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Barry Fenchak Seeks To Bring ‘Different Approach’ To Penn State’s Board Of Trustees

Barry Fenchak isn’t your typical Board of Trustees candidate.

Sure, that expression is commonly thrown around when anyone runs for any kind of office. But for Fenchak, a longtime chemical engineer, investment adviser, and adjunct instructor at Penn State, it’s especially true. Through his campaign, Fenchak hopes to join Penn State’s governing board to steer the university in the right direction

“We can get better,” Fenchak says. “Penn State has the largest enrollment in the country if we count every campus, plus a huge alumni network. We have resources that most schools would give their left arm for. So, we can — if we get some leadership — turn this around. We’ve got the tools, but we can’t piss them away.”

Fenchak estimates he’s sat in on more than 300 Board of Trustees meetings as a “close observer” over the past few decades. In doing so, he feels he understands the issues and challenges facing Penn State like perhaps no other candidate could. Overall, he’s focused on helping the university provide more affordable education for all students.

On his website, BarryFenchak4Trustee.com, and his SubStack page, he writes frequent blog posts detailing his perspective on issues facing Penn State. His content library spans everything from profiles of prominent university figures to commentary on the Nittany Lions’ athletic programs. Of course, Fenchak also includes recaps of each Board of Trustees meeting throughout the year.

“I’ve put a lot of time and a lot of effort into being [at meetings] — knowing what the issues are, analyzing the issues, and trying to figure out ways to get past them and make Penn State better,” Fenchak said. “Unfortunately, that makes me fairly unique, I think. The bulk of those folks [already on the board] just don’t put in the work. It’s kind of an excuse to get together for dinner.”

If elected, Fenchak says he’d hope to serve as a more engaged trustee who’d provide voices to those within the Penn State community who aren’t being heard. Through his time at Penn State, both as an instructor and as a community member, Fenchak says he’s run into many students and employees with good ideas that aren’t considered fairly. He’s also troubled by the student and faculty trustees who are appointed rather than elected, thus preventing their respective constituents from having much of a say.

Nonetheless, Fenchak says he’s prepared to step into the challenging role of a Penn State trustee.

“I don’t want to sit on the damn board. If you do it right, it’s a thankless job,” he said. “No one really wants to be in that position, but I don’t think that the current board — and there are exceptions — really has a focus on what the mission of a trustee needs to be.”

That mission, Fenchak says, should be providing quality and affordable education for students while helping the university engage in meaningful research. He says that such a task should be the “north star” that guides every trustee serving on the board.

As such, it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that Fenchak wants to help Penn State lower tuition — not just freeze it — for students, particularly those studying as Pennsylvania residents. Time and time again, he points to statistics noting that Penn State’s tuition, while consistent, remains especially high for in-state students compared to the Nittany Lions’ Big Ten counterparts.

This visualization, produced by Fenchak, displays Penn State’s high tuition for in-state students. Northwestern, the Big Ten’s lone private university, is not included.

Fenchak argues that Penn State’s trustees need to go farther than simply voting to freeze tuition. He says that university leaders have a responsibility to do what’s best for the everyday student.

“An in-state student at Penn State will pay about twice as much as the average student at other Big Ten universities. It’s a problem,” he said. “There’s a huge disparity between Penn State and everyone else. That needs to be addressed — just because it’s the right thing to do. We’re charging too damn much.”

Fenchak is honest with himself and notes that tackling high tuition costs wouldn’t be easy. He suggests Penn State needs to look itself in the mirror to improve its yield — how many students it offers admission to for every student who enrolls — and balance its in-state and out-of-state populations.

Fenchak says it’s no coincidence that Penn State’s proportions of in-state and out-of-state students are at a near 50-50 split these days, noting that the latter pays more and gives the university breathing room to “freeze” tuition for Pennsylvania residents so long as out-of-state students can fork over more to cover that gap. Fenchak estimates that about 87% of Penn State’s student population hailed from Pennsylvania around the turn of the 21st century.

Current revenue-increasing tactics aside, Fenchak says it’s obvious that Penn State trustees need to roll up their sleeves to address tuition head-on. If they’re not up for the task, he argues, Fenchak is.

“My dog can vote against a tuition increase. Here’s what I want you to do,” Fenchak said while feigning a conversation with current trustees. “I want you to, ‘We’re going to reduce it…and here’s how.’ That takes the hard work. You’ve got to know your shit.”

Should he serve as an alumni-elected trustee, Fenchak also hopes to help Penn State improve its relationship with Harrisburg. Although Governor Tom Wolf recently proposed providing a funding increase to the university, Fenchak says both parties need to work together and develop a more meaningful relationship that goes beyond endowment requests.

“We’ve got to show that we’re going to be a better partner [with the state],” Fenchak said. “So far, we’ve been a beggar and a complainer. We need to be a better partner before we ask for more.”

Fenchak says he’s excited to potentially work with President-elect Neeli Bendapudi, who’s preparing to become Penn State’s next leader in early May. However, he says he’d hope the Board of Trustees can work more closely with Old Main to guide the university forward. To do so, he recommends setting achievable goals that incentivize progress and ultimately better Penn State — something he feels didn’t happen under outgoing President Eric Barron.

“When Penn State hired Barron, it was, ‘Here’s a shitload of money. Do a good job.’ That’s unfair to Barron,” Fenchak said. “That should’ve been some really substantive discussions about where we need to get better, where we’re good and can leverage, and have that so that the board and the president are working together to get to the same point. I don’t know whether Barron would’ve been a greater president under those circumstances, but [what happened] is a bad way to go into it.”

“Any president is going to need help,” he continued. “It’s a tough, tough job…Having a board that helps to create the focus is going to be best for Penn State.”

On the flip side, Fenchak argues Penn State should let its athletics department continue its work, noting the Nittany Lions’ consistent successes — both on the field and in the financial books. He feels Penn State’s teams will bounce back from COVID-19-impacted downturns and ultimately continue supporting the university overall.

“I had a conversation with Graham Spanier not too long ago,” Fenchak said. “He said, ‘As the president, athletics makes up 5% of your budget, 25% of your time, and 80% of your headaches.’ I’ll bet you a lot of presidents feel the same way.”

While he suggests trustees don’t need to be as hands-on with Penn State Athletics, Fenchak hopes to see the Nittany Lions get back to their winning ways. He notes that some programs have faced slumps in recent years and is optimistic a new athletic director might help to turn that around. He’s also eager to see what a new leader might make of Penn State Athletics’ failed Facilities Master Plan, which never truly got off the ground under outgoing athletic director Sandy Barbour.

Voting for this year’s trustee election will close at 9 a.m. on Thursday, May 5. Eligible alumni can request ballots through this online form.


Editor’s note: Fenchak’s interview is the latest in a multi-part series that aims to feature alumni running for open seats on the Board of Trustees. Onward State does not, and will not, endorse any candidate(s) in this election. Check out our site to read more about the eight candidates vying for spots on the board this election cycle.

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About the Author

Matt DiSanto

Matt proudly served as Onward State’s managing editor for two years until graduating from Penn State with distinction in May 2022. Now, he’s off in the real world doing real things. Send him an email ([email protected]) or follow him on Twitter (@mattdisanto_) to stay in touch.

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