When I was appointed executive director five years ago, an Alumni Council
member mentioned to me that one of his primary concerns was to make sure the
Alumni Association paid attention to the Penn State campuses beyond University
Park. He wondered aloud if the campuses have the same level of spirit and enthusiasm
as that at University Park.
I replied wholeheartedly that true Penn State spirit can be seen at any Penn
State campus. Penn State pride is alive and well at the campuses, and in many
ways, it equals or even exceeds the spirit at University Park.
I firmly believed it then and more strongly believe it now.
The genius of Penn State—what makes us unique in American higher education—is
our distribution of 24 campuses across the Commonwealth, within easy reach
of nearly all Pennsylvanians. Nineteen of them, aside from University Park,
offer programs for undergraduates. Until 12 years ago, those programs were
associate degree programs or the first two years of baccalaureate degree programs
for students who would transfer to University Park or other campuses such as
Penn State Erie or Penn State Harrisburg to complete their bachelor’s degrees.
Now, many bachelor’s degree programs are offered at these same campuses, a
boon to location-bound students, many of whom are non-traditional adult students
with full-time jobs—or no jobs at all.
The original cohort of “branch” campuses got its start in the 1930s, during
the Great Depression. Many more found their genesis in the 1960s, when vast
numbers of Baby Boomers came of college age. In any event, it is our campuses,
each an organic part of our University, that make Penn State Penn State.
As I like to tell people: 43,000 of our future alumni are at University Park
this year; the other 43,000 aren’t. They’re at our campuses. Accordingly, we
had better pay strict attention to the Penn State campuses if we want to serve
all Penn Staters and thrive as an alumni association.
And we have tried to do exactly that. Since 2005, strengthening relationships
with the Penn State campuses has been one of the stated priorities of our two
And we’ve put our money where our mouth is:
- In 2004-05, we surveyed the chancellors of all the campuses for their perceptions
of their alumni relations programs and how they could be strengthened (the
almost uniform answer—more staff and more money).
- Since 2006-07, we have increased our allocation provided to every campus
for its alumni relations programs by 20 percent.
- Since 2004-05, we’ve established Blue & White Society chapers (the
student membership of the Penn State Alumni Association) at 18 campuses beyond
- We’ve integrated our programs—Alumni Career Services, City Lights, the
Grassroots Network, and so forth—with the Penn State campuses.
- We’ve pledged $2.1 million as an Alumni Association to create $50,000 matching
Trustee Scholarships at each of our campuses. With the University’s financial
match, the value of each new scholarship will be tantamount to a $100,000
endowment, benefitting students with the greatest financial need, those who
are Pell Grant eligible.
And about a year ago, we began taking our Alumni Association senior staff
out to visit the campuses. Since November 2007, we’ve been to Altoona, DuBois,
York, Brandywine, Greater Allegheny, Beaver, Fayette, and Shenango. Our intent
is simply to get to know the campuses better, to understand the unique challenges
and opportunities each faces, and to get to know the campus chancellors and
their staffs. Nothing accomplishes this better than a campus visit.
These excursions have reminded us of how intimate a setting our campuses are
for their students. Everyone knows everyone else. The environment is friendly
and nurturing, especially for returning adult students.
The other significant factor is how strong a force these campuses are in serving
their communities, particularly in economic development. In the more distressed
cities with a disappearing industrial base, these campuses are now anchoring
their communities in terms of jobs, payrolls, and opportunities for students,
particularly for displaced workers who are re-booting their lives through education.
At Penn State Fayette, The Eberly Campus, for example, in the distressed soft coal region of
Southwestern Pennsylvania between Connellsville and Uniontown, the campus offers
a fascinating Coal and Coke Heritage Museum that recounts the county’s labor
and immigration history. Working through Penn State’s Applied Research Laboratory,
the campus has received substantial funding through the Department of Defense
to serve local defense-related industries. Other campus outreach efforts support
the local health care, law enforcement, and hospitality industries. An associate
degree in mining technology also provides educated workers for the local mining
industry. The campus wants to add degree and certification programs in education
for the local public school systems.
Chancellor Emmanuel Osagie, who had experience working with distressed communities
in the Mississippi Delta, says that, in the face of a shrinking population
and industrial base, “the only way we can change threats and challenges to
opportunities is through partnerships with organizations throughout our region
and within our own University.”
At Penn State Shenango, in the heart of economically battered Sharon, Pa.,
the campus is playing a more central role than ever. In recent years, key campus
buildings have been upgraded and refurbished from the inside out. A grim reminder
of the challenge the region faces stands right next door to the campus: a closed-down
GE plant that once provided 12,000 local residents with good jobs.
But the campus has remained viable in the face of such challenges by educating
workers who want to retool for new careers. Half of the students at Penn State
Shenango are returning adult students.
“Penn State Shenango is perhaps more critical to the future of our region
than any other local institution,” says Chancellor Fred Leeds ’69g, ’71g. “The
campus can stimulate economic development, can compete with other post-secondary
institutions by emphasizing value and quality, and can administer an antidote
to poverty by educating the local citizenry.”
There are at least 17 other campus stories to tell, each of them unique to
local circumstances, but you get my drift. When you visit them, you come away
with a clear impression as to why our campuses are so important to the future
of our Commonwealth. They are in no small way working strategically and creatively
to save our distressed communities and forge the post-industrial future Pennsylvania
must have if it is to thrive in the decades ahead.
For the future,
Roger L. Williams ’73, ’75g, ’88g