Penn State presidents’ success measured by ability to turn vision into reality

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- Although Eric Barron is getting ready to settle into his role as Penn State’s 18th president, the time will inevitably come when his accomplishments as chief executive will be compared with those of his predecessors. How should the success of any college or university president be measured?

At Penn State, at least, the most successful leaders have articulated an overarching vision for how the institution could become an even more effective force for creating and disseminating knowledge, and also have succeeded in transforming that vision into reality.

Take Edwin Erle Sparks, for example. A former history professor at the University of Chicago, he came to Penn State in 1908 declaring that “the cloister aspect of a college is a thing of the past.” Public higher education must serve the masses. So Sparks dedicated himself to “taking Penn State to the people,” as he liked to say.

Under his leadership, the then-Pennsylvania State College inaugurated statewide cooperative extension programs in agriculture and home economics, and at Williamsport and Allentown established the first of a series of far-flung technical institutes — pioneer workforce education programs that equipped industrial workers with the engineering and supervisory skills they need to advance in their careers.

To be sure, a few presidents have demonstrated no vision, or the wrong kind. Joseph Shortlidge, who was named president of the college in 1880, had spent his career in secondary education. He was out of his depth in higher education and spent barely 10 months at Penn State’s helm. Shortlidge “exhibited a lack of wisdom, poise, tact, and executive ability,” wrote Wayland Dunaway in his History of the Pennsylvania State College (1946), and “was a complete failure as president.” 

Then there have been presidents who manifested remarkable vision but failed to bring their grand ideas to fruition. John Martin Thomas, an ordained minister who had served as president of Vermont’s Middlebury College, is a good illustration.

Thomas, who began a four-year stint at Penn State in 1921, sought to transform a rural agricultural and mechanical college into a nationally known university in name and in fact. A university needed to offer a comprehensive program of advanced-degree and professional studies, Thomas reasoned, and he presided over the creation of the Graduate School in 1922. He lobbied hard among alumni and state lawmakers to rename the institution the Pennsylvania State University, but his plan was scuttled by traditionalists among alumni and by leaders of other public and private institutions who believed their own schools’ status would be diminished if Penn State became “the” state university.

Thomas also was the first president to appreciate the important role private support could play for Penn State, which was turning away thousands of qualified applicants each year because it had no room to accommodate them. He launched the Emergency Building Fund campaign, aiming to raise $2 million from alumni and friends for expansion of campus facilities. Under fire from critics who said a public institution should not be asking for private dollars, the campaign netted only $1.3 million (still enough to be combined later with state appropriations to help erect such landmark structures as Rec Hall, the new Old Main and Ritenour Building).

Thomas was far ahead of his time. Where he stumbled, Milton Eisenhower succeeded 30 years later. When Eisenhower became Penn State’s president in 1950, he saw immediately that the institution was doing university-level work, yet because it styled itself a college, it was not receiving the national recognition it deserved. He sensed the time was right for a change, and with little fanfare petitioned the Centre County Court of Common Pleas to approve a name change. The Pennsylvania State University became the legal title in 1953.

At Penn State, the most successful leaders have articulated an overarching vision for how the institution could become an even more effective force for creating and disseminating knowledge, and also have succeeded in transforming that vision into reality.

Penn State returned to philanthropy during the seven years (1983-90) of the presidency of Bryce Jordan, a musicologist and senior administrator in the University of Texas system. Jordan made private fundraising a top priority. Private support was essential to fulfilling his vision of propelling Penn State into the ranks of the nation’s top 10 public universities. “I emphasized our ambition over our need,” he said later. Under his watch, Penn State secured chairs and professorships, endowed programs, scholarships and other academic enhancements that distinguish a great university from an ordinary one.  

The Campaign for Penn State raised $350 million over six years, against an initial goal of $200 million. Other major capital campaigns followed under later administrations, including For the Future: The Campaign for Penn State Students, which recently celebrated surpassing its $2 billion goal as it heads toward its conclusion on June 30.

The president who arguably has possessed the broadest vision for what Penn State was and could be was Eric Walker, who began his career as an electrical engineer and who led the University from 1956 to 1970. Walker was an unabashed expansionist — growth drove practically every major initiative he undertook. Total enrollment at all levels grew from 13,000 to 40,000, research expenditures soared from $8 million to $36 million, and a seemingly endless list of construction projects at University Park campus pushed the value of the physical plant past a quarter-billion dollars. He scored an unprecedented coup in building a medical school literally from the ground up, as Penn State Milton S. Hershey Medical Center and College of Medicine was opened in 1967.

But it was the University’s geographic reach as an undergraduate institution that really blossomed. Walker maintained that Pennsylvania had failed to nurture a network of community colleges that made available the first two years of a baccalaureate education at low cost, close to home for many students. Thus was born Penn State’s system of Commonwealth Campuses (so-named during the Walker years). A few locations (some evolved from the old technical institutes) already offered lower-level degree work but by 1967, the University had 17 campuses statewide.

Walker successfully played the role of builder because the University was able to benefit from generous allotments of state revenues — perhaps the only time in its history that the institution had enjoyed such largesse. It was the Cold War, post-Sputnik era and bolstering higher education was seen as a way to make sure the U.S. remained competitive with its Soviet nemesis.

In the coming months, Eric Barron will outline a vision for Penn State. The context in which he will lead the University is much different from the Walker era and the Jordan era and all the other presidential eras. But the criteria by which his success will be measured are likely to remain unchanged.

Michael Bezilla is author of three books on Penn State history, including Penn State: An Illustrated History (Penn State Press, 1985).

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Last Updated May 13, 2014