Prove that it’s not transactional

Kevin Horne, a friend of mine and soon to be Penn State Law graduate, recently spoke to the Penn State Trustees at their February meeting in his last address as president of the graduate students. Onward State recounts some of his remarks:

Kevin Horne (also an Onward State editor emeritus) spoke in his final address, as he is serving a second term as president of the Graduate and Professional Student Association.

“I spoke last year about Penn State’s 15th president Eric Walker, who often spoke about the concept of a university having two presidents, both himself and the student body president,” Horne said. “This is a time when Penn State student governments had offices, built and paid for the HUB on their own, and contributed a great deal to many things that continue to enrich Penn State student life today.”

Horne encouraged the Board not to lose sight of what made them fall in love with Penn State and want to serve the university in the first place. He explained Penn State should be more about the number of degrees earned each year of the ratio of students placed in jobs immediately after graduation.

“Students are not customers as some trustees or administrators refer to them, when we log into LionPATH and are forced to schedule courses by adding them to what is called a shopping cart,” Horne said. “The Penn State experience becomes more transactional and shallow, less special, and the spirit of our founders less vibrant. College must be more than just the acquisition of job skills or certification of courses passed.”

Horne quoted Provost Nick Jones, who said yesterday in a Board of Trustees committee meeting that Penn State is about the people here. Students are attracted to Penn State not by the building renovations that increase student tuition and fees, but rather by the faculty and other students inside the buildings.

“A former Penn State trustee wrote that the Penn State spirit is indestructible, but only if in a practical sense we allow it to come alive inside of us. If we can conceive of our place as something far beyond the role of students as customers, we have begun to answer that question,” Horne said. “It is on all of us here — students, trustees, administrators, everyone — and you as the Board, ultimate governing body to open your heart and cultivate a vision for the future of Penn State as vast and ambitious as that of our founders. Only then will we have met the challenge of the question what kind of University is Penn State. Only then will we honor what’s always made Penn State great.”

What is Kevin suggesting? Nothing less than a revolution in how Penn State’s leaders think about their roles—both the trustees as the strategic leadership, and the administration as the operational leadership.

What Kevin is stressing is that words really matter. No amount of lofty rhetoric from Penn State administrators can change the fact that every student encounters the language of commerce when registering for his or her courses: “Add course to my shopping cart.” This language impacts the perception of tens of thousands of young people in understanding what Penn State is, and for the worse.

Far more than updates on campus roofing and renovation plans, engaged trustees should be pressing administrators in good faith on how they will make every student feel less like a statistic within a grand system, and more like a person of infinite and distinct worth.

Kevin is one of the few voices speaking for what Penn State could be, rather than just regurgitating PR lines about what it presently is.

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