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.

Chris Buchignani’s ‘State of State’ talk

Ever wondered why Happy Valley has its name? Why the spirit of Penn Staters is so ubiquitous and recognizable? How a relatively isolated part of Pennsylvania became home to one of the nation’s great universities?

Chris Buchignani delivered a talk at Penn State at last month’s “State of State” conference that answers these questions and more.

My favorite part of Chris’s deck was this slide, portraying the typical student’s sense of “Happy Valley” unless/until they become aquainted with the larger region by forming a relationship with someone who cares about them, their experience of place, and their future.


This would be a great poster.

Pass/fail

When I was in Washington late last month for Michael Novak’s funeral, I stayed at the Marriott in Foggy Bottom. It’s functionally a part of George Washington University’s campus.

After arriving on Friday night, I looked at what was nearby for dinner and ended up grabbing a sandwich from Carvings, a small deli around the block. It was a beautiful night, still in the mid-60s after a day that cracked the 70s in late February. The twilight was hanging in the air, and students were enlivening the streets and windows. On the way out I picked up a copy of The Hatchet, GW’s student newspaper.

The cover story was an uninteresting feature on their outgoing president’s global fundraising tour. Inside, an opinion piece by Sky Singer was more interesting. Headlined, “GW should let underclassmen take classes pass/fail,” Sky writes: “When I was a freshman … I felt hesitate to take classes I knew nothing about but thought might be interesting. The worry that I would fall behind on completing my requirements and the stress of maintaining a strong GPA during my first term dissuaded me from trying things outside of my comfort zone. But looking back on my first couple of years at GW, I wish I had taken the time to explore more classes and subjects I was not exposed to…”

I think this is absolutely right, and something I’m adding to my wishlist for Penn State. Our colleges have become far more administrative and credentialistic in their nature, and I’m sure what Sky describes at GW is a reality among most young people. When young people stay in their comfort zones and avoid interesting but intimidating subjects, the humane and liberal arts aspects of their education suffer.

Penn State was once at the forefront of radically rethinking what it meant to be a college-educated citizen, blending the liberal and “mechanical” arts to encourage the development a more comprehensively-educated sort of person. If students are taking simple courses to maintain a stellar GPA, their degree diminishes in its value.

Why not something as radical as a “first semester pass/fail” policy to encourage curiosity, boldness, and discovery?

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.

THON and its consequences

Penn State’s IFC/Panhellenic Dance Marathon is happening this weekend. It’s known for being the largest single student-run philanthropic event in America.

Since 1973 it’s raised more than $100MM for the Four Diamonds Fund, which provides aid for children and families fighting pediatric cancer. It’s a great Penn State tradition, it’s a great community effort, and it’s often a genuinely life-changing experience for its participants.

A few years ago I sat down at the Rathskeller with an alum for lunch. We didn’t meet to talk shop on THON, but the conversation eventually turned to Greek Life and fraternities, which have been incredible developers of community life and growth for most of Penn State’s history. This alumnus presented a provocative thought on how to look at the future of Penn State’s Greek Life. I wasn’t in a fraternity in college (he was), so I’m sharing this mainly to think out loud and without knowing how much weight is worth putting behind my friend’s thinking.

The basic idea was this: THON has come to epitomize Greek identity, and so over the course of each year THON consumes an enormous amount of human, financial, and communal capital. All capital that each fraternity or sorority is spending within the Penn State community. And all capital that—at other universities—ends up being spent on the efforts of each fraternity’s or sorority’s national chapter philanthropies and efforts.

What this means is that Greek national associations are less pleased with their Penn State chapters than their peers (even though many of them raise more for THON than other university chapters raise for anything else) and this resentment manifests itself in that the national associations are less likely to strengthen, support, and defend their Penn State affiliates when they need reform, mentoring, or other assistance.

Again, this alum was a part of Greek life as a student and remains committed to it today. I was not a part of Greek Life. I’m presenting this here simply in the spirit of asking, “Is this a plausible explanation for why Penn State Greek Life might be doing more good than ever and yet finding itself weaker and less secure than ever?”

An obvious example of a national Greek organization abandoning its local chapter was the destruction of Phi Delta Theta a few years ago.

In downtown State College there are some 50 historic, beautiful mansions built by fraternities over the past century and a half. And while it seems few fraternities have retained their gentlemanly character, there is the chance for real and tangible loss to Penn State and the community if these houses (and more importantly, the young people within) are left to the fate of bureaucracy and national leadership whose vision seems to involve, in its best instances, tepid disinterest in leaving them to their own fate.

If the framework laid out to me by my friend is basically correct, it means that new systems of support, mentoring, and development for Greek Life needs to come from within the Penn State community, or else we risk the slow collapse of a system once responsible making so much of Penn State so great.