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Why President Spanier Should Take a $1 Salary

“Everything will be put on the table, we will make cuts at virtually every level, and we will have millions of dollars of targeted cuts that will have to be defined as lower priority.”

–Dr. Graham Spanier, President, Penn State University.

As the family members of tenured-faculty members and an administrator, this literally hits home for us. Every decision made for the foreseeable future will affect the lives of our families, the lives of our closest friends with whom we were raised, and the lives of almost each individual we interact with on a daily basis. Having both grown up in the same neighborhood right in a small village right outside of State College, having seen both our fathers work together for more than a decade at Penn State, and having shared countless hours at the homes of family members of Penn State faculty members, staff, alumni, and administrators — this is the most serious conversation we’ve ever had about Penn State.

This is one of the most critical times in the 156-year history of this university.

When Executive Vice Provost Rodney Erickson created the core council last March, he said, “The question is not ‘what should we eliminate?’ The question is really how do we use and combine our resources to do what’s best for students? Consolidation is a preferred route, but we are no longer in a position to support everything…We need to reduce expenditures while preserving a high-value educational experience for our students. That is no small task, we need to find a balance between these two goals, but any decisions we make will be data driven and informed.”

Another administrator shared with us that “universities are designed not to change.” The reality is; however, that people make up universities, and people do not change until the cost of staying the same is greater than the cost of change.

That day has come.

Students need a seat at the table, and it is imperative that we are a part of the decision making process. We have to have a voice. It’s time to stop pretending that our university is a playground — it’s a $4 billion business, and our President took a stand on Wednesday morning while his boss – Chairman of the Board of Trustees Steve Garban looked on. It is time for the students — the shareholders, to also take action.

We will not out-politick the politicians, and whilst we must make our voice heard in Harrisburg, we must also realize that our voices will in all likelihood fall on deaf — albeit sympathetic – ears. When legislators and their constituents alike look at $100 million building after building, they will be hard-pressed to believe that the University is in a financial crisis. For many of them, their perception of Penn State — wrongfully or rightfully — is their reality, and unfortunately the things that people can see far outweigh the ideologies and hard truths that Dr. Spanier shared on Wednesday morning. The school district budgets were cut, the higher education budgets were cut — including the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education (PASSHE) — and we have politicians in the Gubernatorial office and state assembly that were voted into office because they said they would do exactly what they’re doing now.

Let us be clear; we don’t believe that any administrator, faculty member, or staff employee ever wants to see tuition increase, nor are any of them pleased with the recent budget cuts by Governor Corbett’s office. Yet, increases in tuition have far out-paced the state appropriations for years now, and whilst this cut is simply devastating to the 47,000 Penn State employees and 90,000 students, we can not idly point a finger of blame at those in the state capitol.

In a 2007 article for the Centre Daily Times, reporter Adam Smeltz wrote, “The numbers also suggest that the average in-state undergraduate now pays at least $419 a year to help support construction and other capital improvements at the university. Among non-Pennsylvanian students, the numbers suggest, the total is roughly twice that. It’s a relatively new trend for Penn State, which until the late 1990s steered away from spending tuition money on construction and facility-related debts.”

Smeltz also wrote that “(Dr.) Spanier testified that a boost in state funding for facilities could help the university attract more research work.” And while the University is one of the top-15 universities in the country, our tuition dollars are going to support buildings that aren’t the most energy efficient, to say the least. We’d be foolhardy to think that the legislators don’t see these things.

Not every student would be best-served by being involved in marches, rallies, and bus trips to Harrisburg; some will best serve and be served by Penn State by doing what Michelangelo oft-encouraged “criticize by creating.” Students who are graduating with an average of $30,000 in debt don’t necessarily have the time, willpower, energy or resolve to play politics with politicians — they came to Penn State to learn, to play, and to build great things that will change the world in small ways.

Creating new opportunities to generate global awareness, promote ongoing academic excellence, support technological innovation, encourage a more affordable and accessible education, enhance town and gown relations, facilitate the empowerment and engagement of students, and helping to make Penn State a safe, social, and a sustainable place for all students, regardless of group, background, or affiliation.

We need to prepare ourselves for the worst, and ask ‘What can I do right now with the resources I’ve been given?” When the Science Technology and Society and program gets cut, that affects students today, not tomorrow. When the religious studies major gets dissolved, that affects students today, not tomorrow. When the cost of off and on-campus living and finding housing in State College steadily increases difficult, that affects students today, not tomorrow. When a student studying for exam can’t use their course management system, that affects students today, not tomorrow.

Have you met Salman Khan of Khan Academy? Bill Gates, who has invested hundreds of millions of dollars into education through the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation, described what Khan has built as “the future of education.” One guy has published more than 2,000 videos in a few years and is heralded as “the future of education.”

We need to get students to communicate to administrators what we need, what we want, and what isn’t working — and communicating the effectiveness of that. That is our right, and we must exercise that right. We must find students who are builders like Khan, and support the models that they build that will save the university thousands and even millions of dollars, in ares like sustainability, information technology, and global programs.

We believe that small groups of students, like Khan, can and will make a difference at Penn State — by having an active voice, by being given resources, and by having a seat at the table in important discussions and conversations.

We need a voice in Harrisburg, yes, but we need a voice in Old Main first and foremost when these decisions are being made. We will continue the fight, even in the face of almost inevitable tuition hikes, but we can make real impacts on small things like the STS program, religious studies major, or entire colleges and departments that are at risk of being consolidated because they have no defenders amongst students. We can help guide the conversation in the building (or lack, thereof) of new Titanic-sized buildings.

These are some of the toughest times the university faces, but we need is not potent rhetoric, what we need is small and powerful ways that students can get involved with influential and important decisions, raise our voice, and be a part of the ongoing discussion for the future of Penn State.

Imagine the headlines if Dr. Spanier announced publicly “I am taking a $1 salary for the next fiscal year.” It most likely would have garnered national media attention.

Instant headlines and credibility that the President was willing to go on a line and show people that he’s willing to take action. That would raise morale for employees, shake a fist at law makers, and set a national precedent to the lengths that a university president is willing to go to on behalf of his or her students; albeit a symbolic move without much financial impact.

That is the role of the CEO; he is a leader to his employees, the decision maker to his board, and his shareholders – the 90,000 students of the Pennsylvania State University, and the person whom we hold to the highest of standards. He is a symbol, and we may need our leader to take a stand for his people.

Would it have changed the bottom line? Of course not, but it would have sent a signal to the Pennsylvania residents — who are the actual voters and constituents about whom the legislators care –, the Pennsylvania Gubernatorial office, and each and every potential Penn State student that our CEO — our guy –, truly and deeply cares about his students; and his willing to put himself on the line for us.

The students, the shareholders, are asking for their administrators – for their CEO — to do more. We want a voice, and we want to be involved in the conversation.

“People have no idea how heavily dependent the commonwealth of Pennsylvania is on Penn State university…some of you have some idea, but very few people have the total picture,” Dr. Spanier said on Wednesday. We can tell Dr. Spanier that students don’t have the total picture because we haven’t been given a seat at the table. We don’t understand not for lack of trying, but because we don’t get answers when we ask.

We need students who are doing things, not talking about doing things. And when we find those students, we need to give them all the resources they need. We need to get the shareholders a seat at the table; whether it’s the Provost’s CORE Council, or having our foot in the door of every major administrative office at the University.

There’s a group called Waste Not that was recently featured in a Collegian article for the work they do to take food that would have been thrown out, and provide it to local organizations that deliver the food to those in need. Another group I’ve met, led by a sophomore student, has established a tea institute and provides a global East Asian experience to students who never have to leave their campus, which greatly reduces the need for travel and study abroad if students have more opportunities to have global experiences right here at Penn State.

These things make a real difference and impact on our university.

“It’s not about pop culture, and it’s not about fooling people, and it’s not about convincing people that they want something they don’t. We figure out what we want,” said Steve Jobs, one of America’s great CEOs.

We need to do a better job of figuring out what we want, and giving every student a voice into that discussion.

We need the best students in these discussions, not just a select group of student leaders hand-picked by the university to represent our own interests. Dr. Spanier himself said “why do we left a few students speak on behalf of 40,000 students.”

We do it every day, and great ideas get thrown by the wayside or missed entirely because we aren’t necessarily bringing forth the most diverse and powerful set of ideas.

Great idea after good idea gets stymied by the bureaucracy that is the university, and the students collective voice gets unheard. Administrators will often respond by placating students and encouraging them to unite and speak up, but often times only when it is convenient and relevant to Old Main’s message of responsible drinking and state appropriations in Harrisburg.

We’re proud children of university faculty members, we’re proud Penn Staters, and we’re proud of the great traditions of “success with honor” that the University has helped foster for more than seven score.

Students have a lot more to offer Penn State than rallies in the rotunda; however positive they may be, and it’s time overdue that we have an active voice in the most important discussion in the history of this university.

In an email, recent alum Luke Pierce asked, “What would you talk about? How would you begin to shape the new university? What is your vision for the Penn State future?”

That is what we need to hear, that is the voice unspoken, and the vision unheard. That is what it means to be a part of a university; unity, in the midst of diversity.

We will unify our voice, we will discuss real ideas, we will build real things— and we will act as one.

That is our vision for a unified, whole, One Penn State.

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