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Opinion: Where does Penn State’s ‘Road Map’ lead to?

Penn State touts itself as one university geographically dispersed, but Old Main’s Road Map for the Future insinuates that all roads lead to University Park. In placing budgetary constraints on the commonwealth campuses, the university ignores the tremendous potential each campus possesses.

Yes, enrollment is down at the commonwealth campuses. But it remains unclear how starving the campuses will increase their enrollment. Inevitably, the proposed budget cuts will trigger resultant decreases. More importantly, the quality of education will suffer. This will hurt the very students the university claims to champion. Instead of squeezing the campuses dry, the university should invest in them.

A quarter-century ago, I taught a semester at Penn State Altoona. And I loved it. Had they offered me a full-time position, I would have jumped at the opportunity. Since they didn’t, I accepted a gig at University Park — where I’ve taught ever since. But during my short stay in Altoona, I embraced its small-school atmosphere that united students, faculty and staff. Granted, small schools don’t appeal to everyone. But not all students thrive at monolithic campuses like University Park either.

Rather than treating the campuses as consolation prizes, the university should promote them as true alternatives. Penn State should allow — and encourage — the campuses to cultivate individual identities. To some extent, this already happens. My friends who teach at the campuses boast of what they’ve created in their little corners of the commonwealth. And students echo this sentiment. But rather than enabling the campuses to flourish, the university has abandoned them to wither on the vine.

As a land-grant institution, Penn State has an obligation to serve its community through research, outreach and economic stimulation. But mostly, the university achieves its mission by educating Pennsylvania’s citizens. In this respect, the campuses have been more successful than University Park. University statistics indicate that 77% of students at commonwealth campuses are Pennsylvania residents while only 52% of University Park students are. Moreover, 41% of Pennsylvania residents enrolled full time at commonwealth campuses are first-generation college students as compared to 18% at University Park. Clearly, the campuses are on the road to achieving the goals outlined in Governor Shapiro’s New Blueprint for Higher Education — provided they can navigate the roadblocks Old Main has erected.

Penn State mythology still lionizes JoePa’s “Grand Experiment.” Even those of us who aren’t football fans take pride in the motto “Success with Honor.” But the Road Map inspires neither success nor honor. Instead, it invokes “greatness at scale.” At scale? Perhaps the administration should consider who makes Penn State great. It’s the students. It’s the faculty. It’s the staff who work tirelessly. Regrettably, the Road Map treats us as mere line items on a balance sheet. Why haven’t administrators consulted with faculty, staff and students on ways to address the budget crunch? Why can’t the administration provide transparency to demonstrate that a budget crisis even exists? But rather than engaging in dialogue, the administration has remained entrenched in monologue — a monologue consisting of logorrheic emails, obfuscating press releases and condescending videos. Just once, the administration might try treating constituents with an iota of respect.

I love Penn State. I love my students. I love my colleagues. I love the Japanese Zelkova tree outside my office window. And I love working at a place where so much knowledge is produced, transmitted and consumed. Too often, however, my love for Penn State feels unrequited. When I see the way Old Main treats my peers at the commonwealth campuses, I’m heartbroken. If leadership loved Penn State half as much as the faculty, students and staff at the campuses love PSU, they’d recognize that their Road Map is leading us into a ditch off the side of the road. Old Main needs to cease dictating and start listening. They can begin by exhibiting faith in the people who comprise the “we” in We Are.

Paul Kellermann is a teaching professor of English at Penn State’s University Park campus.