Baking resiliency in

In the course of my nonprofit board involvement over the past few years a recurring theme has come up again and again—the pull between creation and maintenance.

Whether you’re talking about creating entirely new ventures or simply starting a new initiative within an existing organization, my experience has so far told me that creation tends to be easier that maintenance. What I mean is that it’s easier to start things than it is to continue them—yet the difficulty of continuing, of the maintenance of efforts, initiatives, and programs, is almost universally downplayed either explicitly or implicitly.

Creation is relatively easy because ideas are cheap, whereas maintenance is difficult because execution is costly. It requires a larger and coherent strategy for overall activity. It requires consistent and unrelenting effort. And it tends to require sensitivity to the accretions that define an institution’s past—whether healthy or harmful.

One nonprofit I love is The Nittany Valley Society, still in startup mode. It’s easily the most fun and rewarding board experience I’ve had. We’re creating things like an annual reception, a small publishing imprint, a speaker series, and more. But we’re doing it with the knowledge that we (or future board members) will have to maintain these things, too. It’s important not to build a house that’s bigger or more expensive than you can maintain, and so it is with our nonprofit. It’s why, for instance, we’ve created the Nittany Valley Renaissance Fund as a permanent operational endowment in only our second year. If there’s money in the bank, you stay in business—maintenance is easier when there are funds for the future.

The Catholic Philopatrian Literary Institute, on the other hand, has been another experience entirely. Founded in 1850, it’s a very old institution, but one struggling from increased competition (a good sign of the health of the wider community) and sagging under the weight of capital costs, deferred maintenance, and other issues. The Philopatrian, despite its great age, has no operational endowment. This fact has led over recent decades to difficult choices for board members working in good faith to maintain what earlier eras created. It’s an issue I hope to tackle in the year to come.

What am I saying? I’m saying that both creation and maintenance should both be on the minds of any board member looking to create resilient institutions with lasting impact.

Raining poetry

Aria Bendix at CityLab writes on Boston’s new poetry initiative. It’s ingenious. Poetry is applied to sidewalks around the city with a biodegradable, water-activated spray paint. When it rains, the sidewalks share their poems:

Thanks to a partnership between Boston’s City Hall and Mass Poetry, a nonprofit that supports the Massachusetts poetry community, the city’s showers are being transformed into a hidden art project.

The project, appropriately titled “Raining Poetry,” uses biodegradable water-repellent spray to stencil poems on Boston’s concrete streets. On a sunny day, the letters remain invisible. But once water hits them, the words of famous poets suddenly reveal themselves to unsuspecting passersby. …

It’s also a chance to expose Boston residents to the rich history of their city, which was once home to poets like Sylvia Plath, Elizabeth Bishop, and e. e. cummings. Indeed, what better way to honor Boston’s literary greats than to look to their words as cures for a gloomy day?

This is the sort of thing that can enchant a city or town, adding a spirit of magic to a place that gives rise to a lifetime of affection—helping the resident know his home better, with the words of the long-forgotten appearing once more, just as much as it forms a bond for the visitor, who will leave with a fresh idea in her mind of the place she expected to visit for only a weekend, but that now will come back to her in memory again and again even after a wet and perhaps dismal visit.

Arts Fest is ‘itself a work of art’

The annual Central Pennsylvania Festival of the Arts will soon be underway in State College. I’ll still be in California, but will raise a glass in spirit to my friends in Happy Valley.

I’m remembering one of my favorite chapters from Ben Novak’s The Birth of the Craft Brew Revolution. “A Beer for the Festival” appeared in the Centre Daily Times on July 13, 1986, and reappears in the book as a example of what Arts Fest represents for so many. An excerpt:

The body is tired, but the mind and spirit are still exhilarated by the presence of so much art and, what is more, the presence of so many people who appreciate it. For art is not only a source of private experiences which can be personally bought and collected. Art is also, and perhaps more importantly, a public celebration, a sharing of spirit, an act of community.

In the midst of so many art exhibits, and so many stages with artists performing, it is easy to take ourselves for granted. But take a look at some pictures of the festival some day, and notice how the crowds of people catch your eye. For the whole festival is itself a work of art, and its spirit is expressed best through the people who come and fill the streets. ….

In order to enjoy the festival itself as art, one needs but a quiet time of recollection and a good tankard of ale. Then one can summon up again the best of the sights and sounds and smells and tastes and feelings of the festival week. One can savor each one, turning it over carefully in one’s mind, converting what might have been only a momentary thrill into a lasting impression. After all, isn’t that what art is – the converting of something momentary, like a fleeting smile on an old woman’s face – into something lasting, like the Mona Lisa?

So, late this afternoon or evening, sit down to really enjoy the festival. Create out of all its bright colors and wondrous events a work of art in your own soul where you can keep it and savor it for a lifetime.

MLK Jr. Plaza/Fraser Garage project

It’s offensive to my sense of propriety that such a thing as the “MLK Jr. Plaza/Fraser Garage rehabilitation project” exists. I say this in the context of having thought about personifying Penn State’s monumental leaders, wherein I would include MLK as one of the place’s more notable guests.

But in the Borough of State College’s formulation? Of MLK being honored as part of a parking garage “rehabilitation” project? No.

He spoke to Penn Staters months before his historical visit to Selma, Alabama. He spoke about American values in a time when others were pushing to speak exclusively about racial values. He spoke inclusively about issues that were too often then perceived to be exclusive by their nature. He was a remarkable visitor in the Nittany Valley’s history. He deserves far better than to be recognized as part of a municipal parking project.

He deserves a place on Penn State’s campus, specifically in bronze in front of Rec Hall where he spoke. I hope someday, regardless of what happens in State College, the deciders at Penn State place a fitting monument to a man who embodied Pennsylvanian ideals of inclusion far earlier than when they came to be understood as American ideals.

Admiring the valley

There’s no better way to admire something than to experience it. It’s the highest compliment you can offer. And it’s a complement I offer to Central Pennsylvania’s Nittany Valley as often as I can.

I soaked in this beautiful view from the backyard of a new friend earlier today. It’s a beautiful place to enjoy a beautiful scene.

One of the things I spoke to in Conserving Mount Nittany is that in Central Pennsylvania’s Nittany Valley, the fact that you’re in a valley amidst mountains is much more in-your-face. Philadelphians talk about the “Delaware Valley,” but where are their corresponding mountains?

This is one of the least remarked upon but most consequential aspects of the character of this place.

Penn State’s first history

Chris Buchignani, friend and leader of The Nittany Valley Society, writes in Town & Gown about our experience publishing Erwin Runkle’s “The Pennsylvania State College 1853-1932: Interpretation and Record:”

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Over its 161 years, Penn State has twice sanctioned books chronicling the university’s history, once in the 1940s and again with an updated version in the 1980s.

While history professor and Penn State historian Wayland Dunaway’s 1946 “History of The Pennsylvania State College” was the first official account of Old State’s history to be published, it was not the first to be written. More than a decade prior to the creation of Dunaway’s text, Erwin W. Runkle, Penn State’s librarian from 1904 to 1924 and Dunaway’s predecessor as the school’s first official historian (you may recognize the name from Runkle Hall), compiled a complete record of the institution from founding to the present day. …

I initially encountered “The Pennsylvania State College 1853 – 1932: Interpretation and Record” amidst the emotionally raw days of Fall 2012. I found rare comfort in Runkle’s meticulously constructed account of Penn State’s turbulent first 50 years, which included a true existential crisis over Pennsylvania’s allocation of Land Grant Act funding. Knowing that Penn State had survived and thrived, despite teetering more than once on the brink of total dissolution, gave me confidence that the University could survive what no longer felt, at least not indisputably, like the worst period in its history. Speaking to me from the past, Runkle’s gifts were context and perspective.

For a select group of Penn Staters with certain tastes and interests (namely, a high tolerance for heavy reading), Runkle’s book will provide a similarly edifying experience. Many others will buy it simply to display on their bookshelves, and that’s fine too – I don’t blame them; the cover art is gorgeous.

Our monthly Town & Gown columns are great. They’re one of the things that Chris has spearheaded that I like most about The Nittany Valley Society, and the way it’s “fostering a spirit across time.”

Moving a mailbox

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When The Nittany Valley Society launched its Nittany Valley Heritage Walk a few years ago, it was with the goal to preserve the iconic Inspiration Mural in Downtown State College, while also creating and beautifying a new pedestrian and visitor-friendly place.

We’re making progress with the Nittany Valley Heritage Walk; paver stones are starting to sell and the first major section of the walkway will be installed later this year—resulting in a large section of unremarkable concrete being replaced by striking, beautiful red bricks.

Along with these improvements, a thorn in my paw since The Nittany Valley Society decided to take this special project on has been this rusting, unattractive U.S.P.S. mailbox. It has sat for years directly in front of the most iconic part of the Inspiration Mural—the section featuring Coach Paterno. It’s placement makes it nearly impossible to take a photo of the entire Inspiration Mural directly from the front. It just detracts from this unique downtown spot, and would limit public appreciation of the space as it continues to transform in the years to come.

Thankfully, it won’t be there much longer. I got word yesterday that the postal service has agreed to move it elsewhere. This will eventually enable new, low-profile benches to be installed along this stretch of sidewalk. And more importantly, it will help the Nittany Valley Heritage Walk be a more distinctive part of the State College landscape.

Moving a mailbox is certainly not something I ever expected to spend time on (and I didn’t have to spend much), but glad I was able to encourage its removal to a less important area.

And look at that thing. It just looks terrible.

Reverence is a gift

Chris Buchignani and Kevin Horne, two friends and fellow board members with The Nittany Valley Society, got together last week to clean up and start restoring the gravesite of Evan Pugh and Rebecca Valentine Pugh near Penn State’s campus in Bellefonte’s Union Cemetery:

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I wrote and excerpted thinking on human dignity the other day, but that higher level thinking translates into this very practical way in which to think about human dignity: it’s a reality we recognize in one another through reverence.

While most people recognize a fundamental dignity unique to human beings, the ways in which that recognition translates into mores and law is breathtakingly divergent. But because actions speak louder than words, the best way to infuse meaning into dignity is to practice it.

That’s why we clean and honor Evan and Rebecca Pugh’s gravesite.

Delaware Valley meets Nittany Valley

We create bubbles for ourselves. Little routines and ways of life that are comfortable, but that also eliminate spontaneity and serendipity from our lives. But spontaneity and serendipity are vital for maintaining perspective, really vital for a full life.

This is why The Nittany Valley Society, for its annual first quarter board meeting, comes together in Philadelphia (and sometimes in Pittsburgh), even though our mission is focused on Central Pennsylvania’s Nittany Valley. We realized at our founding that if our mission was to be successful over the long term, it needed to speak to Penn Staters and friends of the Nittany Valley across the Commonwealth—not just in the place a portion of them visit from time to time.

So we’re meeting tomorrow at Pipeline Philly, a great coworking space located directly across from City Hall in the Grant Building.

Why ‘we are’

Kevin Horne, president of Penn State’s Graduate & Professional Student Association (GPSA) delivered short, beautiful remarks at the Penn State Board of Trustees meeting this past week.

I’ve been friends with Kevin for a number of years now. Kevin’s remarks to Penn State’s board of trustees capture a lot of the spirit that animates a vision we share for the conservation of special places:

Hello everyone, my name is Kevin Horne and I’m the president of the Graduate & Professional Student Association. I like to kid Emily and Shawn that we are the oldest of the three student government associations at Penn State, with our constitution chartered back in 1951.

But I want to use my time to talk a little bit about 1951, and how the concept of shared governance and the inclusion of the student body and its representatives in the university decision making mechanism has evolved over the years.

I want to start by saying that I think shared governance at Penn State is exceptionally strong right now – at least stronger than it has been in my five years of student government involvement at the undergraduate and graduate level. One need not look further than the latitude we’ve been given by President Barron and Vice President Sims to overhaul the student fee process, or the inclusion of a voting student-selected trustee, or our presence on the various committees of the Board and our invitation to speak today to know that we are in a better place  But the importance – indeed, the essentialness – of student involvement in all aspects of university decision making is not yet embraced by every administrator and every trustee, and I want to pose a challenge to those who haven’t jumped in feet first.

Let’s go back to the 1950s for a second. Only a few years later, Jesse Arnelle would be elected as the first black student government president to serve at a major university, months before Brown v. Board of Education was decided. A few years later, Dr. Eric Walker became Penn State’s president. Dr.Walker is a man who often referred – and Trustee Arnelle can back me up – to Penn State as having TWO presidents, himself and the student body president. This is a time when the Penn State student governments had offices and held their meetings in Old Main. This is a time when Penn State students ran the library, built the HUB, and contributed to a great deal many things that continue to enrich Penn State student life today.

Now, higher education has obviously changed considerably from the days of Jesse Arnelle and Eric Walker’s two president concept, but not all of its sentiment need be lost. Consider, when working with future student government leaders in our roles, what a Real University actually means. Memory of our past can improve the present and change the future. When students are treated and referred to as customers, we lose. When trustees, professors, townspeople and administrators view themselves as simply a conveyor belt of knowledge – or worse, businesspeople — and students – the very students who give our great University its lasting and enduring spirit – are viewed as too young to be informed, we lose. When students and their ideas are treated merely as something to manage, we lose. When we all pretend to be merely participants in a marketplace, rather than soulful people living together in a community, sharing in this moment in this place, breathing in the same magic of the Nittany Valley that visionaries like Jesse Arnelle, or Eric Walker, or George and Frances Atherton, or Evan and Rebecca Pugh, or Joe and Sue Paterno breathed, we all lose. These are some of the realities that my six years at Penn State have forced me to face, and they’ve changed my life, the highest calling to which a Real University can aspire.

I believe that the larger Penn State becomes by raw metrics, by numbers of whatever measure, the more vital it becomes to make it small again. And when we let marketing and public relations rule the day, or treat Penn State like its selling a product from the supermarket shelf, as another former Penn State president once described it, we fail tragically short of living up to what “We Are Penn State” really means.

And this all goes back to students, and embracing the 97,000 people – people fully capable of informing decisions on how their university is governed – in all that you do as University leaders and decision makers. I challenge this group: Why stop at one student trustee? Why stop at 2 or 3? Why not have students on every committee? Invite us to your meetings, and we will invite you to ours. The student body is eager to participate in all that you do — the participation of which is a hallmark of a healthy university.

I thank you all for a great term, for your dedication to a true shared governance system at Penn State, and I hope and trust that our successors will be met with the same candor of openness and willingness to work together — as you all have — to continue the indomitable Penn State spirit of developing excellence in all things.

Thank you.