious interest in making an absolute decrease in tuition a reality, I would support a radically different approach to genuinely justify the its rate of increase.

Nonprofit strategy and stewardship

Following on from last week’s thoughts on nonprofit traits for sustainability and this weekend’s board meeting. Here’s a great a16z podcast episode on corporate boards and directorship. For small or startup nonprofits that are volunteer-led, I think it’s critical for board members to shape strategy. But as the mission gains traction and more of the work is professionalized, that’s when board members should shift:

Diane Greene — who is on the boards of Google and Intuit — has some golden rules when it comes to serving on boards. No 1: “You don’t want to tell them how to do strategy, whether it’s a big company or a small company,” she says. “That’s not your job. Your job as a director is to ask questions.” Lots of questions.

Miserere

It’s Palm Sunday, the start of Holy Week for Christians. This is the week of Christ’s passion and death, preceding Easter. I want to mark today by sharing a piece of music that’s timely and remarkable:

This piece is Psalm 51, but first set to music by Allegri around 1630. It is one of the finest and most popular examples of renaissance polyphony. It is often heard in Churches of the apostolic Christian tradition…

Miserere mei, Deus is Latin for Have mercy on me, God. I think this transports the listener.

A 2008 NPR interview brings out some of the history of this piece:

Composer Gregorio Allegri’s “Miserere” is a piece of choral music so powerful that a 17th-century pope decreed it could be played only during the week leading to Easter—and then only in the Sistine Chapel. Jesse Kornbluth of HeadButler.com talks about the “Miserere” with Jacki Lyden.

Convening in Philadelphia

I’m in Philadelphia today for a meeting of The Nittany Valley Society’s board of directors. We’re all volunteer, and do quarterly board meetings to maintain operational momentum.

As a nonprofit cultural conservancy, The Nittany Valley Society is deeply rooted in physical place. But as a board we decided from the outset that our annual March meeting should alternate between Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. The three other quarterly meetings occur in State College, but we felt it was important that we were attuned as a board to the impact we ultimately want to have on Penn Staters and friends across the Commonwealth.

This is why we’re meeting in Philadelphia today, specifically at the headquarters of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education which graciously lent us meeting space. We adopted our first strategic plan in December, and today we’ll be continuing the conversation on implementation of that plan.

If you’re curious about why we exist, start by reading this month’s Town & Gown excerpt from Is Penn State a Real University?, and after that pick up a copy of The Legends of the Nittany Valley.

Traits for sustainability

This piece on Leadership Lessons from Great Family Businesses caught my attention on Twitter last week. I saved it to Pocket and read it yesterday. Key parts:

Only 30% of family businesses last into the second generation; 12% are viable into the third… And yet family-owned or -controlled businesses play a key role in the global economy. They account for an estimated 80% of companies worldwide and are the largest source of long-term employment in most countries. In the United States they employ 60% of workers and create 78% of new jobs.

The piece describes “great family businesses” as having four key traits:

They found that top family-led companies do four key things: establish a baseline of good governance, preserve “family gravity,” identify future leaders from within and outside the family, and bring discipline to their CEO succession.

As I was reading this I instinctively adapted these four traits in my mind to the nonprofit space. I’d adapt them roughly as follows to describe the role of a “great nonprofit boards:”

  1. create baseline for good governance, with emphasize on term limited service to encourage impact
  2. continually restate the culture and ethos of the organization
  3. identity future leaders from within the board’s social and professional network, occasionally going farther afield for the right candidates
  4. encourage staff discipline in terms of attention to mission, or in cases of volunteer-led nonprofits, focus board committees on operationalizing mission execution

Location specific content

When I complained last month about WordPress’s iOS app still not supporting rich text creation, I wasn’t expecting change anytime soon. It was something on my radar for years. Of course, WordPress released an iOS rich text editor earlier this month. It’s been great, and has really made writing from my iPhone a lot easier.

There’s another feature which seems to be making its way into core WordPress, which is tagging your location when writing. I’m in New York tonight, and this post is tagged with Hell’s Kitchen specifically.

But post location isn’t something that’s public-facing yet. There’s no simple way for a post to display where it was created yet, though I’ve got my fingers crossed that it won’t be years before public location becomes an option.

We learned this week that Twitter and Foursquare are partnering to offer more granular location data in tweets. Soon we’ll be able to post a tweet with a location of “Museum of Natural History, New York,” rather than “Manhattan.” It’s tough not to get excited at the potential for location-based writing through WordPress and generally.

It would be really fascinating at minimum, and probably very useful practically speaking, to be able to pull up streams of WordPress posts written in specific towns or cities.

Imagine taking a business trip or vacation and being able to quickly search for content like news articles, personal blog posts, etc. for where you’re visiting. You’d be able to get a sense of the latest news to strike up conversations, the stuff that locals are writing about on their blogs, and maybe dive even deeper into things like the latest on the local music scene.

Even more to the point, imagine how towns, neighborhoods, or cities might be able to come together better if residents are able to use location data to more easily connect with their local institutions, make new friends, engage, etc. Location data that customizes streams on WordPress, Twitter, and the web in general could do a better job at letting people connect with their communities than the newspaper did twenty years ago.

Amazon Fresh

After trying Amazon Prime Now, I decided to try Amazon Fresh. It’s still super limited in terms of geography served, but it was a great experience. Like everything else on Amazon, except with Amazon Fresh I’m able to order any of the groceries I’d normally pick up.

The process was simple. A minimum order of $50 and no delivery fee. I scheduled checkout for the next morning, and an Amazon courier arrived right on time. Packaged with dry ice in sturdy styrofoam-lined containers that you keep. Simple process but great.

In Philadelphia, I never once went to the grocery store. There wasn’t one in Manayunk, in Newbold, or near enough in Old City. Lots of delivery, lots of take out, etc. So I think Amazon Fresh can be a game changer in places where food deserts are still a reality. It’s my new default for groceries.

Jazz vespers

I first learned about St. Peter’s jazz vespers service in September. Specifically, from this feature on Vincent Piazza, who starred in Boardwalk Empire as Lucky Luciano. Since then visiting St. Peter’s has been in my Todoist in the “new experiences” list.

Vespers means evening prayer, and each Christian denomination seems to do it a little differently. It’s not a Mass, just a prayer service. St. Peter’s is in Midtown at 54th and Lexington. It’s a Lutheran parish that’s been doing jazz vespers for decades.

It’s a little surprising for a Catholic to hear things like “a reading from C.S. Lewis” in church, but it’s a peaceful service that seems to really touch people. I recorded a few minutes to share:

Worth experiencing.

Considering the end

So much about death is agonizingly unknowable: When. Where. Lymphoma or lightning strike. But Bennett recognized there are still dimensions of the experience under our control. He started zeroing in on all the unspoken decisions around that inevitability: the aesthetics of hospitals, the assumptions and values that inform doctors’ and families’ decisions, the ways we grieve, the tone of funerals, the sentimentality, the fear, the schlock. The entire scaffolding our culture has built around death, purportedly to make it more bearable, suddenly felt unimaginative and desperately out of date.

Thought provoking piece from California Sunday Magazine on “Death, Redesigned: A legendary design firm, a corporate executive, and a Buddhist-hospice director take on the end of life.”

The piece tells the story of a stillborn app that was hacking at the opportunity to apply a consumer centric approach to end of life issues. A platform that could do everything from making wills easier to make and update from a mobile device, draft and schedule letters to family that could continue after your death, and generally better organize those decisions.

It feels right to move in the direction of more direct control of all of that. The industries that exist from social to legal dealing with end of life haven’t had technology applied to them yet. Making those decisions easier by empowering people through technology would change a lot of lives.


Life-supporting economy

Wendell Berry considering the changing American landscape in The Atlantic this month. He addresses the subtle way that a connection to physical place, to the actual soil, complements cultural experience. And how losing a connection with one can mean the loss of cultural diversity:

I have my own memories of the survival in a small rural community of its own stories. By telling and retelling those stories, people told themselves who they were, where they were, and what they had done. They thus maintained in ordinary conversation their own living history. And I have from my neighbor, John Harrod, a thorough student of Kentucky’s traditional fiddle music, his testimony that every rural community once heard, sang, and danced to at least a few tunes that were uniquely its own. What is the economic value of stories and songs? What is the economic value of the lived and living life of a community? My argument here is directed by my belief that the art and the life of settled rural communities are critical to our life-supporting economy. But their value is incalculable. It can only be acknowledged and respected, and our present economy is incapable, and cannot on its own terms be made capable, of such acknowledgement and respect.

If you’re into any of this, it’s worth checking out Berry’s entire piece. It speaks in a big way to my belief in The Nittany Valley Society‘s value.