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State Of State Conference Losing Original Spirit Five Years In

It’s not uncommon for young organizations to lose a clear sense of direction after their founders move on. It seems this is what’s happening with State of State, which held its fifth annual conference this weekend in Alumni Hall.

This year was State of State’s first without founding members on the team, and the topics for each set strayed from those of the conference’s basis, which were focused directly on Penn State and the issues we faced as a community. Instead of zeroing in on conversations we should be having about the university, the conference topics were broadly defined and incohesive at best.

“To choose the set topics, the content directors talk to various administrators, student leaders, and State College community members to find lines of similarities between all the groups,” State of State Public Relations Director Anastasia Skold said.

State of State was founded in 2013 by Suzanne Zakaria and Patrick Boynton as an opportunity to “engage in the most pertinent conversations in town.” They wanted attendees to hear different perspectives on issues at Penn State, and to discuss them and form their own opinions.

“State of State is that conversation that you want to have about drinking on campus that actually presents two perspectives. State of State is the talk you wanted to have about Penn State identity after Jerry Sandusky’s crimes were exposed. State of State is a conference that will create dialogue about the present and future of the entire State College community, and it’s the very first of its kind,” Zakaria said.

The inaugural conference covered a lot of ground, but all in issues that directly related to Penn State: the effect of THON on the Penn State community (and how many students are afraid to criticize it), replacing things like “Penn State Lives Here” with honest and genuine marketing campaigns, town and gown relations from a historical perspective, integrating international students into the Penn State community, diversity on campus (and what led to #HUBisNotAPlayground), individual experiences and roles they played during the Sandusky Scandal, GenEd reform, and more.

It closed with then-UPUA Speaker Anthony Panichelli, who discussed what a Penn State education will look like in 20 years, specifically in terms of engaged scholarship and transitioning to using open educational resources rather than textbooks.

Since that first conference, State of State topics have included student engagement and involvement, mental health, sexual misconduct on campus, the Commonwealth, tradition and change, the value of your degree, inclusivity and identity, our community responsibility, sustainable practices, and serving our Penn State family.

Then look at this year: Free Speech and Political Activism on Campus, Technology at Penn State, The Effect of World Events on Minority Community Members, Social Stigmas at Penn State.

Don’t get me wrong — all of these addressed problems, and the speakers included generally had valuable (or at least decent) messages. I’ve spent a lot of time watching videos of past State of State speakers because I care about Penn State issues, and this weekend’s talks just didn’t feel the same.

Rather than focusing on timely and Penn State-specific issues, they took on a different, more disjointed, life. Instead of focusing on Penn State, it seemed like the speakers chose to include a Penn State-related anecdote in their messages just they could say they talked about Penn State.

In looking holistically at everything that’s happened at Penn State over the past year, it was hard for me to imagine a State of State that didn’t take on Greek life — but that’s exactly what we got.

I would’ve liked to hear from speakers like the Interfraternity President, the Panhellenic Council President, staff from the Office of Fraternity and Sorority Life, someone from Borough Council or the Highlands Civic Association, a fraternity or sorority advisor, an officer from the Penn State or State College police, and President Eric Barron or Vice President for Student Affairs Damon Sims talking about the future of Greek life at Penn State. Any combination of these would undoubtedly present multiple perspectives and generate meaningful dialogue for attendees.

We’ve seen how the Student Fee Board operates, and we’ve seen a governor who failed to appoint another student to the Board of Trustees. I would’ve liked to hear a set on how we can better integrate the student voice into high-level administrative conversations, with speakers like the Penn State Board of Trustees leaders, current or past student trustees, student organization leaders (including the Student Fee Board chairperson), administrators themselves, and students and community members who’ve sat on various task forces commissioned by President Barron.

We’ve seen Penn State institute the All In “commitment,” and we’ve seen mixed reactions on what that means for the university and for students. I would’ve liked to hear a set on what it means for the university to truly adopt diversity and inclusion into every part of its being, not just a segment many have deemed a meaningless marketing campaign, with speakers like Vice Provost for Educational Equity Marcus Whitehurst, Paul Robeson Cultural Center Director Carlos Wiley, student leaders from various cultural organizations, and community members like Michael Black who’ve made diversity and inclusion a priority for their lives in State College.

Like Suzanne Zakaria said five years ago, it’s about the conversation you want to have around these issues, presenting multiple perspectives.

Total attendance at the 2018 conference was 158. But after covering the conference in its entirety, I can tell you many attendees did not stay for the entire conference, or even for most of it.

Students and community members filtered in and out throughout the day, staying only for one particular set or to hear from one particular speaker. Maybe not everyone can commit to spending an entire day in one spot in the middle of the semester — that’s understandable — but my point here is attendance numbers are skewed by those who only came to support a single speaker.

The point of State of State isn’t to support your friend who’s on stage for five minutes, but to engage in thoughtful discussion on the Penn State community, where it’s been, where it is now, and where it’s headed. I think some of that was lost on this year’s attendees.

State of State was founded five years ago because it was, and continues to be, imperative to have these discussions if we’ve got any fighting chance to move Penn State forward. As State of State chooses its next leaders, I sincerely hope they consider the true potential they have to impact the community, and choose relevant and timely topics and speakers.

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About the Author

Elissa Hill

Elissa was the managing editor of Onward State from 2017-2019. She is from Punxsutawney, PA [insert corny Bill Murray joke here] and considers herself an expert on all things ice cream. Follow her on Twitter (@ElissaKHill) for more corny jokes.

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