Board of Trustees meets; President Erickson's remarks

President Rodney Erickson's Remarks to the Board of Trustees
10:15 a.m., Jan. 20, 2012
Nittany Lion Inn

Good morning and welcome.

Before we move to the business of the day, I wish to note the passing of John D. Vairo, who played such a critical role in the founding of the Penn State Delaware County campus. Mr. Vairo navigated a series of political and logistical challenges to oversee the opening of the campus in 1967. He served as the campus director until he retired in 1986. The Delaware County campus has since been renamed Penn State Brandywine, but Mr. Vairo's legacy lives on through the John D. Vairo Library, an endowment fund, a scholarship for undergraduate students, a staff service award, and a State College boulevard in his name.

I'm also pleased to announce that Penn State Schuylkill has a new chancellor -- Kelly Austin. Dr. Austin previously served as vice president of finance and administration at the University of Pittsburgh in Johnstown, where he handled issues related to student retention, the campus operating budget, and the capital budget, among other duties. He has a background that is rich in experience in student affairs, community relations and strategic planning. I hope you'll have the opportunity to personally welcome Dr. Austin soon.

Finally I want to acknowledge the appointment of Bill O'Brien, our new head football coach. As you know, Coach O'Brien is doing double duty bringing together his Penn State football staff and recruiting class, while coaching the New England Patriots as they make a run for the SuperBowl. I hope you'll have the chance to meet Coach O'Brien at a Board of Trustees meeting later this year.

Now to begin, I wish to thank the many members of the Penn State community who have conveyed their support over these last two months, or as someone reminded me – the "honeymoon period" of my presidency.

Today, I wish to review some of the initiatives and changes we've put into place in response to the tragedy that has so deeply affected the Penn State community and a legion of others around the nation and beyond. I also want to look to the future with confidence and a renewed vision for the coming year.

This has been an extraordinarily trying time for our University, and it has changed us in countless ways. Difficult as it has been, the Penn State community has held on to its historic principles, and I owe my gratitude to the Penn State students, faculty, staff, alumni, and friends who have stood with us and continued to do the daily work that is critical in an institution such as this. I thank the members of the Board of Trustees for putting your confidence in me. And I especially thank my wife, Shari, for her patience and perspective.

This board meeting marks a new year and a new semester for Penn State. We are poised between our responsibilities for our past actions and our need to move forward as an institution. Yet, as we reflect on the past and plan for the future, our duties require focusing on the present -- the day-to-day activities that are so vital to the well-being of Penn State's 96,000 students, 44,000 full and part-time faculty and staff, more than half-a-million living alumni, and the people of Pennsylvania, the nation and the world.

As I told the hundreds of alumni I spoke with last week in Pittsburgh, Philadelphia and New York City, I accepted this presidency with the intention that I would lead Penn State with a commitment to openness and communication. Openness and communication have served me well in my 39 years of higher education, and frankly, that's the only way I know how to operate.

I also believe openness and communication are the best way to move Penn State forward. There's a perception that Penn State hasn't always been as forthcoming as we might be, and I'm actively working to reach out to our constituencies, to listen, to be more accountable, and to candidly respond to questions to the extent that I have the answers, recognizing that there are many questions which remain as yet unanswered.

Let me address the current situation for a moment. At a press conference on Nov. 11, I issued Five Promises to the Penn State community.

I promised that we will be respectful and sensitive to the victims and their families and that we would seek appropriate ways to foster healing and raise broader awareness of the issue of sexual abuse.

To that end, the partnership for education and outreach between the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape and Penn State is moving forward with $1.5 million in funding committed from Penn State's share of this year's Big Ten bowl game revenues.

We've launched, with additional bowl revenues, the Center for the Protection of Children at the Penn State Hershey Children's Hospital. This center will be dedicated to the prevention, detection and treatment of child abuse and the training of additional physicians in this critically important field.

I've also charged a taskforce to deliver to me by June 30 a proposal for a faculty-led, University-wide institute for the study and treatment of child abuse that will bring together the many and varied resources of the University so that Penn State may contribute in great ways to this national and global problem of child abuse.

We now have in place a Sexual Assault and Relationship Violence Hotline that operates 24/7 so abuse or suspected abuse can be reported anonymously and will be referred to the appropriate response organization.

In addition, our alumni and students have raised more than $528,000 in support of RAINN, the country's largest anti-sexual violence organization.

I promised that my administration would provide whatever resources, access, and information are needed to support the Special Investigations Task Force and the work of the independent counsel Judge Louis Freeh, as well as the Attorney General's ongoing investigation, and all other investigations. We continue to provide such information and access.

I promised that I would provide meaningful and timely updates, and encourage dialogue with students, faculty, staff, alumni and other members of the Penn State community. Over the past nine weeks, I have met with hundreds of representatives of each of these groups and listened to their comments, their concerns, and their ideas for moving forward while respecting the responsibilities of the past. This has been a necessary part of the healing process.

I promised that I would reinforce to the entire Penn State community the moral imperative of doing the right thing. In response, we're revisiting a wide array of policies and programs to ensure that we go above and beyond the legal requirements. We're widely disseminating information about sexual abuse and the reporting of assaults and harassment so that our faculty, staff, and students understand the legal and moral imperatives and how to act in response.

I've had several wide-ranging discussions about the position of an ethics officer who will serve as a member of President's Council and will have direct access to the Board of Trustees. I will be launching a national search to fill this position in the near future.

We also have increased awareness of the University's existing Ethics and Compliance Hotline so individuals can anonymously report suspected instances of behavior that do not meet the highest standards for ethical responsibility in the performance of our employees' duties.

Finally, I promised that I would ensure proper governance and oversight exists across the entire University, including Intercollegiate Athletics. We're reviewing numerous areas of the University to ensure that units are following all applicable University policies and have the most appropriate reporting lines given the nature of their responsibilities.

As we address this tragedy, we cannot forget that Penn State is and has historically been one of America's great universities. More than a half century ago, Penn State was given membership in the Association of American Universities, the organization representing the most elite public and private universities in the nation. We cannot allow this university and its long and historic legacy as a leader in higher education to be defined by this tragedy.

Although this may seem like a challenging time to be at Penn State, it's really an extraordinary time -- one that provides the opportunity to reflect on the values we hold dear and to reaffirm our long and storied legacy.

Our institution was founded out of necessity and a sense of purpose. The first president, Evan Pugh, was the son of a farmer-blacksmith, who left his rural roots to pursue scientific knowledge and advanced education. He combined a sense of American practicality and industry with a bold vision for using science to improve Pennsylvania's agricultural industry. When he arrived in Central Pennsylvania to lead our fledgling institution, he welcomed students and faculty from humble backgrounds, who were unified in their belief in self-determination, resilience, hard work and the ideal that education can change the world.

Penn State has always stood for opportunity, and we're defined by our core mission and activities that include:
-- our commitment to exceptional teaching and learning;
-- an $800 million research enterprise that addresses complex and pressing issues such as food production, energy, health and well-being, national security and economic development;
-- leadership and contributions in the arts and humanities;
-- a full range of extracurricular activities including 29 intercollegiate athletics teams, hundreds of student-run clubs and service activities, including THON, which has raised more than $78 million for The Four Diamonds Fund at the Penn State Hershey Children's Hospital;
-- and service and outreach that has improved countless lives in Pennsylvania and around the globe.

These things define Penn State and who we are, and you have given me the great responsibility to ensure that this is our path forward.

Key indicators suggest that our institution remains on solid footing. As of last Monday, we've received nearly 61,000 undergraduate applications, a 3 percent increase over last year's record rate. Graduate applications are up 4 percent over last year. Paid deposits for undergraduate study at University Park this coming summer/fall are up slightly over last year at this time; paid accepts at the Commonwealth Campuses are down slightly, but we're still relatively early in the admissions cycle.

I'm also pleased to report that information from Penn State's Career Services unit indicates that interest in our future Penn State graduates remains strong.

Recent meetings with 31 employers who have previously recruited at Penn State were held in Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., and New York City, and all reaffirmed their strong interest in Penn State graduates. To date, nearly 300 employers have registered to participate in our Spring Career Days, representing a 12 percent increase over last spring. In addition, the People-to-People Career Fair focusing on service, wellness and recreation opportunities planned for late February has twice as many registered employers as last year. I believe that organizations who last year ranked Penn State as the top university from which to recruit graduates realize that nothing has changed the qualities of our soon-to-be graduates.

Penn State's research enterprise also continues to show robust growth. Research expenditures are up nearly 4 percent to date over last year, and research awards are up more than 17 percent. Notably, research awards are up significantly in Agricultural Sciences, Health and Human Development and the Applied Research Lab. In addition, Penn State's funding from the Department of Energy went up by nearly 61 percent.

It's a bit too early to assess the impact of events in November on private philanthropy. Fundraising programs, by their nature, often show large variations year-to-year due to a variety of factors, including large one-time gifts, like the $88 million commitment we received in 2010 that isn't typically repeated the next year. A better barometer of alumni and friend giving is the broad support to the Annual Fund. To date, the number of donors making gifts to the Annual Fund, contributions less than $10,000 in size, is essentially at the same level as last year, and the sum of contributions to the Annual Fund is up more than 10 percent compared to last year. It's also noteworthy that membership in the Penn State Alumni Association shows a 2 percent increase over last year.

All this said, however, I would be a foolish optimist to suggest that the year ahead will be without its challenges, financial and otherwise.

Two weeks ago, the University was notified that, due to lagging revenue collections for the Commonwealth, a freeze on state spending was instituted, and 5 percent of Penn State's appropriation -- along with those of Pennsylvania's other state-related universities -- was being held in reserve if the state's budget situation doesn't improve over the course of the next five-and-a-half months. This amounts to an $11.4 million reduction in funding for General Fund Support including Penn College. We're grateful that our agricultural lines for research and Cooperative Extension will not be reduced further.

We're also about to enter what appears to be a very difficult budget cycle for the Commonwealth. These financial matters directly influence in-state student access and affordability, research in the agricultural sciences, our ability to offer extension education, and outreach services such as public broadcasting.

In addition, our nation is still experiencing sluggish economic growth, and the resulting job insecurities and financial strains felt by families have a direct impact on our students and their ability to afford a Penn State education.

I believe the great challenge before all of us in the higher education sector is to define a path forward that will allow us to improve learning outcomes for our students while finding ways to deliver that education at a rate of cost increase that is less than we have experienced over the past two decades. In short, we must challenge ourselves to become more effective at what we do while simultaneously being more efficient at what we do. This must be everyone's goal: faculty, staff, students, and administrators, working together.

We must not retreat from our mission that has endured for more than 155 years. We need to use what we have learned to build a stronger institution and to restore the trust and confidence that so many people have had in Penn State for so many years.

In that spirit, I wish to outline my objectives for the next year:

1. We must always be mindful of the need for institutional humility, integrity and resolve. Penn State history has provided many reasons for pride and praise, but also
the need for reflection and introspection.
Let us seek balance in our words and deeds.

2. We need to focus on academics, which is our core business, while retaining the important role that extracurricular activities has in educating the "whole person," and building Penn State spirit and pride.

3. We must remain committed to fostering economic development in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and educating its citizenry for a global economy. We will pursue partnerships with private and public entities that are mutually beneficial. I also believe in cultivating global relationships that are a good fit with our existing areas of expertise.

4. Salaries for Penn State faculty and staff haven't kept up with the cost of living in recent years, and we're losing ground to competing institutions. Attracting and retaining outstanding teachers, researchers and staff members is of paramount importance. We must find ways to remain competitive with our peers and focus on excellence even in very tight economic times.

5. Penn State will become a national leader in the research, prevention and treatment of child abuse. This issue has been inextricably linked to Penn State, and we must meet that obligation.

6. We need to restore unity through continuing discussions, and that includes respectful disagreement. This is a university—one that fosters a diversity of opinions. We need to build on that foundation and embrace the sense of community that binds us together as Penn Staters.

7. We need safeguards against the tendency to return to complacency and business as usual. We need to learn from our past and ensure that proper administration, governance, transparency and oversight exist across the entire university.

8. We need to find new expressions of gratitude for the good in our community. We need to learn and laugh together to restore our spirits.

My vision for Penn State is the same today as it was when you, the board, approved our current strategic plan. That is:

Penn State will be a global university, committed to excellence, with a passion for creating knowledge and educating students to be leaders for a better tomorrow.

And I would add that we want to accomplish this vision in a sustainable manner.

Our goals have not changed. We seek to enhance student success; advance academic excellence and research prominence; realize our potential as a global university; maintain access and enhance diversity; serve the people of the Commonwealth and beyond; use technology to expand opportunities; and control costs and generate efficiencies.

Now we must rededicate ourselves -- in the midst of our continuing challenges -- to stay on track, to proceed with our various strategies, implement fully the recommendations of the Core Council review process, and do our very best to achieve our goals for the current fundraising campaign. It is, after all, For the Future: The Campaign for Penn State Students.

As Penn State's 17th president, I can declare that this is our mandate for the future, but I cannot realize these goals alone. That will require the energy, commitment, and support of everyone in the Penn State community, and it's incumbent upon us to succeed. The world is watching us, and we need to demonstrate that the trust and support of our friends and alumni are not misplaced.

Penn State has a great deal to contribute. Much is already in place, and this can be our time to make it so, even in the midst of tragedy.

We need to move forward. I ask everyone to join me in restoring Penn State's spirit and renewing our promise to the world.

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Last Updated July 13, 2012