Full text of President's Sept. 9 State of the University Address

September 09, 2011

Below, the full text of Penn State President Graham Spanier’s State of the University Address, delivered Sept. 9, 2011, before the University’s Board of Trustees.

There is an unprecedented level of cynicism in our country today about leadership at all levels -- the Congress, the president, state government officials and even university administrators. It reminds me of the old story about the son who comes down for breakfast and says to his mother, “I'm not going to school today.” The mother asks why, and the son says, “I’ll give you two reasons: because the teachers don’t like me and the students make fun of me.” The mother says, “Son, you are going to school today, and I’ll give you two reasons: first, you are 60 years old, and second, you are the president of the university.”

It always has been my belief that people desire good leadership, and in fact will support it and follow it. It is in this spirit that it has been my custom each September to comment on the state of the University, through an address or video.

I’ve spent 25 years at Penn State during my two tours of duty and care deeply about the University and its people. The well-being of this state also is important to me, not only as president of Penn State, but also as a citizen of Pennsylvania, and I’d like to reflect on our University and the larger context in which we operate.

This past year has been an eventful one that caused many to reexamine Penn State’s relationship with the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and the future of our historical land-grant mission to serve the citizens of the state. Yet even during our most challenging times I have never heard a single trustee, faculty member or administrator question the wisdom of our heritage or our desire to reach out to the people of the Commonwealth through educational programs, research, extension or public service. I have never heard anyone on our staff suggest that we needed to reduce enrollments or curtail admissions. Thank goodness, since we received more than 121,000 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.

However, as budget pressures increase and traditional sources of funding diminish, we must take some steps to ensure that our land-grant mission doesn’t crack like the Land-Grant Frescos in Old Main, which, I assure you, will be restored!

You might recall the story about the genie that appears at a Board of Trustees meeting and tells the president that in return for his exemplary leadership, the genie will reward his university with his choice of an infinite appropriation, unlimited wisdom, or phenomenal beauty. Without hesitating the president selects unlimited wisdom.

“Done!” says the genie, and disappears in a cloud of smoke and a bolt of lightning. Now, all heads turn toward the president.

“Say something,” says the chair of the board.

The president says, “I should have taken the money.”

There are more than 4,000 colleges and universities in this nation -- public, private nonprofit, private for-profit, two-year and four-year. They serve 18 million students who hail from around the globe, every socioeconomic 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. I desire to see that continue. Our challenge will be to continue to thrive in an environment that has increasingly deemphasized funding for public higher education.

Indeed, only little more than six 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. It is a dilemma that we may not be able to be all things to all people, even while we know with certainty that our ability to advance the best interests of the state is profound. We must continue to explain why support for this great institution is justified in its own right and in relation to other priorities, even in a national and state context 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 advance 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 the pursuit of our missions.

Perhaps you’ve seen a cartoon in which a king is standing on his balcony addressing his subjects. With great majesty he says, “It is my wish that this be the most educated country in the world, and toward that end I hereby ordain that each and every one of my people be given a diploma.”

If only it were that easy.

We are in a paradoxical time. A college degree has never been more critical for success. Our nation needs the research, development and innovation that come from enterprises such as ours. People are crying for economic development, something Penn State has specialized in for more than 150 years. We have the keys to human development; the ability to improve the human condition through the fine and performing arts and public broadcasting; the opportunity to instill pride through athletics; and the mechanism to reach people everywhere through Cooperative Extension. The mind is willing, but what will we need to do to have the body follow?

Where Penn State has gone, economic development, educational attainment, agricultural progress and technological gains have followed. What’s more, Penn State is one of the largest contributors to the state’s economy. The total impact of the University goes beyond the operations of 24 campuses located throughout the Commonwealth and the education of more than 96,000 students. Penn State generates more than $17 billion annually for the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania through direct, indirect and induced economic impact, according to an independent economic impact study. And for every dollar invested by the Commonwealth to support the operations of Penn State, the University returns $25 in total economic impact to Pennsylvania. Not only do we contribute enormously to the Commonwealth, we have an indisputable record of success that dates back to 1855. Penn State has, without a doubt, changed the world for the better.

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, let me review some of the elements of our strategic plan that will guide us under any of the scenarios we foresee.

First and foremost, we will continue to strive to be the top student-centered research university in the nation.

Every August, when I move into our residence halls for the opening weekend, I learn a lot. For instance, email is out and text messages are in. Pajamas are out, and T-shirts and shorts are in. Paying attention to people in the old fashioned way is out and multi-tasking is in. And making beds clearly is out. 
But I’ve also learned that our students are sincerely interested in contributing to society. They’re ambitious, intelligent, motivated, enthusiastic and sincere. They’re also insecure and anxious about the future and their place in it. They need our support and we must continue to invest in student success. That is a top goal of our strategic plan and it is central to everything we do at Penn State.

A second goal is for Penn State to continue to advance academic excellence through research, scholarship and creative activity. We must not under any circumstance succumb to 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 such as 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. 
Our faculty members write seminal books in their fields. Their pioneering research transforms lives. In short, our faculty members are not just disseminators of knowledge, they are creators of knowledge. Moreover, our graduate and professional students represent the next generation of doctors, lawyers, CEOs and community leaders, not to mention future faculty.

The integration of teaching, research and service continues to be an important goal for Penn State, and nowhere is this better exemplified than by the Penn State Hershey Medical Center and Penn State College of Medicine. Clinical activity continues to grow through hospital admissions, with nearly 1 million patients served last year through in-patient hospitalizations, outpatient clinic visits and emergency department visits. The Penn State Hershey Cancer Institute is now providing state-of-the-art clinical care while advancing ongoing cancer research. And the new, freestanding Penn State Hershey Children’s Hospital facility that will open at the end of 2012 will allow us to better serve the region as the only children’s hospital in south-central Pennsylvania. We also are very pleased with the success of the expansion of the Penn State Hershey Health System into communities such as State College, Lancaster, Camp Hill and Reading.

Another goal I want to mention is for Penn State to realize its potential as a global university.

The humorist Dave Barry once observed, “Americans who travel abroad for the first time are often shocked to discover that, despite all the progress that has been made in the last 30 years, many foreign people still speak in foreign languages.”

In higher education generally and at Penn State specifically, globalization has never been more integral to our teaching, research and service. This year nearly 700,000 international students enrolled in U.S. colleges and universities, and that number is on the rise. In addition, a growing percentage of our students study abroad each year. Our graduates will enter a marketplace of global competitiveness where knowledge of other countries and the ability to speak other languages will be great assets.

At Penn State we have seen a dramatic increase in admissions applications from international students, with total international undergraduate applications up more than 50 percent over the last year. Historically, most international students at Penn State were graduate students. Now more than half of our international students are undergraduates. It is a meaningful trend. Undergraduate students generally live in residence halls and thus have more opportunities to interact with a broad population of American students inside and outside of classrooms. The relations formed can go a long way toward building goodwill and lasting respect among young adults worldwide.

This global expansion of educational excellence has enormous potential to benefit the world by yielding transcontinental opportunities for research into urgent global challenges on topics such as energy, water resources, the environment, climate change and infectious diseases. Our involvement as one of the founding members of the Worldwide Universities Network is one way we engage in such partnerships.

Another priority is to maintain access and affordability and to enhance diversity. In recent years we have seen strong gains in the number of minority students. We achieve this goal in part by keeping the doors of opportunity wide open to a geographically and demographically diverse population across the state.

Our unique array of campuses is an important component in achieving this goal. 
I thus want to reaffirm Penn State’s commitment to our Commonwealth Campuses. Our campuses have been an indispensable source of education and workforce training in communities across the state. Our campuses were founded in every case with strong community support and encouragement, as a way to spark regional growth and advancement. They helped communities overcome the fiscal adversity of the Great Depression, and in the 1940s they helped train the influx of men and women returning from World War II. In subsequent years, these campuses have been highly flexible in meeting educational needs while being sensitive to demographic conditions, branching out to offer programs necessary for the economic development and cultural improvement of their region, not to mention the professional development of tens of thousands of citizens, including a vast number of adult students.

Today, 60 percent of Penn State students begin their education on a Commonwealth Campus and many of our students are choosing to complete their degrees there, as well. Penn State is one university, geographically dispersed. This arrangement has proven valuable for our students, our communities and the entire Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. Our campuses will, of course, continue to evolve, and we will adapt missions and curricula as needed to serve our students.

Despite rising costs, Penn State still is a great investment for our students. But while being as efficient and cost-conscious as possible, we must never sacrifice our quality or reputation. That is a slippery slope we must avoid. We have a strong, successful track record for our graduates, and that above all should be the prize.

Notably, The Wall Street Journal reported in their national survey of recruiters that Penn State was the top institution in the nation for producing the best prepared, most well-rounded graduates who are able to succeed once hired.

In addition to educating the next generation of leaders, scientists, educators, humanitarians and philanthropists, Penn State is changing the world through our partnerships with industry. This always has been a hallmark of our success, and no university handles the delicate checks and balances more carefully, including conflicts of interest, ownership of intellectual property and thoughtful collaboration.
Our College of Agricultural Sciences has been hit particularly hard this year, but we will not allow the statewide cuts in agriculture to force a retreat from our support of one of Pennsylvania’s most important industries. Penn State’s inaugural President, Evan Pugh, recognized the need for science-based agricultural knowledge, and that need still is pressing today, as we try to feed more people throughout the world, protect our water supplies, encourage stewardship of our lands, improve human nutrition, and tend to the needs of children, youth, and families.

All of our priorities for the future depend on our ability to keep up with and take advantage of evolving technologies. A 1955 documentary on the future promised us a world of the unimaginable -- including video telephones, solar batteries, music synthesizers and electronic photography. At the time it was considered science fiction; today you can find most of it on sale over the Internet. In case it hasn’t occurred to you lately, these and countless other inventions are largely the result of research from our nation’s universities.

Now imagine a world where your car gets 100 miles per gallon, insects are used to detect explosives, a team of students develops a plan to land a vehicle on the moon, wastewater purifies itself through microbial fuel cells, bone density is increased so that the elderly have a reduced risk for broken bones, a topical cream prevents the early stages of melanoma, better plant root systems allow people to grow nutritious food on arid deserts, the oil you use to cook French fries can fuel up your car the next day, and people swallow pill-sized cameras so that doctors can get a clearer picture of their inner workings.

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 were more than $800 million last year, which ranks us among the top research institutions in the world. And think about this: 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 our research enterprise.

Penn State helped invent distance education in 1892, when Rural Free Delivery was enacted by Congress, and we have continued to be on the leading edge ever since. This is perhaps our greatest growth area at Penn State. Enrollments in Penn State’s World Campus are soaring, reaching nearly 40,000 course enrollments last year, which is a 22 percent increase over the prior year. Online education nationally grew 17 percent last year, with nearly one in four students taking a college course online. That’s up from one in 10 in 2002. I’m proud that Penn State ranked first in the nation in a recent analysis of online education programs.

Another important priority for us is to continue to make wise investments in our infrastructure. This means addressing deferred maintenance, renovating deteriorating buildings and undertaking new building projects as funding is identified. The new Millennium Science Complex is an example of such an investment, since it promises to revolutionize the research opportunities in materials and life sciences, while attracting millions of dollars in external funding. We will see similar investments flourish in health and human development, biobehavioral health, children’s medicine and psychology, as those projects move along.

We must not skimp on improving our facilities. As I’ve often said, you can't do 21st-century science in 1930s buildings, and Penn State has among the smallest allocation of space per student or faculty member among our peers. In addition, deferred maintenance continues to be a challenge. We have a capital renewal backlog in excess of $1 billion, with roughly 16 million square feet of space more than 40 years old -- that’s more than half of all space. There always will be criticism when new buildings go up in constrained financial conditions, but we must take the long view.

We will, of course, need to continue to control costs and generate additional efficiencies in our operations. This past year, the $30 million we trimmed from our budget wasn’t loose change that we found in the seat cushions. These were targeted and across-the-board cuts that resulted in reductions of programs and people. We did what we had to do, but we must turn our attention back to supporting competitive salaries and rewarding our faculty and staff for the good work they are doing.

We must continue our efforts to build public confidence and support. We need to articulate the value we provide in every county, to the business sector, and for every family. Many citizens do not understand the direct impact that Penn State has on their lives and livelihood.

We live in an era of sound bites rather than substantive discussion.

Mark Twain quipped, “A lie can get halfway around the world while the truth is still putting its boots on.”

But let us not be reluctant to tell our story, openly and honestly.

Finally, philanthropy will be an increasingly important part of the solution. More than 100 years ago when Andrew Carnegie and Charles Schwab donated gifts for the construction of two buildings on the University Park campus, this type of generous support was rare. Today, private funding is essential for helping us to meet the need for student scholarships, faculty support, program development, new buildings and more.

To date, we have raised $1.4 billion toward our $2 billion goal of For the Future: The Campaign for Penn State Students. Many have worked tirelessly on the campaign and we are grateful to those who have supported this effort. For those who are still considering how they can make an impact through philanthropy, you know where to find me.

I want to state 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.

By the way, that cartoon I mentioned about the king suggesting that he would improve the education of his country by simply bestowing diplomas -- that was published 40 years ago at a time when education was facing a crisis -- in funding. The issues in education haven’t changed that much after all.

I am optimistic that with the dedication and effort of everyone in the Penn State family we are well positioned for the future. Thank you for your attention and for all you do every day in support of the mission of Penn State.


Last Updated September 09, 2011