I Will Speak Candidly

Thank you, President Werner, for your kind introduction, as well as your flexibility in rescheduling this event, given the weather challenges of this week.

I’m honored to be here, and I appreciate your interest in Penn State and higher education. A special welcome to all of the Penn Staters here, along with those of you covering education issues. We need your continued engagement. Again, thank you for joining us.

According to Google News, there are over 45,000 stories about Penn State and Sandusky. You’ve written them. You’ve read them. And I imagine that most of you have formed an opinion about Penn State and our actions over the last year.

But beyond the headlines, there’s another reality…one that exists for Penn State’s 96,000 students, 44,000 full- and part-time faculty and staff, and over 550,000 living alumni. It’s a world of teaching, research and service. It’s a world with an $800 million research program, hundreds of degrees offered, 24 campuses, an online World Campus, an academic health center, a law school, and 157 years of tradition. It’s also a world that has continued to face ongoing controversy surrounding Jerry Sandusky, our Board of Trustees, current and former administrators, and me. The legal process continues to unfold as evidenced by the Attorney General’s further charges leveled yesterday.

Today, I want to tell you something about my world—with the realities of running an institution the size and scope of Penn State, while dealing with widely divergent perceptions. I want to share the many wonderful activities and accomplishments of our students, faculty and staff over this agonizing year. By any reasonable definition, they are newsworthy stories. But I understand that you may not be willing to listen to them until we show you how this year has changed us.

What have we learned about ourselves? And what are we trying to do with that knowledge?

I will speak candidly about how the last year has affected Penn State, and how the impact has gone beyond Central Pennsylvania to shape policies at colleges and universities across the nation. Then I’ll share our strategies for the year ahead.

To begin, let me take you back to last year when Penn State received the repugnant news that a former assistant coach had molested young boys, in some instances on our campus.

Immediately, as they did with all of you, our thoughts turned to the victims of these horrific crimes. And, in the days that followed, we saw the removal of the senior leaders of our university and athletic program, including the popular president and iconic football coach.

At the time, I was serving as the executive vice president and provost, a position I have often called the best job in higher education. My retirement was within my sights.

When the Board of Trustees asked me to serve as president, I accepted, knowing full well that the months ahead would explore uncharted territory for our university. Many times I’ve been asked, “Why did you say yes?!”

The answer has never changed. I’ve devoted 35 years of my professional life to Penn State. My children attended Penn State. I believe deeply in our mission and our ability to contribute to the greater good. I knew I needed to step up and serve. I also knew that Penn State is a great university that will endure as it has always endured, will recover, and will continue to advance teaching, research and service.

In those early weeks, I heard from Penn State’s many constituents—through more than 5,000 emails and letters, and hundreds of phone calls and personal contacts. People were shocked, upset, concerned, disappointed and yet supportive of our university.

Meanwhile, as the story played out in the media, in alumni circles, and in every corner of our campuses, voices that had remained silent for many years began to speak up. Victims of child abuse wrote to my office.

These individuals were abused by family members and acquaintances; indeed only 10% of sexual abuse is perpetrated by a stranger. They were part of the chilling estimates—one in five girls and one in ten boys are sexually abused by the age of 18. The majority of those victims will never tell anyone—even if they’ve been asked.

The letters were powerful, expressing the bottled up pain, shame and struggles these individuals have lived with over the years.

For some, this was the first time they had shared their story. Another has written regularly and met with some of my top administrators to collaborate on ways to help victims of child sexual abuse.

I found these stories to be heartbreaking, but I also found hope in them. Those who wrote were entrusting their stories to us, and more importantly, they were looking to us to help tackle what is an insidious, hidden and epidemic issue. They still believed in our capabilities, even as we wrestled with our own despair about what had happened.

Their issue became our issue, and we resolved to move forward by using all that is right about Penn State to take on this nationwide problem of child abuse. And we resolved to do it by doing what we do best, that is teaching, research and service. Beyond that, we have something even more powerful—our student body.

Within the first days of the crisis, it became clear that the students weren’t going to wait for us to lead them; they were moving forward with unity and a constructive energy that is inspiring to us.

Here are just two quick examples:

By the end of the first week, student leaders had organized a candlelight vigil on the Old Main lawn to show support for the victims of child sexual abuse. Thousands of Penn State students and community members joined together in the stillness of a cold, dark night to remind others that—at the core of the issue we faced—were children who had been gravely harmed.

The following week, graduate students Laura March and Stuart Shapiro helped mobilize the Penn State community with the goal of raising awareness and funds for combating child abuse. Working with a tight timeline―right before the Nittany Lions were to play their first football game in the aftermath of this tragedy―Laura and Stuart organized the first annual Blue Out, to represent the color of ribbons worn in support of child abuse awareness. This year was the second annual “Blue Out.” Together, they raised $126,000 for Prevent Child Abuse Pennsylvania and the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape. Laura and Stuart, please stand for a moment to be recognized. Thank you.

Penn State alumni have also shown their support, raising nearly $550,000 for RAINN, the country’s largest anti-sexual violence organization.Those are just a few examples of many acts—large and small—that were organized and carried out by Penn Staters.

What’s more, students continue to respond to the crisis, while still doing the things Penn State students have always loved to do: study and learn, participate in clubs and activities, make friends, look forward to the future, and cheer on 800-plus student-athletes in 31 varsity sports, including a football team, I might add, whose performance on and off the field has made us proud.

As administrators, we tried to balance the need to move ahead with the need to reflect on, and correct, the underlying issues that brought us to the crisis in the first place.

The trustees began by asking former FBI director Louis Freeh to lead an independent investigation, which yielded 119 recommendations on how to enhance our internal policies and practices. We’ve already implemented more than one-third of these recommendations, and many more are nearing completion.  We remain committed to this progress because we believe it’s making us a better, stronger university.

And we’re committed to the fight against child abuse.

Central to this effort is the newly established Center for the Protection of Children based at the Penn State Hershey Children’s Hospital, and our ongoing partnership with the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape.

Earlier this week we completed the first Penn State National Conference on Child Sexual Abuse. This forum brought together leaders and experts from law enforcement, pediatric medicine, prevention research, and education.

We formed the Penn State Network for Child Protection and Well-Being, comprised of 35 faculty members with interdisciplinary expertise. The aim is to accelerate the pace of discovery by linking research and practice, and to build the Network with additional researchers, practitioners and teachers.

Dr. Susan McHale, Director of the Social Science Research Institute, and one of the co-organizers of the Network is here today. Susan, can you please stand to be recognized? Thank you.

We also made a pledge to educate our university community about ethics.

It’s one thing to know the rules, regulations and policies; it’s another thing to create a culture where every employee wants to do the right thing, and feels encouraged to report wrong-doing wherever it may be. Through training and awareness-building efforts, we’re trying to help people understand the how, when, where and why of reporting. I assure you that Penn State takes this commitment very seriously.

That’s not a glib promise. To prove it, we have stepped up our efforts in compliance.

Like most universities, Penn State has dozens of compliance professionals. They’re responsible for ensuring research funds are used appropriately; they monitor our NCAA compliance, our financial reporting, conformity to federal laws covering privacy rights and crime reporting; and they administer many more regulations related to the health, welfare and safety of those on our campuses, including our patients.

What we discovered, however, is that despite our staffing, there were gaps in the system, and we lacked a central compliance office where these efforts can be coordinated.

We have since hired the university’s first full-time coordinator to ensure Penn State’s overall compliance with the Clery Act. With this new position, our goal is to not only ensure that Penn State meets the requirements set forth by federal law and the U.S. Department of Education, but to become a leader in campus safety, security and compliance.

Another example is the Athletics Integrity Agreement between the NCAA and Penn State, with oversight by Sen. George Mitchell. This should help put the question of athletic integrity to rest even as we implement changes.

There is a great deal that is right about athletics at Penn State. Our student-athletes graduate well above their peers nationwide. This year they earned an 88% graduation success rate compared to 80% for all Division I schools; the football team’s rate is 91%. This level of achievement spans all sports teams, academic majors and ethnicity: notably African-American student-athletes earned a record 90% rate, which is 25 points higher than the national average.

Indeed, other universities are closely watching Penn State’s actions, so they can strengthen their policies, mitigate risk at their institutions, and make their campuses safer.

States from California to Florida have introduced legislation to make it clear that child abuse reporting is not only a moral duty, it’s the law.

This is tremendous progress: laws strengthened, policies tightened, governance revisited, and institutions made safer. And our work continues.

That brings us to today—on the brink of the one-year anniversary, civil lawsuits, perjury trials, and we can expect more fallout to come. Over the last year, we have learned much about ourselves, our many cultures, our values and our vision.

We’re still working through some difficult issues, but the question remains: Where do we go from here?The answer can be found by returning to Penn State’s core mission: teaching, research and service. Our bottom line is delivering an outstanding education to students.

Our students are our top priority.  And they are doing great things.

For example, this year our journalism students captured the national championship in the William Randolph Hearst Foundation’s Journalism Awards Program. Engineering students took top honors in the national EcoCAR competition; others are racing to get their vehicle to the moon in the Google Lunar X PRIZE Competition. Meteorology students won the National Weather Forecasting Challenge, and notably, this week more than 3,400 Penn State meteorology alumni were tracking Hurricane Sandy for the government, private industry, military, media and education.

In addition, this fall we welcomed one of the largest and most academically accomplished classes in our history after receiving a record 123,000 total applications for admissions.

These successes define who we are and where we’re going.

We need to support those students and faculty members, because they depend on us. Our alumni and the people of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania depend on us for educational opportunities, economic development, and competitiveness. And our nation depends on us for ground-breaking research and training for the next generation of leaders, scientists, thinkers and teachers.

Allow me to put a few faces on the Penn State community.

Will Cat Powers and Will Martin please stand?

Cat and Will are student leaders working to fight pediatric cancer through service to THON, the largest student-run philanthropy in the world. Since 1977, THON has raised more than $89 million for the Four Diamonds Fund at the Penn State Milton Hershey Medical Center. We brought along DVDs of the documentary “Why We Dance: The Story of THON” for all of you. Please pick one up on the way out – it’s an incredible story.  Thank you, Will and Cat.

Will Dr. Cathy Bowen please stand? Cathy is a professor of agricultural and extension education consumer issues. In addition to a full time teaching and research agenda, she runs a volunteer service to help income-eligible people get their taxes done for free. Last year, the program completed nearly 700 tax returns and saved the elderly, working families and students at least $133,000. The program’s total economic impact was nearly $1 million. Thank you, Cathy.

Finally, I want to introduce Dr. Sandeep Prahbu and Dr. Robert Paulson, who are both professors in our College of Agricultural Sciences. Can you please stand? Their inspiring collaboration discovered what could be a promising treatment for leukemia.  In laboratory tests, the compound they developed targeted and killed leukemia stem cells, without relapse. Their team, which includes undergraduate and graduate students, is now working to move this compound into clinic trials as soon as possible. Thank you, Bob and Sandeep.

These are Penn Staters who are leading us into the future. They are the people I work for each day. They’re the reason that I’m here today. And they are just a few of the Penn Staters who will not allow anything to stop them from changing our world for the better.

With that in mind, I want to spend a few minutes looking ahead, because we’re currently facing a crisis in higher education that is perhaps the worst ever in our nation’s history: our young people from middle-class and working families–people like Cat, Will, Laura and Stuart–who for generations have depended on access to affordable community colleges and state universities, are now at risk of losing that access. Throughout the nation, state governments are cutting back on the funding that helps keep tuition affordable, and these cuts threaten the system of public higher education that began when Abraham Lincoln signed the Morrill Land-Grant Act 150 years ago.

A report by the National Science Board, released last month, found that state support for public universities fell 20% between 2002 and 2010, and this shortfall has put public research universities in peril.

The declining investment in universities has made this a lost decade for funding, and worse, it has happened while universities have increased enrollment by 320,000 students nationally. This has caused many to begin to question the future of public higher education, and the implications for society.

This is not a Chicken Little warning, and as a university president, I’m acutely aware that we need to adapt to today’s economic realities. To be sure, state legislatures and governors have tough choices: their ability to provide government services has decreased while the public’s need for them has increased.

And we know the difficulty of asking already hard-pressed Americans to pay higher taxes to subsidize public university tuition to enable lower and middle income families to afford to send their children to college. But we must address the current reality that our nation’s public universities are charging tuitions that even in-state students find increasingly out of reach.

Without a doubt, everyone in leadership at public universities can and must do a better job of reducing costs and improving education. Further belt-tightening must occur on university campuses everywhere.

Every member of the university community shares that responsibility. We at Penn State know this, and we’re turning over every stone to find savings and greater efficiencies while improving learning outcomes. This year, we had the lowest tuition increase in 45 years.

We have trimmed budgets, cut programs, and consolidated functions. But you can’t do 21st century science in labs leftover from the days of Sputnik or before.

And as the CEO and psychologist Shawn Achor has said, “If we study what is merely average, we will remain merely average.”

Our students and our nation deserve better. And we must do better if we intend to compete in the global economy.

Last year I traveled to China and visited several universities. The national investment in these universities, their research facilities, and higher education is something to behold.

Over the last 30 years, China has had a 58-fold increase in spending on education, health and social investments.

According to a report from the Center for American Progress, by 2030, China will have more than 200 million college graduates, which is more than the entire U.S. workforce. In five years India will be producing five times as many college graduates as the United States.

These are the facts that drive the decisions we must make as we position Penn State to succeed in the future. 

Part of that strategic planning will require getting out in front of the information technology revolution, which has been among the most significant drivers of educational change in the last 15 to 20 years. It has also been like a runaway train.

One response to the higher education funding crisis has been increased appeals, especially from legislators and business leaders, for higher education to drastically increase online education. The hope is that more students will receive college degrees faster and at less cost.

In fact, research shows that done appropriately, the application of information technologies can both improve learning outcomes AND decrease the costs of delivering that education. But so far, big savings have proven elusive.

Nonetheless, Massive Open Online Courses are testing the market. Dozens of universities, including MIT, Harvard, Princeton and Stanford, now offer these classes, prompting headlines like “College may never be same.” Stay tuned. It could be a wild ride.

Obviously, good ideas take time and research to explore.

Penn State operates a World Campus with nearly 12,000 students enrolled in dozens of fully online programs. Our model has been honored by the Sloan Consortium as the top online program for 2012. It too continues to evolve.

Finally, in the coming year, we must prepare Penn State for the next generation of leadership. I announced that I will be retiring by June 2014, and the Board of Trustees is about to begin the search for the next president. It’s incumbent upon us to lay the groundwork for my successor, and we look forward to an invigorating process with many outstanding candidates.

Penn State continues to move forward and embrace the challenges. Not only those that have come from the events of the past year, but those that come from being part of the higher education landscape, a large public land grant research university, and yes, a university that continues to believe that great academics and great athletics can not only co-exist, but can be mutually reinforcing components of a university education.

I hope you can better understand why I’m proud to be the president of Penn State.
It’s because of our students, faculty, staff and hundreds of thousands of Penn State alumni and friends. Our difficulties are not over, but I assure you that Penn State’s best days are ahead.

Again, thank you for the opportunity to share these thoughts with you.   

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