Spanier gives Harrisburg speech on benefits of research universities

October 24, 2011

Penn State President Graham Spanier was a guest speaker today (Oct. 24) at the Pennsylvania Press Club in Harrisburg, where he talked to a large crowd about the benefits of a large, complex research university -- such as Penn State -- to innovation, job growth, the economy and well-being of the Commonwealth and its citizens. The talk will be broadcast on PCN at 8 p.m. tonight. For a listing of channels on various cable systems, visit online. What follows is the text of Spanier's speech to the group. 

Thank you for that generous introduction. I am grateful to be here and to have the opportunity to speak to you about higher education and Penn State. This is a topic that is important to me, not only as Penn State’s president, but also as a citizen of Pennsylvania. I’d like to cover some of the highlights from my annual State of the University message, which I recently delivered to the Penn State community.

This past year has been an eventful one in higher education.The global recession and state budget deficits have created unprecedented financial stress on public colleges and universities across the nation. In Pennsylvania, the budget cuts have caused many to reexamine Penn State's relationship with the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and the future of our historical mission to serve the citizens of the state.

Yet I can tell you that even during our most challenging times I have never heard a single faculty member or administrator question the wisdom of Penn State's heritage or our desire to reach out to the people of the Commonwealth through educational programs, research, extension or public service. I never heard anyone on our staff suggest that we needed to reduce enrollments or curtail admissions. Thank goodness, since we received 122,000 applications last year and remain the most popular university in America. Interest in our University and support for what Penn State is and has been is stronger than ever among our employees, our students and our alumni. Statewide surveys show that Penn State is the most recognized university in Pennsylvania, and there is phenomenal support for what we do for Pennsylvanians.

There are more than 4,000 colleges and universities in this nation -- public, private non-profit, private for-profit, two-year and four-year. They serve 18 million students who hail from around the globe, every socio-economic group, race, religion, political persuasion and family circumstance. Students everywhere pursue degrees with the desire for financial security, social mobility, intellectual challenge and the desire to serve their community.

But no university replicates Penn State in governance or structure, only a small number resemble us in size and scope, and I dare say that few have achieved the same measure of success in creating a student-centered university within the context of a major research university.

Moreover, few institutions of higher education have grown, adapted and changed as profoundly as Penn State.Yet the fundamental priorities of the University have remained true to our historical values despite the fact that today only little more than 6 percent of our total revenues now come from legislative appropriation, and we operate much like a private university, albeit with a sense of public responsibility that courses through our veins.The challenge will be to continue to thrive in an environment where higher education is increasingly seen as a private rather than a public good.

But it is not my intent to dwell on this circumstance. As John F. Kennedy wisely said, "Our task is not to fix the blame for the past, but to fix the course for the future."
It is my responsibility to prepare for and promote a future that allows -- indeed demands -- that Penn State advances regardless of the environmental context. We are and will continue to be one of the great institutions of higher education in this nation, and we will succeed in continuing to advance academic excellence through research, scholarship and creative activity.

We must dispel the simplistic notion that all colleges and universities should be evaluated and funded solely in relation to their mission of undergraduate education. That may be true for the vast majority of institutions of higher learning in our country. But it would be folly to undermine the preeminence of our nation's research universities, schools like Penn State, by evaluating these institutions exclusively in relation to their undergraduate teaching missions. Such thinking would undoubtedly contribute to a decline in America's competitiveness.

One of my favorite memories of our former board chair and benefactor Bill Schreyer is this quote from when he was CEO of Merrill Lynch: "The pessimists are correct at any given point in history, but never over the long term."

So, looking ahead, which I prefer to do, I wish to share some of the ways Penn State's teaching, research and service are shaping the future. There is one caveat, however. As the Danish physicist and Nobel Prize winner Niels Bohr said, "Prediction is very difficult, especially about the future."

By way of example, just consider these predictions:
-- In 1872, a professor of physiology said, "Louis Pasteur's theory of germs is ridiculous fiction."
-- In 1899, the commissioner of the U.S. Office of Patents said, “Everything that can be invented has been invented."
-- In 1949, Popular Mechanics forecast that "Computers in the future may weigh no more than 1.5 tons."
-- In 1962, a Decca Recording Company executive rejected the Beatles with this, "We don’t like their sound, and guitar music is on the way out."
-- Finally, in 1981 Bill Gates said, “640K ought to be enough for anybody."

It just goes to show how tough it can be to look into the future. But that is the job of educators, so allow me to "predict" the future as envisioned by Penn State scientists, artists, researchers and students.

Imagine a world where your car gets 100 miles per gallon, insects are used to detect explosives, geologists can pinpoint where and when an earthquake will occur, a microbial fuel cell makes clean water available to the 900 million people who lack it, bone density is increased to reduce the risk of the elderly breaking a bone, a topical cream prevents the early stages of melanoma, better plant root systems turn arid deserts into farms, and self-directed micromachines can swim through a person's blood vessels to heal damaged areas and deliver drugs.

As you imagine this world, know that you can find Penn State researchers who are right now working on all of these concepts, and hundreds of others that will transform our future.

Penn State's research expenditures topped $804 million last year, which places us among the most elite universities in the nation. Penn State's Eberly College of Science is ranked seventh in the nation according to the National Research Council. In defense-related research, we rank second in the nation. In materials science and engineering, we are also ranked near the top. The Department of Energy ranks Penn State in the top 10 nationally in energy research. Especially important is the fact that those rankings and statistics are more than a feather in the cap of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. They have the potential to transform lives, create knowledge and serve as the economic engine for our state. Allow me to offer a few examples.

-- Among Penn State's greatest research accomplishments this past year was winning the national competition for the Department of Energy HUB in energy-efficient buildings. Penn State bested teams from California, New York, Massachusetts and Texas. The HUB is bringing $125 million in federal research and development dollars to the state. Located in the Philadelphia Navy Yard, Penn State will lead a team of more than 22 organizations in this initiative. The goal is to reduce the U.S. annual energy budget for buildings by 50 percent by the year 2020 and to establish a new industry for retrofitting older commercial buildings.

-- Just down the road is one of the elite medical enterprises in the nation. The Penn State Hershey Medical Center and Penn State College of Medicine won a highly coveted National Institutes of Health Clinical Translational Science Award. This was a true interdisciplinary proposal that promises to help shorten the time it takes to turn a medical discovery into a lifesaving treatment. It was the top proposal in the nation this year, bringing in $27.3 million. 

-- Some research projects explore dangerous territory. Underneath that unassuming façade of our faculty, you’ll find people like mild-mannered John Horgan, director of the International Center for the Study of Terrorism. John is like a real life Indiana Jones. One day he's teaching a class of undergraduate students in a University Park lecture hall; the next he's out in the field -- or desert -- or other undisclosed location. He studies the minds of terrorists and to do so, he has to occasionally spend some time with them. Recently John was with a group of Al Qaeda operatives in their desert tent, where they were all playing ping pong. Overhead he heard the buzz of approaching planes, and he wondered if they were unmanned drones about to "take out" their location. But his more immediate concern was the consequence if he beat his opponent at the ping pong table. Needless to say, John has a losing streak in ping pong, but an acclaimed record of accomplishment in his research into what leads to the recruitment and retention of terrorists.

-- Of course, not all research is designed to lead to policies, patents and products. Much of our work is designed to improve the human condition through the social sciences, humanities and the fine and performing arts. In recent years the spotlight has been on Penn Staters. Our alumni have been in more than 30 Broadway shows in the last five years; 1997 alumnus Ty Burrell won an Emmy for Best Supporting Actor in the Comedy Series "Modern Family"; and 1969 alumnus Don Roy King won an Emmy as director of Saturday Night Live. Don graduated from Penn State's College of Communications, along with many of the journalists who are here today. 

Beyond the direct benefits of the research under way on college and university campuses, it has a broader benefit as well: innovation leads to jobs.

Every $1 million in research and development spending generates 36 jobs. You don't have to be a math major to see the impact of Penn State's $804 million research enterprise. What's more, research and innovation lead to entrepreneurship, which leads to jobs. A recent study indicates that since 2005, startups were the greatest contributor to job creation, and to job growth overall.

In Pennsylvania, you'll find the lowest unemployment rates in the areas of the highest concentration of research activity: State College at 6.6 percent; Harrisburg at 7.8 percent; and Pittsburgh at 7.8 percent. Those numbers are significantly lower than the U.S. rate of 9.1 percent.

In addition, Penn State's willingness to partner on research projects goes a long way to helping our graduates get hired … even in this tough economic environment.
We're very proud of the fact that The Wall Street Journal reported in its national survey of recruiters that Penn State was the top institution in the nation for producing the best prepared, most well-rounded graduates able to succeed once hired. That, more than anything, may be the most immediate impact of our research enterprise. Penn State is a wise investment that has the potential to transform our economic landscape.

Although I have barely scratched the surface of the research we do in engineering, the arts, medicine, defense, psychology, education, agricultural sciences and human development, I hope I have been able to communicate the successes of Penn State students and faculty.

The colorful American statesman William Jennings Byran said, "Destiny is not a matter of chance, it is a matter of choice; not a thing to be waited for; but a thing to be achieved."

Let me conclude by stating my belief that higher education is not an ivory tower, but an enterprise that both influences and is influenced by society. I want to emphasize that our mission is as important today as it has ever been, and the opportunities to make a difference have never been greater.

(Media Contacts)

Last Updated October 27, 2011