Administrative universities

Ron Srigley writes a powerful indictment of the administrative class of the modern university. “Whose University Is It Anyway?” is a long, worthwhile, well-researched piece. And it resonates with much of my experience and frustrations of a decade ago at Penn State, and with the secondhand experience of my friends and family within college and university life. Places that were founded for the wide-ranging pursuit of knowledge as a good in itself, and the ability to recognize truth, virtue, etc. are now places run by an administrative class that’s less concerned with those inevitably unordered aims and more concerned with a culture of efficiency that brooks no critique that would threaten its own growth and development:

Administrators control the modern university. The faculty have “fallen,” to use Benjamin Ginsberg’s term. It’s an “all-administrative” institution now. [1] Spending on administrators and administration exceeds spending on faculty, administrators out-number faculty by a long shot, and administrative salaries and benefit packages, particularly those of presidents and other senior managers, have skyrocketed over the last 10 years. Even more telling perhaps, students themselves increasingly resemble administrators more than professors in their ambitions and needs. Safety, comfort, security, quality services, first-class accommodations, guaranteed high grades, institutional brand, better job placements, the market value of the credential — these are the things one hears students demanding these days, not truth, justice, and intelligence. [2] The traditional language of “professors” and “students” still exists, though “service provider” and “consumer” are making serious bids to replace them. The principles of collegial governance and joint decision-making are still on the books, but they are no longer what the institution is about or how it works.

The revolution is over and the administrators have won. But the persistence of traditional structures and language has led some to think that the fight over the institution is now just beginning. This is a mistake. As with most revolutions, open conflict occurs only after real power has already changed hands. In France, for instance, the bourgeoisie were able to seize control of the regime because in a sense they already had it. The same is true of the modern university. …

Personally, I’m less strident than the activists but more active than the pessimists. My own proposal is thus old-fashioned but also mildly seditious: I suggest we think about this change in the university in order to reach some understanding of what it means. Then we can act as we see fit, though without any illusions about consequences.

In order to do this I propose a test. A favorite trope among the administrative castes is accountability. People must be held accountable, they tell us, particularly professors. Well, let’s take them at their word and hold them accountable. How have they done with the public trust since having assumed control of the university? …

In the traditional university, professors were “unaccountable.” The university was a sacred space where they were at liberty to pursue with students and colleagues their fields of inquiry without coercion or interference. This doesn’t mean they were free without qualification, of course. Professors were deeply accountable, but in a sense that went far beyond the reach, ambition, and perhaps even the interests of the administrative caste — they were accountable to discover and then to tell the truth, and to encourage their students to do the same. Assessing their abilities and accomplishments in this regard was a matter of judgment and so could not be quantified; it could be exercised only by those capable of it. A mechanism was therefore introduced to ensure this judgment was reached before the university committed to a faculty member permanently. After roughly 15 years of undergraduate and postgraduate study, and then a long period of careful professional observation and assessment, in most universities lasting five to six years, only those professors who proved themselves worthy were granted tenure and allowed to continue their teaching and research in pursuit of this beautiful goal

Administrators, on the other hand, were always held accountable precisely because their responsibilities were administrative in nature and therefore amenable to measurement and regular public audit. They were responsible to ensure the activities of students and professors were not interfered with and to manage the institution’s financial affairs. They were, in this sense, stewards of the sacred space, not its rulers.

In the contemporary university these roles have been reversed. Faculty members are the ones who are now accountable, but no longer to their peers and students and no longer regarding mastery of their subjects. Instead, they are accountable to administrators, who employ an increasingly wide array of instruments and staff to assess their productivity and measure their performance, all of which are now deemed eminently quantifiable. In place of judgment regarding the quality of their work we now have a variety of “outcomes” used as measures of worth. Student evaluations and enrollments (i.e., popularity), learning as determined by “rubrics,” quantity of publications, amount of research dollars, extent of social “impact” are the things that count now. In other words, only things you can quantify and none of which require judgment.

The administrators who protested so vociferously the lack of accountability of professors have now assumed the position themselves. Administrators are virtually untouchable today. Their value to the institution is assumed to be so great that it cannot be measured and cannot be subject to critical assessment. This explains in part their metastatic growth within the institution. …

Ask about virtually any problem in the university today and the solution proposed will inevitably be administrative. Why? Because we think administrators, not professors, guarantee the quality of the product and the achievement of institutional goals. But how is that possible in an academic environment in which knowledge and understanding are the true goals? Without putting too fine a point on it, it’s because they aren’t the true goals any longer. With the exception of certain key science and technology programs in which content proficiency is paramount, administrative efficiency and administrative mindedness are the true goals of the institution. …

When it comes to the real mandate of the modern university, boards of governors, government, and industry are all in agreement. That mandate is well known to all of us who live and work within the non-ivied walls: more industry partnerships, more technology, more STEM subjects, more money for research and development in these areas, more administrative review bodies and measures, more students, more student services, and more student satisfaction. And because the administrative university is a zero-sum game, there is a reverse side to the mandate: fewer tenured faculty, less faculty control over curricula, fewer humanities and pure science programs, less support for humanities and pure science research, and the erosion of collegial governance.

There is no serious debate about this mandate among the key players in the university administrative hierarchy, so the assertion that administrators are accountable to it in the way they insist faculty must be is a red herring. The administrators are the mandate. …

If you think I overstate the consequences of this erosion of the university curriculum, consider the 2016 US presidential debates as barometers of the culture. Many people were horrified by the debates, regardless of partisan interests. But if you want to appreciate the full extent of the horror and understand just how far we’ve fallen, watch the first ever televised presidential debate between Kennedy and Nixon in 1960. The extent of our new barbarism becomes immediately apparent in the contrast and it’s quite a shock, and this without even claiming that Kennedy and Nixon were themselves in any way high-water marks of political culture. If you think this decline has nothing to do with the decline of genuine liberal arts education, through which students are taught to think deeply and meaningfully about the real human problems of government, justice and reason, and the rise of the all-administrative university in which they are not, think again. As one Canadian university president I know said to a colleague who had expressed an interest in Montesquieu’s political thought, “Why study him? He’s dead.” So much for history. So much for political wisdom. And so much for magnanimity and breadth of understanding. We now have intellectual philistines settling the matter of what our children need to know. Where in this miasma of deculturation will they ever find an image of a genuine statesperson or citizen or of a truly just human being? Nowhere, if the modern administrative university has its way. …

Four areas of the all-administrative university stand out for comment: students, the university curriculum, university governance, and administrative salaries.

If you speak with university officials, you’ll tend to find that the ones who speak with the most confidence and least apprehension are administrators. And that’s how you can tell where the real power resides in that university, because those with power tend to be confident and self-assured. Right up until they’ve lost it.

Why Mount Nittany is on every Penn Stater’s bucket list

Here’s something I wrote a few years ago for Onward State, which I thought I’d share here too:

In “The Legends of the Nittany Valley,” folklorist Henry Shoemaker records some of the American Indian and settler stories that provide a cultural and historical foundation for Penn State mythology, including Mount Nittany as our sacred symbol and pristine retreat, the love story of Princess Nittany and Lion’s Paw, and even the reclusive Nittany Lion.

Yet stories alone have no independent life to speak of; their significance grows from the affection, tenderness, and patience of the reader, from the moments spent in solitude or near friends with the words of a long-dead peer over a coffee at Saints or W.C. Clarke’s. Herodotus or Dante would be nothing without the gift of time and attention paid in gratitude by the living reader. It’s through that gift that we reverence something culturally significant, and make something from the past a part of our present time.

This is what tradition is, if distilled — the continuing act of encountering the past, helping it come alive again in some way, and then in due course becoming a part of the past ourselves as we look to the future. This beautiful notion is encapsulated in an even more beautiful practical, example: The singing of Robert Burns’s 1788 “Auld Lang Syne” every New Year’s Eve. It’s a literal and lyrical Scottish injunction to remember our friendships and honor days gone by on the eve of a new time.

This helps explain why Mount Nittany, by all accounts an ordinary Pennsylvania mountain, is nonetheless sacred for Penn Staters and the people of the valley. As with the stories of the past, we’ve infused the Mountain with a distinctive meaning. Penn State Professor Simon Bronner writes that we “inspirit the land” of Mount Nittany and places like it. We do this in a thousand distinct ways, through hikes alone to learning and sharing the same stories to nights spent with friends around a small fire.

The Mount Nittany Conservancy is what makes our experience of the Mountain possible—specifically what makes our experience of it as a natural space, protected from development, a perpetual part of the Nittany Valley experience. Even if you’ve never heard of Henry Shoemaker, and aren’t inclined to pick up his stories, the Mount Nittany Conservancy has made it possible to encounter a bit of the legend, mythology, and history of the Mountain through two new podcasts. The first, “Mount Nittany in Myth and Legend,” is a digestible seven minutes and is concerned with origins:

The second podcast, “The Story of Mount Nittany,” is a meditative 40-minute encounter with the reason the origin stories matter. In it, we hear from the people who conserve the Mountain for all to enjoy, from personalities as varied as Nittany Lion’s letterman Bob Andronici and student-volunteers combating erosion, to trailblazer Tom Smyth recounting decades of history (at 13:30), to Vince Verbeke’s “wayfinding stations” (18:21), to Penn State Arboretum director Kim Steiner’s insight on Mountain forestry (21:25), to Mount Nittany Conservancy founder Ben Novak’s experience of the “ordinary” Mountain (24:04), vision for land acquisition (28:08), and creation of square-inch deeds (31:55), to Bob Frick’s experience with less-preserved mountains (25:30), to Ben Bronstein’s historical markers (26:15), to Sue Paterno’s reflection on the Mountain (32:37) and Coach Joe Paterno’s affection for Mount Nittany as one on the Mount Nittany Conservancy’s inaugural board. Bob Frick, a Mount Nittany Conservancy board member, served as the executive producer of these podcasts, which were co-produced with WPSU’s Katie O’Toole and Patty Satalia.

Nearly a century before many of us were born, Henry Shoemaker declared: “There is no spot of ground a hundred feet square in the Pennsylvania mountains that has not its legend. Some are old, as ancient as the old, old forests. Others are of recent making or in formation now. Each is different, each is full of its own local color.”

Mount Nittany is one of those Pennsylvania mountains, and the Nittany Valley remains a place where legends continue to take shape. Thanks to Henry Shoemaker’s stories, and the Mount Nittany Conservancy’s new podcasts, you can get a better sense for why the Mountain matters and why hiking it is such a special experience.

Hiking Mount Nittany” is one of those things that finds its way onto the Penn State bucket lists of most students, and it’s something many make a ritual pleasure. A single hike often serves as an occasion for encounter with “local color” of the Mountain and the valley, a color which has a radiance that outlasts every autumn.

Who was Henry Shoemaker?

In speaking to Penn State students earlier this month on “Inspiriting Mount Nittany,” I mentioned Henry W. Shoemaker, Pennsylvania’s first folklorist. I thought I’d share a bit more about him, because his life was remarkable not only in Pennsylvania history, but for its lessons about the value of human beings sharing stories with one another and how whole cultures can be stronger and more remarkable as a result.

Shoemaker wasn’t just Pennsylvania’s first folklorist. He was also a prolific journalist, and Progressive-Era friend of people like Teddy Roosevelt. He’s most remembered for his many volumes of American Indian folk stories and legends collected throughout Pennsylvania. Shoemaker preserved settler-versions of what were claimed to be some of the last surviving oral stories of the American Indians of Pennsylvania—the Lenni Lenape, the Iroquois, Shawnee, Susquehannock, Tuscarora, Oneida, and others.

A few of his more well known collections include Juniata Memories: Legends Collected in Central Pennsylvania, Black Forest Souvenirs, Allegheny Episodes, Susquehanna Legends, and Penn’s Grandest Cavern. Simon J. Bronner, a Penn State professor, wrote a biography of Shoemaker in 1996 called Popularizing Pennsylvania: Henry W. Shoemaker and the Progressive Uses of Folklore and History.

It’s at least in part thanks to Henry Shoemaker that the world knows the “Nittany Lions” of Penn State, and that we know of the Indian legend of Princess Nita-Nee. A few years ago I helped the Nittany Valley Society compile a special collection of the folk stories and legends specifically pertaining to the area of Central Pennsylvania where Penn State is located. The book is called The Legends of the Nittany Valley, and is a small way we hope to perpetuate not only the stories themselves, but also memory of Shoemaker and other American folklorists incredible efforts in the late 19th and early 20th centuries to perpetuate a spirit and feeling for the American Indians who we so thoroughly wiped away from their historic homes.

When I was initially learning about Shoemaker, I particularly liked this language used to describe him and his work:

In many ways, Henry W. Shoemaker (1880-1958) embodies the spirit of the Progressive movement in America. A prominent reformist newspaper publisher in Pennsylvania, he used his wealth and position inherited from industrialism to promote the preservation of America’s wilderness and native cultures. He fell in with such national leaders as Theodore Roosevelt and Gifford Pinchot, who hoped to rekindle a rugged American nationalism. He became America’s first State Folklorist and a pioneer of national conservation. Shoemaker’s consuming passion was for preserving the cultural and natural heritage of his home state. He authored hundreds of pamphlets and books on Pennsylvania’s nature, history, and folklore. Today his memory lives on in the legends he helped promote…

Ken Poorman also provides a convenient snapshot of Shoemaker’s most notable achievements:

  • Newspaper publisher, author, folklorist, raconteur, diplomat
  • Mobilized interest and public funding to preserve historic and natural heritage
  • Leading conservationist, promoter of state parks
  • Romanticizer and popularizer of folktales, legends, and history
  • First official Folklorist in America
  • Director of Pennsylvania Historical Commission
  • Responsible for planting thousands of historical markers
  • Connection with Juniata through serving on M.G. Brumbaugh’s staff in Harrisburg
  • For many years after 1930 conducted pilgrimages to MGB’s grave near Lake Raystown

Despite pioneering folklore as an interest of Pennsylvania government as a means of “inspiriting the land” and cultivating civic pride and common experiences in an increasingly diverse and pluralistic America, folklorists who’ve come along since tend to look down their noses at Shoemaker and his contemporaries, like Katharine Berry Judson in the Pacific Northwest or William W. Canfield in New York.

Shoemaker opens himself to the criticism of contemporary folklorists because he injected too much of his own voice and his own era’s sensibilities into lots of his folklore. This has led to the charge that Shoemaker simply wrote all of the folklore himself. I’m far from convicted that Shoemaker created all of his folklore. Even if true, it would mean that he was incredibly creative and prolific, deserving of honor in and of itself. But more to the point, he frequently cites people he spoke with on trips throughout Pennsylvania and discloses the towns and places he heard stories, and thanks specific people by name. If all of this was purely fictional, in other words, practically everyone would have known it at the time. And the historical record doesn’t seem to bare that out.

In any event, the nature of oral stories and tradition is that the details of the folklore tend to change with almost every telling even while the stories attempt to retain the essence of their narrative. That’s what oral tradition is: the histories and stories of people passed down by the person-to-person telling. I wish Shoemaker interjected less of his generation’s own attitudes, biases, etc. into many of the stories. But it’s still easy and worthwhile to read them and enjoy them for what they are: fantastic stories that might just reach back into the earliest human stories and experiences of Pennsylvania shared by American Indian peoples, who we can still try to honor as our cultural ancestors.

The photo above shows Henry Shoemaker at Restless Oaks in 1913 with “Ramsden Rex,” his “English-bred Russian wolfhound.” I think the Juniata College Archives has the original version of this photo.

Founders Day

Today is Founders Day at Penn State, when students, alumni, and townspeople celebrate figures like Evan and Rebecca Pugh, Frederick Watts, James Irvin, George Atherton, and so many others who figured prominently in the creation of what became Pennsylvania’s land grant university. I’m not in State College, but I shot this clip of Old Main in steady rain when I was in town on February 14th for my “Inspiriting Mount Nittany” talk. It’s a scene any Penn Stater would be familiar with:

Tonight Chris Buchignani will be speaking on behalf of the Nittany Valley Society about the essence of cultural conservation, and some of the remarkable stories of Happy Valley over the generations as part of Lion Ambassador’s event:

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Inspiriting Mount Nittany

I spoke to the University Park Undergraduate Association, the student government at Penn State, on Wednesday, February 14 (Ash Wednesday) on Mount Nittany’s significance and historical conservation efforts:

As part of the talk, I presented the students with a Square Inch Life Estate Deed to Mount Nittany, a gift from the Nittany Valley Society. Life Estate Deeds are available through the Mount Nittany Conservancy, and are a true, legal square inch deed recorded in the Centre County Office of the Recorder of Deeds.

To learn more of the Mountain’s history and significance, be sure to read Conserving Mount Nittany: A Dynamic Environmentalism or listen to the audiobook version for free.

It was a fun talk, even though it was incredibly difficult to pack much of the substance and depth of either the folkloric or practical conservation efforts of Mount Nittany into what was roughly a 12 minute presentation. There was so much that I didn’t have time to address, particularly the relationship between Mount Nittany and Hort Woods, and some of the more interesting aspects of the “Magic of Mount Nittany” fundraising campaign of the 1980s and the narrative of the Princess Nittany legends themselves. But that’s what the book is for.

Since I served in UPUA, it has developed for the better. I’d guess there were at least 70 people in attendance. (We were sometimes lucky to meet quorum requirements to even conduct meetings in the first year.) I stayed for the entire meeting, and heard about their campus and community initiatives which each seemed to be positive and important for building a better Penn State.

UPUA Alumni Weekend

As a sophomore at Penn State, I served in the University Park Undergraduate Association (UPUA)’s First Assembly. The UPUA, Penn State’s student government, was reorganized in that year—though student government at Penn State originated sometime around 1910, though I forget the precise date.

This year’s 12th Assembly organized the first UPUA Alumni Weekend, and it provided an enjoyable chance to reunite with so many friends and faces from more than a decade ago, and to connect with today’s Penn Staters and discover what they’re working on and what sort of people they are.

I was very proud of UPUA, for instance, for just having achieved a revision to Penn State’s medical amnesty policy, ensuring that neither impaired students who need medical attention, nor their friends or bystanders who call for assistance, will be subject to prosecution. That’s a humane approach to an issue that impacts many, and it’s something I hope Pennsylvania adopts as law across the commonwealth.

Also visited The LION 90.7fm studios before heading to the Nittany Lion Inn for the UPUA Alumni Weekend’s closing dinner and remarks by Gavin Keirans, Vice President for Student Affairs Damon Sims, and others:

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It was a good weekend. I’m not sure I’ll be attending these alumni weekends in the future, except sporadically, but I’m grateful that they’re happening.

Mount Nittany and Joab Thomas

I’ve been spending some time recently on scanning and digitizing a few boxes worth of early Mount Nittany Conservancy archives that Ben Novak provided to me. As the Mount Nittany Conservancy’s founder and first president, Ben was instrumental not only in the organization’s major land preservation and fundraising efforts throughout the 1980s and early 1990s that we covered in Conserving Mount Nittany, but also in creating and promoting the distinctive “Square Inch” Life Estate Deeds, which provide a true, legal square inch of Mount Nittany for the life of the donor—recorded with the Centre County Recorder of Deeds—in exchange for a beautiful, framed deed certificate.

Over the course of these scanning and archival efforts, a number of prominent Penn Staters and State College names appear, including Dr. Joab Thomas and his wife. Dr. Thomas was Penn State’s president from 1990-1995, and he and his wife ordered their Square Inch in the early 1990s:

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Rathskeller

I was very sad to hear that the All-American Rathskeller in State College is being forced to close its doors. The Skeller is one of those places that feels like it’s been around forever, with a gritty yet lived-in, distinctive, and welcoming feeling with worn cement floors that tell the stories of generations whose paths have met there, and wooden rafters, bars, and booths that have an age and weight and even wetness whose physical aroma conveys the place’s character in a way that few establishments ever allow to develop.

Skeller feels like it’s been around forever because, in a certain sense, it has. Few if any Penn Staters or Nittany Valley people are still alive remember a Happy Valley without the Rathskeller. It’s 84 years old, and Pennsylvania’s oldest continuously operating bar. The Foster Building, which houses the Skeller, is one of the oldest structures in State College. You can see it in this 1924 photo of State College:

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The Foster Building houses the Skeller among other College Avenue businesses, was purchased by new local investors the Herlochers earlier this year:

Duke and Monica Gastinger have owned the two businesses since the 1980s, but the Rathskellar has been around since November 9, 1933, three days after the end of prohibition in the United States.

Chuck and Neil Herlocher — yes, those Herlochers — bought the property, which houses Spat’s Café, The Clothesline, The Apple Tree, Old Main Frame Shop, Rathskeller and Sadie’s, in June. None of the other businesses have yet announced their closing, so the fate of the property is still unclear.

“My father and I are happy to be purchasing this historic area,” Neil Herlocher told the Centre County Gazette in June. “Business there will continue as usual. There are no plans to make drastic changes to the properties, although we will do some renovations and improvements.

Jay Paterno chimed into #SavetheSkeller Twitter conversation to share another angle of the story, which is that the Foster Building was nearly purchased by national investors intent on tearing it down and building something new, as is happening so many other places in State College’s downtown:

Herlochers Save Rathskeller Location From Wrecking Ball

In July 2017 our company Cornelius LLC concluded an investment in downtown State College with a plan to buy the Foster Building. While other investors intended to raze the property, we were steadfast in our commitment to preserve the historic nature and location of this landmark building.

When we took over the property we became aware that the operators of the All American Rathskeller and Spats had been operating without a lease since 2011 and paying well below market rates. Attempts to resolve the issue were unsuccessful. Our offer to purchase the businesses were also turned down.

We understand the concern many Penn Staters and State College natives have expressed. We want to assure you that as State College residents and Penn Staters we fully understand the historic importance of that location and memories made there across decades. We are committed to maintaining the character of the location that was founded in 1933 by Pop Flood as the Rathskeller and Gardens until 1934 when Doggie Alexander named it The All-American Rathskeller.

Our goal in the coming weeks and years is that Penn Staters past and present will walk into this location and find their memories of great times past still living there. The new tenants will be the latest in a long line of owners who have maintained the proud tradition of good times and good friends meeting in this downtown State College landmark.

If it’s true that Duke and Monica Gastinger refused to sell the Rathskeller name/intellectual property after rent negotiations failed, that their out-of-lease rent was way below market etc., that’s a real shame. Not only will Happy Valley lose the oldest-bar-in-Pennsylvania distinction, but it will likely lose the physical place as an historically authentic gathering place.

Ross Lehman, 1942 graduate of Penn State who was later head of the Penn State Alumni Association, once reflected on some of the things that made a Penn State experience what it was in his Centre Daily Times column “Open House:”

If I had felt lonely and isolated in these hills it was not for long. I became part of the heart throb of Penn State, and it was a new, exciting world. I fell in love with this unique place.

The campus was, and is, something rather special. It houses the “Penn State spirit,” which is a difficult thing to define because it is composed of so many things.

Perhaps it can be called a feeling, a feeling that runs through Penn Staters when they’re away from this place and someone mentions “Penn State.” The farther we are away, in time and distance, the stronger the feeling grows.

It is a good feeling, a wanting-to-share feeling. It is full of a vision of Mount Nittany, which displays a personality of its own in all its seasonal colors, from green to gold to brown to white. It is the sound of chimes from Old Main’s clock, so surrounded by leaves that it’s hard to see; it is getting to class not by looking at the clock but by listening to it.

It is the smell of the turf at New Beaver Field after a game, and the memories of Len Krouse, Leon Gajecki, Rosey Grier, Lenny Moore, Mike Reid, Franco Harris, Lydell Mitchell, Todd Blackledge and Curt Warner helping to swell our fame … and the top of Mount Nittany as seen from the grandstands in autumn.

It is the quiet of Pattee Library, facing two rows of silent elms; sunlight falling gently through those elms on a misty morning; a casual chat under a white moon on the mall.

It is talk, too: a great deal of talk, here, there, all around … in fraternity and sorority bull sessions or over a hasty coffee in the Corner Room or Ye Olde College Diner, talk un-recalled except for the feeling of remembrance and the heart-tugging wanting some of youth. …

It is a dance in Rec Hall; a beer in the Rathskeller; a kiss in a secluded campus niche; the romance that bloomed into marriage; the smell of a theater; the laugh of a crowd; the blossoming of spring shrubs and the blend of maple, oak, birch and aspen colors in the fall; the ache of a night without sleep; and the sharing of a thousand other little things and incidents that honed our “Penn State spirit.”

“A beer in the Rathskeller” amidst so many other great and small points of the mystic chords of Penn State identity may seem like a small thing, but that would be to miss the fact that the greatness of Penn State is in its innumerable little greatnesses, of which the Skeller has been a remarkable part for so many generations. It’s also remarkable that, in Ross Lehman’s tribute, every other specific place he recollects remains a living part of campus and town life. It’s a testament to the fact that, as much as changes in so little time in a college town, so many of the great little things stay the same in the towns that earn legendary reputations.

Downtown State College is experiencing a once in a century (or more) “reset” of a lot of its built environment. Over the past century a general agglomeration of mostly local investors purchased downtown properties like old homes, low-slung storefronts, etc., and made little business empires of them. Now, as they die or their families re-assess their holdings, many are selling to national developers who are building what for a downtown like State College are much larger mega-developments of six or eight or twelve story mix-used structures. A great deal of local ownership is vanishing, and that’s a shame to the degree that it makes local businesspeople less accountable to local people, and to the extent that State College becomes aesthetically, architecturally, and culturally more derivative of other college towns due to the “cookie cutter” building mentality of taking what might have worked in College Station or Ann Arbor and plopping it on a piece of land, heedless of the harmony or complementarity of surrounding structures. What conservationists can do is add their voices to the choir singing for as much of the old, time-worn authentic characteristics of past places to be re-incarnated in the new skins of the new buildings to come as is possible.

All things considered, I’m cautiously optimistic that the Herlocher’s local purchase of the Foster Building will achieve some degree of good conservation, although it’s a tragedy for the distinctiveness of State College to lose the Skeller in the process.

I reflected a few years ago on what “nostalgia” really means by asking “Where nostalgia lives” in a practical sense:

When I walk down College Avenue and sit on that stone bench, I’m sitting in a place where my grandfather sat at one point nearly 70 years ago. I’m sitting in a place where my cousin sat nearly 20 years ago. And maybe my children or theirs will sit there at some point.

We’re so socially, economically, and physically mobile today that most of us don’t have fixed, solid places like this to root our experiences. Where is the family farm that’s been with us for generations? Where is the tree in the yard planted decades ago? Where is the room in the house where your great grandmother once softly sang as the leaves of that tree rustled in twilight?

We lack these things. We move. We die. And thousands of experiences and stories are fragmented as a result. It becomes difficult to remember what we’re doing here.

In the context of the reality of this daily life, college towns and the little places they contain like College Avenue’s stone bench tell us what we don’t have. We probably won’t recover most of the beautiful little experiences of yesterday’s America, but at least in our college towns we are often presented with some of the life we’ve lost and reminded we can have it again, even if just for a pleasant visit.

When I had lunch with Onward State’s David Abruzzese in May earlier this year, we sat in what might literally have been the same booth at the Skeller where my grandfather might have sat in 1946 when he arrived as a freshman, or in 1947 when he was struggling to memorize his Greek poetry, or in 1950 when he would have been celebrating commencement:

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Pop looms large in my childhood memories as a source of wisdom and gentle love, and though he’s been dead nearly 17 years now, losing a place like the Skeller rips away one of the last physical places in the world where I can go and spend some time with memory of him, where I feel particularly connected, as if time might evaporate and his younger self might walk through those cellar doors to sit down with me for a bit, one more time.

And it rips away a physical place where I might bring my own son or daughter one day, sharing a similar experience, and looking into the twinkling eyes of uncertain youth to share the reassuring words that the sands of time and veil of death that covers ancestors, friends, and communities seemingly long separated isn’t always so thick in every place—that in certain places the sands of time pass ever more slowly, giving us a chance to savor what might otherwise be a quotidian moment in the most delicious and heartening way with someone we love, and with whom we’ll share a small place in the vast universe to return together in spirit.

To lose the Skeller, for a town to lose that sort of place? It really hurts.

Little radio memory

I took this short little video in July 2012 in State College, when I was visiting I think over Arts Fest—a bit of The LION 90.7fm, Penn State’s student radio station. I came across it recently when going through some files, and it brought me back to that moment I filmed it, as rain spattered down a bit, cutting through thick summer air and slowing the world a bit.

It brought me to think a bit about what made The LION 90.7fm so attractive and compelling to me as a freshman at Penn State. It was the sound of a student-led, public broadcasting station that was able to speak freely, broadcast freely, and play whatever it felt was right. It was a station that didn’t want anything from its listener; indifferent in the good sense, of being removed from the concerns of the wider commercial market. It clearly empowered the human voice, and seemed to give it a confidence and force beyond what its generally youthful broadcasters had really earned, and consequently had a verve to it that made it a joy to listen to.

I remember tuning in occasionally even while in high school, feeling like I was getting to know bits and pieces of Penn State and State College months before I’d really be there in earnest. And now I return to it from time to time, to hear of a Penn State and town that seems slightly different from the one I remember, but that retains that essential element of compelling indifference.

College Avenue scenes

As Homecoming recedes in the mirror, Christmas and the wider holiday and holy season approaches. As I was walking along College Avenue this morning before leaving town, I noticed State College Borough crews hoisting the Christmas Tree at the Allen Street Gate. Christmas wreaths had already been placed earlier in the morning on the lamp posts lining College and Beaver Avenues. A somewhat less chilly, and certainly more festive-feeling, day after a frigid Homecoming experience. Autumn will soon give way to winter, but in the meantime I’ll enjoy both seasons and start thinking about ways this Christmas can be marked without allowing the hollow sentimentality or secular-type materialism to evaporate Advent’s essential mystery.