Penn State

  • Capital Day

    Each spring for the past dozen or more years, Penn State administrators craft roughly the same narrative, which is:

    “The rising costs of academic instruction, combined with flat or decreasing state appropriations, will necessitate a 3-6 percent increase in tuition. If the Pennsylvania legislature would only commit to a significant increase in state appropriations, perhaps the rate of increase wouldn’t need to be as significant.”

    Administration typically works with student leadership to advance this argument, putting students in Harrisburg for Capital Day to sing for their supper. The problem with all of this is that it’s a fiction.


    Penn State’s tuition and fees more than cover the cost of educating her students. Look at the income figure from Tuition & Fees, and compare it to the combined expense figures of Instruction and Academic Support, Physical Plant, and Student Services:


    Penn State can more than cover the cost of educating her students without a dime from state appropriations. And note that I’m tipping the scales in the Penn State administration’s favor by treating the entirety of the physical plant expense as if it were exclusively academic and teaching purposed, when in fact much of it corresponds to administration, research, etc.

    If Tuition & Fees income outpaces the expense of the academic experience, then how is the $275M+ state appropriation spent?

    What does it do to an institution’s character when it consistently advances a fictional rationale for the nature of its income and expenses to the public?

    Penn State students should never be treated as a political means to an end. Penn State students should never be treated as activists in a PR strategy. It is the job of administrators to administer—their choices shape Penn State’s annual budget and the rate of increase in spending, and when Tuition & Fees continue to more than cover for the cost of a Penn State education, there is a fiduciary duty to advocate with candor about why Penn State is choosing to spend more on research and other expense areas and why those choices deserve support from Pennsylvania taxpayers.

    I’m hopeful that Penn State administration will eventually develop a new approach, and I’m hopeful that approach will consider the virtue of candor.

    What candor would look like:

    “We’re actively choosing to increase tuition. Yes, it more than covers the cost of the academic experience. Yes, it supports our other institutional interests, like research that shapes our shared future. As a land-grant institution, we aren’t here simply to treat our students as machines needing to be programmed or as consumers filling up a shopping cart. We’re here to cultivate a spirit of inquiry vast in its scope, with the concrete aim of a moral and ethical citizen capable of conserving the good in the world and leaving it better than he or she found it. This requires investment far beyond the scope of classroom instruction, and like any investment it requires sacrifice that we believe is worthwhile.”

    If there’s not serious interest in making an absolute decrease in tuition a reality, I would support a radically different approach to genuinely justify the its rate of increase.

  • In many ways my experience of student broadcasting at Penn State was a life-defining one. I’ve stayed involved with the Penn State Alumni Association’s Penn State Media Alumni Interest Group because I want to be able to enhance the experiences of the next generations of students.

    A part of what made my experience so meaningful was being able to run the station with a sense of the people and events that came before me. The lessons of the successes, challenges, and failures of the past half century helped root my experience. At the time we took historical memory that was largely oral and personal and enshrined it in the station’s physical plant at the central studio and at the office. We hoped that by encountering that history upon entering and leaving the station, it would become a firmer part of the station’s institutional DNA and contribute meaningfully to the student experience.

    We learned in 2013 that the student broadcasters at The LION 90.7fm would be moving into a new, comprehensive broadcasting space as part of the HUB-Robeson Center’s 2015 expansion. The grand opening of that new broadcasting space is happening today.

    One of the things we knew we could contribute from the Penn State Media Alumni Interest Group was the perpetuation of the history, albeit in a shorter and more traditional way. So we commissioned a small plaque and worked with the student leadership to have it placed in a place of prominence in the new space.

    I hope this plaque can function for many years to defeat some of the corrosive effects of transience and the attendant loss of perspective and memory that often alienates people from enjoying a meaningful sense of place.

  • THON

    It was late January 2007. I was a few months in to my time in student leadership at Penn State’s The LION 90.7fm radio station. We had just finished an exhausting audit process that I was responsible for as treasurer. I felt like we needed to lighten the atmosphere.

    “We broadcast 24/7. We cover Penn State football and a half dozen other sports. Our special event broadcasts are super popular. Why not stage a live broadcast of THON for 46 hours?”

    We got last minute permission from THON’s leadership to cover Penn State’s increasingly famous pediatric cancer research and family support fundraiser. I rounded up a half dozen friends and peers to cover various portions of the two day live broadcast. And we did it. It wasn’t the most remarkable broadcast, but it was the first time the station had covered THON, and we brought a lot of listeners from across the country into the experience in a personal and emotionally intimate way. In other words, we just tried to tell THON’s story.

    We continued our THON broadcasts for the next two years of my term there and they continued after that. THON 2015 is wrapping up this afternoon, and I’ve listened in for a few hours this weekend. It’s been great.

    Phil Schwarz was one of my friends who signed up right away to help broadcast in 2007. The next two years he and his co-hosts on the morning talk show raised something like $20,000 each year for THON and ended up becoming the radio station’s first THON dancers.

    I love THON and what it represents as a commitment to the suffering in Pennsylvania and to one another as a community. What we began on something of a lark in 2007 has also been a lesson for me in starting a tradition that it’s alright to start small, even without a plan. You usually have to. But if you keep it going, it might take on a life of its own.

    That’s THON’s story, too.

  • Visiting State College

    I’m headed to Central Pennsylvania today for a brief ~24 hour Penn State/Nittany Valley visit. First time back in town since the late November Michigan State visit, and I’ve got a few things on the agenda.

    First, getting together with Chris Buchignani to talk shop on Nittany Valley Press and other cultural conservation projects.

    Second, looking forward to lunch with John Hook of the Mount Nittany Conservancy. He’s been a great president for the nonprofit and spearheaded the annual Mount Nittany Marathon on Labor Day weekend. I plan to run that for the third time this year. I helped the Mount Nittany Conservancy launch their current WordPress-powered website two years ago, and it’s becoming a bit long in the tooth. Exploring a transition to NationBuilder.

    Third, planning to meet up with Tyler Ball who is the student president of The LION 90.7fm, Penn State’s student radio station. Back in December 2013 I met with University administration and student leaders at the time to talk shop on the planned move of the station’s physical plant as part of the HUB-Robeson Center’s expansion. It’s a great project that’s about to conclude in the next few weeks when the new consolidated studio, production space, and office will open and I’m eager to see the new space firsthand. I posted the blueprint for the new space above, which came out of that Dec. 2013 meeting.

    Fourth, I’ll be heading to Pattee/Paterno Libraries at some point to record and produce some audio for the audiobook version of Conserving Mount Nittany which I expect to be released in early summer.

    A few other things: before returning to New York on Saturday night: trying Uber in State College for the first time, visiting the Bryce Jordan Center to see THON in progress, connecting with Maralyn Mazza of South Hills Business School, touching base with Molly Kunkel at Centre Foundation, and potentially an early morning Mount Nittany hike.

    If you’re in State College this weekend and want to meet up or join me at any point for anything mentioned here, drop me a line.

  • Yesterday I wrote about a thought exercise that I find helpful for thinking about higher education using my alma mater as an example: “When you think and talk about Penn State, do you view it more as a corporation to be managed or an institution to be governed?”

    I wanted to highlight a practical example of the difference between the “managed corporation” and “governed institution” approaches. That example is student access. Specifically, cost.

    Why have the leaders in higher education intentionally tripled or quadrupled the cost of learning in the past quarter century? Why are we comfortable with $1 trillion dollar student loan debt? Because we’ve been enculturated to the “managed corporation” approach, which blithely quiets the concerns about access and debt by pointing to demand.

    As a society, we value access to food basics like milk. There’s high demand. And we’ve implemented both subsidies and price controls to encourage access.

    I’m not sure anyone can make a credible argument that the quality of a college education has generally increased with tripling tuition, let alone that it has increased proportionately. Yet when we accept the demand-rationale that limits access and increases debt, we implicitly embrace the “managed corporation” approach rather than the “governed institution” approach.

    What’s implicit in the “governed institution” approach, by contrast, is the idea that the “governors” (administration, faculty, and trustees) are responsible for something more than corporate health understood primarily through balance sheets. What’s implicit is the idea that they’re responsible for their corporation’s social mission, which is as much about practical tools necessary for learning (books, buildings, labs, etc.) as the intangible aspects of learning like personal encounter, cross- generational relationships, and centrality of physical place as the context for received knowledge in the first place.

    A governed institution approach means that leadership won’t always decide an issue based on financial opportunity, but rather on social opportunity. They’re often different, though they are often conflated as one and the same, because financial costs can be papered over in the short term.

    I’m concerned, for instance, that we’re reaching the point where donors who support scholarships, for instance, effectively underwrite the corporate spending of university leadership. When a donor supports student access through a scholarship, what related controls are there to lessen increases in tuition? If there are none, then the incentive for university leadership is to grow costs while relying on scholarship subsidies to alleviate their impact. So the utility of scholarships as a way to improve student access to education is probably decreasing, which is a shame.

    There’s another thought exercise relevant to this that my State College friend has developed, which is to think about colleges and universities as places that embrace the “application of market forces where they don’t belong, and the absence of them where they do.”

    This is evident in the way we’ve come to think about both access to and impact of higher education. Application of market forces where they don’t belong? “We can’t continue to underwrite the cost of sophisticated humanities programs given their lack of clear return on investment.” Absence of market forces where they do belong? “Student tuition more than covers the actual cost of the faculty and the education of the student, but without its continued growth we can’t subsidize our research aspirations.” The common theme in both instances? Little consideration of the impact on the level of the student as a human person. This is the “managed corporation” approach to higher education in a nutshell.

    While corporate management should involve principled leadership, responsible institutional governance demands it. To promote the “governed institution” approach to higher education, a continuing Socratic type inquiry into the instantiation of the institution’s social mission is a necessity.

  • This is an important article on the transformation of George Washington from commuter school in the 1980s to its present status as one of the most expensive residential research universities. A similar strategy is being followed in Philadelphia by both Drexel and Temple, with each rapidly developing their campus and positioning themselves as residential alternatives to Penn.

    This article also brought to mind a thought exercise a friend of mine in State College has: “When you think and talk about Penn State, do you view it more as a corporation to be managed or an institution to be governed?”

    It’s a useful mental exercise. Where you come down on the question will guide your prescriptions.

    At most colleges and universities the “corporation to be managed” mentality seems to rule to day. The “business” of learning is secondary to what’s in the best interest of the corporate brand and its maintenance. Then there are a lot of colleges and universities where a hybrid approach exists. Yale is an example of this, where “Yale, Inc.” largely exists to steward the corporate functions as a means to allow the academic leadership the resources and space to function. Small liberal arts colleges are examples where the “institutions to be governed” approach dominates.

    I think it’s ideal to refine corporate management to the extent possible. But what’s often left out of that picture is that the corporation exists for the sake of its educational mission. If I were a trustee or regent, my mantra would be something like: a responsibility governed institution that respects the value of the humanities, the application of practical scientific knowledge, and the intangibles of personal relationships and intellectual inquiry.

    I think that model delivers the best personal and social value.

  • Personifying Alma Mater

    I was reading up on the phrase Alma Mater recently. Alma Mater above welcomes students at the University of Havana, which I pulled from Wikipedia.

    It was fascinating to discover that personifications of Alma Mater that have been built everywhere from Havana to the University of Illinois, Columbia, and Yale.

    It would be great to see Penn State erect her own personified Alma Mater at some point in the years to come. It would make a great Senior Class Gift as a lasting symbol of the university as the “mother” and source of learning. And frankly it would liven up a campus largely devoid of any monumental-style statuary. Those by their nature tend to be distinctive landmarks. I also have this dream of another series of statues for Penn State that I’ll write more about at some point.

    The statue of Alma Mater at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign bears the following inscription on its pedestal:

    Alma Mater
    To Thy Happy Children
    Of The Future
    Those Of The Past
    Send Greetings

    What a good encapsulation of everything a place of learning exists to achieve—bringing the reality and wisdom of the past alive in the present, so it can do the same for the future.

  • A platform for storytelling

    In late November I visited State College for Penn State’s final game of the season at Beaver Stadium against Michigan State. I wasn’t expecting a victory, and we didn’t get one. But it was the first time seeing Penn State play in-person for my brothers, and so it was a great experience nonetheless.

    While in town for the weekend I also met up with Dave Cole and Tyler Ball. Dave is a Penn Stater living in Pittsburgh and works for Comcast and Pittsburgh magazine. Tyler is a junior and also president/general manager of The LION 90.7fm, the campus radio station. We met up because I had commissioned Dave to film a short documentary style film on Penn State student broadcasting and its continuing impact. I snapped the photo above of student Dan Balton during filming.

    This year marks the 20th anniversary of The LION 90.7fm. It’s also significant because the station’s studio is moving from its current place in the HUB-Robeson Center to a newly expanded part of the student union building. I expect to be able to share the short film at some point in the spring. It’ll be a solid introduction for new students to the history and tradition of independent student broadcasting at Penn State, while also highlighting the potential of the medium heading into a new era.

    I’ve stayed engaged with student broadcasting through the Penn State Alumni Association and the Penn State Media Alumni Interest Group. The Penn State Media Alumni Interest Group itself exists specifically for the purpose of student mentorship, support for student media leaders, and alumni engagement. So I keep an eye on what the students are up to, and think about student broadcasting as it fits into the larger media landscape that we live in. When we can (which isn’t yet as often as we’d like) we support the students strategically, operationally, or financially.

    2015-01-06 LION 90.7fm tweet.png

    On the topic of strategic support, this tweet caught my eye earlier this month. I agree with the students that the launch of their first iOS app for student broadcasting is a big deal. It’s a pretty rudimentary app right now, but it’s a great first step.

    The key will be whether they can draft and execute a plan for its continuing development. Specifically, developing the app with an eye toward it becoming a valuable platform for Penn Staters and community members to engage in the stories of the area. What might that look like?

    • Enabling user account creation for tracking registered MAUs and analytics to separate compelling programming from stuff that should be cut or the stuff that just hasn’t yet found its ideal timeslot.
    • Functionality for push notifications for special broadcast events that can engage students and/or alumni. “Penn State Nittany Lions kickoff in one hour. Listen now for live Beaver Stadium pregame coverage.”
    • A membership program tied to registered accounts to covert something like 10% of the most engaged listeners to monthly recurring donors. Eventually push them to sustain their favorite programming.
    • Enabling users to submit their own recorded audio and video from around campus for featuring as part of the broadcast. SoundCloud is probably the most obvious and low-cost way to make this happen.
    • Creating audio channels separate from the live broadcast stream to let content partners produce what would functionally be podcasts, but promoted through the campus radio station’s brand and to its total audience.

    The theme is positioning campus radio as a platform for storytelling throughout the community, and as much as possible using the technology to encourage UGC and finding new ways to create earned income.

    I think student broadcasting as a medium is uniquely positioned to serve as the platform for storytelling, and their iOS app can serve as the primary means to build that platform. Bu it’s critical to own the platform that serves the community, and not simply exist as part of a larger a la cart approach to a student, alumnus, or resident’s information diet. Own the platform.

  • Restoration

    The NCAA has voided its historic sanctions on Penn State. This outcome was the result of a lawsuit from Pennsylvania State Sen. Jake Corman and Treasurer Rob McCord that evolved in its scope.


    Corman and McCord’s legal challenge ultimately called into question the entire basis and merit for the NCAA’s sanctions. Badly embarrassed during discovery (“I characterized our approach to PSU as a bluff…”), the NCAA’s voiding of its sanctions is a reminder that setting aside ethics for the sake of waging a public relations campaign untethered from an interest in the truth is simple bad governance. Meanwhile the entire Penn State/Joe Paterno/Jerry Sandusky/NCAA scandal is really a conglomeration of dozens of smaller scandals. Any failure as systemic as the Sandusky crimes is by its nature complex. I’m not going to get into all of that, but I do want to say a few things about this latest news and some of its implications.

    First, it’s critical to understand that the NCAA has voided its entire sanctions package. This isn’t merely a restoration of Joe Paterno’s victories. It’s a comprehensive acknowledgement that the NCAA’s sanctions package was fundamentally without basis.

    In parallel, it’s critical to understand that the Freeh Report is no longer credible. The basis for the mainstream criticism of the university’s handling of the scandal, it was so weak the NCAA could only rely on its as a bluffing instrument. Dick Thornburgh, ex-U.S. Attorney General, calls its presentment-style conclusions “raw speculation and unsupported opinion—not facts and evidence.” Without the Freeh Report as basis for the notion of an institutional cover up, or the NCAA sanctions premised on that conclusion, the popular narrative around Penn State’s role in the larger scandal will require reevaluation. This is what everyone from Bob Costas to Malcolm Gladwell has said for some time, but the NCAA’s latest decision concretizes this.

    Second, the criminal trials of the three remaining administrators accused of attempting to bury knowledge of Jerry Sandusky’s crimes for the sake of Penn State’s overall or athletic reputation have yet to occur. Those trials start this year, and if the administrators are found not guilty, consequently any lingering pretense of Penn State institutional cover up vanishes. Paterno of course is dead, but his long term reputation and legacy as much as any of the living three administrators hinges on the fate of this impending criminal trial.

    Third, this restoration is ultimately a recognition that Penn State’s “Success with Honor” approach was in fact worthwhile. Those with flawed understanding of the facts are likely to be very confused about the NCAA’s decision, unfortunately. It’s not clear that there’s any easy way to correct the meta-narrative for the sake of Penn State’s current student athletes let alone those who played for Joe Paterno over nearly half a century.

    The NCAA’s decision to void its sanctions will become as much a story about Joe Paterno as anything else. It’s true that “409” became a rallying cry for both Joe Paterno’s Grand Experiment in academics and “Success with Honor” mantra in athletics. But it also came to stand as a signal rejection of the Freeh Report and NCAA implications about the character of the Penn State community.

    Sen. Corman and Rob McCord’s role in this chapter of the story is a fascinating case study in achieving a consequential and unexpected victory. This development isn’t the result of Penn State leadership seeking to fight for its reputation. It’s the result of a lawsuit against both the NCAA and an unwilling university to challenge the basis of the most controversial sanctions in the history of collegiate athletics.

    This is a lesson in the sometimes worth of standing in the difficult place of outsider for an institution unable to acknowledge its own best interests, challenging something few think impossible to change, and then winning.