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.

Honor Evan Pugh at Homecoming

Chris Buchignani writes “In Search of Evan Pugh,” which I’m excerpting from liberally. I’m also including two photos that I took of Pugh’s gravesite when Chris and Kevin Horne and I visited there last spring. Bellefonte’s Union Cemetery is an idyllic place, and the perfect setting for this story:

Evan Pugh, Penn State’s founding president and one of the most consequential personalities in the Valley’s history, whiles away eternity just a short journey from the flowering campus whose humble seeds he planted. He is memorialized as a scholar, scientist, and leader at his gravesite in Bellefonte’s Union Cemetery.

Soon after his arrival here, Pugh began courting, and eventually married, Rebecca Valentine, daughter of one of Bellefonte’s most important families. He is buried alongside her in the family plot. Once a hub of power and influence throughout the commonwealth, attractor of wealth and exporter of governors, modern Bellefonte retains much of its historic character, but only a fraction of its practical significance. So it is with the gravesite of its once-famous socialites. In their time, Pugh and Valentine were the Nittany Valley’s original power couple; now their place of honor lies in silent neglect. The community that inherited their legacy bustles on ahead, its founder largely forgotten.

The first president of Penn State deserves better.

Over its 160 years, Old State has weathered wild turbulence blowing in from the wider world – civil war and world war, social revolution and heart-breaking scandal – more than once it has teetered on the brink of extinction, yet always it has persevered. Pugh deserves to be remembered as the progenitor of that hardy nature, our penchant for defiant survival.

While barely remembered or recognized today, Pugh is the perfect central character for Penn State’s origin story. Erwin Runkle, the University’s first historian, painted him as possessing “a rugged, energetic physique, a straight-forward common sense manner, combined with the heart of a child, and the integrity and moral robustness of mature manhood.” A bull-necked he-man built to tame the wild, but with a keen, inquisitive mind better suited to conquering a more esoteric landscape.

When he assumed the presidency of a fledgling agricultural college situated in what, to most, seemed like the middle of nowhere, but Pugh called “splendid isolation,” the entire notion of bringing the baser study of agriculture and industry to the hallowed enterprise of higher education was itself a risky proposition. Only through Pugh’s dogged leadership and dedication to a revolutionary vision for American education did the Farmers High School find its footing, and though he tragically died young, so impactful was his short time that its influence echoes through the ages.

The man deserves a statue or memorial on campus. As things stand today, we’ve failed even to honor his memory by caring for his burial place. Seemingly abandoned by the family line, the Valentine plot has fallen into disrepair over the decades. The tombstones have become grimy and covered in lichen; the landscaping, such as it is, overgrown and unkempt, and the once-ornate wrought iron fence enclosing it crumbles.’

It might seem like a stretch, but after studying Pugh’s life over the past decade I’ve come to believe that no one can properly understand Penn State’s instrinsic spirit, nor its eventual emergence as a national institution, without understanding the unifying and clarifying personality of Evan Pugh who shaped our definitive founding years. An ambition of ours is for Penn State to begin institutionally honoring Evan and Rebecca. It’s my dream that one day a small Bellefonte choir performance and memorial ceremony at their gravesite will become a part of our Homecoming tradition.

The journey of exploring Pugh’s back story has revealed much that we did not expect: Finding an original handwritten copy of Rebecca Valentine’s will at Bellefonte’s Pennsylvania Room, encountering the Bog Turtle Brewery in Pugh’s hometown of Oxford, PA and their limited run of Evan Pugh Vanilla Porter, discovering a forgotten memorial marker placed by the University on family lands still inhabited by Pugh’s distant descendants. We take pride in restoring some luster to the memory of our Penn State family’s “first couple,” and we enjoy the pleasant surprises along the way.

So why all the fuss? If, today, so few people venture out to honor Evan Pugh’s memory that his grave fell into disrepair in the first place, why bother with some long-dead historical figure it seems most people can’t be bothered to remember?

Because whether you are an individual or a community, knowing your story – and honoring its heroes – builds confidence and inner strength.

St. Malachy’s

Earlier today I toured St. Malachy’s in North Philadelphia. It’s one of the Independence Mission Schools, a ~5 year old organization that has taken over management of 15 of Philadelphia’s Catholic elementary schools.

St. Malachy’s is located near Temple University in a struggling neighborhood. During the tour one person told me, “It’s still not so uncommon that I’ll be walking to work and pick up bullet casings from the sidewalk.” But amidst the struggle, St. Malachy’s represents what’s possible with a positive vision. What’s today St. Malachy’s is actually a former city public elementary, one that Independence Mission Schools bought and spent more than a year renovating. (The old St. Malachy’s is located about a block north; built in the 1880s, it had become too small to stick with.) St. Malachy’s has almost 300 kids today, with a goal of enrolling 500 in the next few years.

The mural on the back of the school (which Pope Francis saw and signed when he visited two years ago) is a symbol for the transformation St. Malachy’s hopes to have at least in its immediate surroundings: peace, prosperity, and prayer for a better life.

Scattered SEPTA thoughts

I started writing this last week while riding SEPTA into Philadelphia and thinking over a few things that have been marinating for a few months.

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The “Silverliner V” commuter trains have been around for a while now and they’re very nice. The next generation (double deckers like NJ Transit has long had) are in the works. These new cars have automated station announcements, display screens, better lighting, and nicer full-height seats. They’re obviously designed not only to replace the old cars, but also to position SEPTA for a reduction in necessary on-board conductors.

In some ways I will be sorry to see so many conductors strolling the aisles go the way of the horse and carriage, but ultimately I’m more sorry to see them still here now, still punching tickets. We both know, me and my conductor, that his days are numbered, union contracts be damned. His responsibilities only require maybe one or two of his kind on board, now. Yet he’s still here, doing something my iPhone will do better, cheaper, and more efficiently in about 24 months. Someday, when all the stations are ADA accessible, what really will there be for him to do?

We’ve got to stay ahead of the obsolescence curve. I think about this more or less constantly: what are the things I’m good at that just won’t matter? What are things I can learn that will ensure I’ve got specialized knowledge? How can I create mechanisms to make obsolete other things or streamline a process?

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These new train cars are nice, and while I understand that SEPTA’s Regional Rail lines are commuter lines, I’m still left wondering why there’s no equivalent of Amtrak’s “Cafe Car,” except without the food service. In other words, where is the “work lounge” car for people to sit with tablets or laptops and do work comfortably on what might be a daily hour or more ride back/forth? There are a lot of daily man hours wasted because there environment makes it easier to take a nap than finish a book or start a new project.

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SEPTA’s board of directors consists primarily of Pennsylvania politicians and suburban people. The Regional Rail lines to wealthier suburbs enjoy nicer service and heavier investment (I think) than the city’s subway and trolly system. New York City built a subway system to bind together its boroughs, and that helped create the entire city as we experience it today. Philadelphia needs a SEPTA board that shares a vision for the future of Philadelphia’s city system of subways and trolleys. We need to do more to bind our city and our region together, and to make it easier to spend a night in neighborhoods as disparate as Northern Liberties, University City, and South Philadelphia. We don’t have that now, and a vision for achieving this is, I believe, vital to the culture of Greater Philadelphia.

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These are some of the things I’ve been thinking about lately.

THON, Mountain, Arboretum

Visited Penn State this weekend with brother Nick, his first trip there with just me. It was great to spend this time together in Happy Valley with him, introducing him to some of the most special aspects of life there. We visited THON at the Bryce Jordan Center:

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We visited the Penn State Arboretum, which was my fist time there too. It was incredible to me to be able to experience and catch a scene like this—a feeling of being lost someplace in the middle of nowhere—right on Penn State’s increasingly urban-feeling campus:

And we hiked Mount Nittany at dawn, where I captured the sunrise photo above. It was incredible to hike with him for the first time, and we met up with my cousin (who’s in her junior year) and her boyfriend who graduated a year or so ago. It was their first time on the Mountain, too.

 

Old Willow in winter

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I’m visiting Penn State and the Nittany Valley this weekend with my little brother, and during a walk from the Nittany Lion Inn on the northwestern edge of campus down to College Avenue we passed Old Willow. I explained the tradition of this tree and its special status as a living piece of the past.

It’s rare to see (or rather, to notice) Old Willow in winter. It’s there, but like any willow in winter it lacks the calm and billowing fronds that make it such a beautiful place to sit in warmer weather and think or read or be alone.

I hope this third generation survives for many years to come. In its nakedness it reveals its bent and somewhat top-heavy look more obviously than other times of the year. In any event, Old Willow’s tradition will continue.

A poet writes in the 1894 La Vie yearbook:

Sentinel thou art!
Dear old Willow!
’Neath thy waving, verdant tresses,
Ever coming, ever going,
Pass the tides of busy students,
Ever ebbing, ever flowing:
Untamed Freshmen, all-wise Sophomores,
Stately Seniors, hearty Juniors,
In a motley, ceaseless thronging,
’Neath thy ever-faithful guarding,
Chatting, laughing, thinking, studying
As they go.

State College changes

Robbie Rockwell at Onward State wrote to a bunch of Penn State alumni recently, asking for memories of the ways in which State College has changed over the years. I didn’t write, but my friend Chris Buchignani did. After his time as a student in the late 1990s/early 2000s, he decided to settle in State College. I’m sharing a portion of what he shared with Onward State:

Town and campus have changed so much in the 20 years I have lived here, you wouldn’t believe it. Commercial development along the North Atherton corridor has exploded. Campus roads have been closed or rerouted (Pollock Road once connected to Atherton; Shortlidge once connected Pollock and Curtin). Countless new buildings have been constructed (including Business, Forestry, Architecture, Law, IST, Science, and Hockey). The HUB has been renovated and expanded twice. Rec Hall and the IM Building have been expanded. The new Schlow Library has been built. The State Theatre repurposed and reopened. A total overhaul of State College High School is rapidly progressing, while Memorial Field has been tinkered with more times than I can count. These are a fraction of the substantial changes, and they’ve all occurred over just the last two decades.

The guts of the Nittany Valley are timeless and ageless, but we get some plastic surgery practically every year.

What I want to know is what big changes have occurred on or off campus that were particularly surprising or upsetting to you?

I lived in Toftrees for several years and absolutely loved the proximity to nature and illusion of isolation offered by the dense woods up there. The amount of development in the last several years is absolutely heart-breaking to me, so much clear-cutting. There was a charming character to the place that is irreparably diminished.

Were there any places that you spent a lot of time at that were torn down for something new?

I definitely think of the short-lived roller hockey rinks along Bigler Road that lasted less than a decade after their construction before they were demolished to make way for Millennium. Lots of pick-up and league games were played there, and it was a shame to lose that resource.

While it was not demolished, I also feel compelled to pour one out for the Playland Arcade on College Avenue. A relic of a bygone era for sure, but also a long-time beloved hangout for students and townies alike where I once inexplicably spent $10 in quarters to beat CarnEvil. Here’s a fun short documentary that tells its story.

How do you feel about high rises being built downtown? 

I have mixed feelings. I suspect, based on recent conversations, that some of my friends in The Nittany Valley Society feel more strongly than I do. While I think the process that got us to this point was basically a mess, I’m glad the Fraser Center is now a thing and not a giant hole surrounded by a dangerous, rusty fence. I am open to the new construction and think it has its place. I hope we’ll have the foresight to keep it to the periphery of the Downtown and not compromise the distinctive “college town” character of the main drag. That is a cultural resource for this place that could be mismanaged or squandered as surely as a natural resource.

What was a popular bar or restaurant that is no longer around? 

For me, it’s the Sports Cafe (once known as the Sportscenter), home of Tears of the Lions wings and $2 Michelob Amber Bocks. It was located on the corner of College and Burrowes where Noodles & Company is today. Huge projection TVs inside, outside deck seating in the front, pool tables in the basement, and zero belief in capital reinvestment. It was great. I gathered with hundreds of fellow Penn Staters to share many great (and not so great) moments in sports. I’m a Cubs fan, so this October, I went to Noodles & Co the day after the Series and got my picture taken in the exact spot where I stood to watch the Steve Bartman play. The Gingerbread Man deserves a nod, and I assume Rotelli’s closing is still fresh in the local memory, so Sports Cafe is the one.

Are there any things that were torn down or renovated for the better; meaning were some places on campus just a pain to have to go to? 

I never kept a car in Lot 80, but by all accounts, that is one campus change that no alumni will lament. If I’m not mistaken, Lot 80 was cleared out to make way for Katz and/or the Arboretum. The H.O. Smith Arboretum has been one of the nicest, most welcome additions to campus during my time here. It’s a great spot and keeps getting better. I hope they’ll get a planetarium soon.

I should also mention the studio facilities for The LION 90.7fm. The station was hidden away on the second floor of the Burrowes Building when I was a student and made the long-overdue move to the HUB (behind the fish tanks) in 2003. The new space in the HUB expansion is the best ever – it’s a tremendous resource for the organization, and I’m very appreciative of Dr. Sims and the Student Affairs leadership who prioritized that.

God willing, we will one day add Hammond Building to this list. it’s a truly miserable eyesore.

Can you think of any new editions to campus or downtown that you wish were there during your time at State?

Pegula. Easily. I had the extreme pleasure of getting to cover Icers hockey for The LION, and Coach Battista was exceedingly gracious with his time throughout. It was impossible to be around him and not feel the infectious passion he had for Penn State hockey and the dream of a top-flight varsity program. Many times I would sit in Greenberg as the crowd went wild and think, “What if this were a real arena, with ‘We Are’ chants going back and forth across the ice as we played Michigan or Ohio State?” It was a wild dream then, and I still can’t quite believe it’s become such a successful reality. I can’t help but feel a bit jealous of the Roar Zone.

How do you feel about the lack of open space and large buildings being put in like the Milenium Science Complex?

I’m not sure lack of open space is problem, at least not yet. We still have the IM fields and the Arboretum, and being a local, I know that the Centre Region maintains a sprawling parks system that is relatively accessible to the student population. That said, I did experience some melancholy as I watched the Thomas Building expand and then the Millennium Science Complex cover over what were once open fields. I spent so many happy hours in college playing sandlot football games on Pollock Fields – one of my best memories. No future generations will get to make more of those, plus it’s a damn shame to see the site of one of my all-time favorite athletic accomplishments covered over (a brutal block to clear out the lane for a punt return touchdown – it was a thing of beauty).