A classic quote from Henry Kissinger has it that “The absence of alternatives clears the mind marvelously.” This admonition well applies to Pennsylvania’s fourteen state universities, whose operating model is being buffeted by declining enrollment, rising costs, and a shrinking percentage of state support. Time has passed for denial, or for burning incense and hoping for a miraculous turnaround. Underscoring this point, at the recent House budget hearing for the State System of Higher Education, a top leader pounded home the perception that the universities have lost public faith.
Fortunately, several of the schools appear to have hitched up their intellectual wagons and set out on the comeback trail. The new chancellor of the state system is earning notice for his first proposals to better serve students and stretch the resources of the universities more efficiently. Equal billing is deserved by individual campuses for initiatives of comparable promise and purpose.
Colleges and universities suffer in public impression from several unflattering stereotypes. An enduring one is they are stuffy enclaves walled off from the pulses and pressures of the real world. In the case of Shippensburg University, for decades there was a physical reality to it, with the campus separated from the borough by a set of functioning railroad tracks. Now that the old roadbed has been turned into a very popular rail trail, any remaining sense of separation is attitudinal.
Another is that their academic programs are frozen in time, like fossils locked in amber. True, traditions can die hard in academe. But rather daunting policy and financial challenges facing higher education are forcing a serious reset in thinking. Declining public support – sentiment and finance – can be a powerful motivator for change, overwhelming traditional institutional resistance. Instead of trying to play catch-up, Shippensburg University leaders have commendably determined they must move to anticipate trends.
Exhibit A is a traditional approach, but one that is eye-catching when it happens in a public university. Four engineering degrees are now being offered, with the prospect for students of good-paying, in-demand jobs at the end of their college program. To illustrate the dimension of transition, the old steam plant will be converted to house two of these engineering programs.
Exhibit B is more original. Shippensburg University has established the Center for Land Use and Sustainability. This is not something cooked up in an academic echo chamber. It comes about from listening to lots of folks in communities and businesses around the campus, as they talk about current needs and future opportunities. The enthusiasm shown by administrators and faculty for this and similar initiatives is refreshing.
In a purposeful way, the center turns the surrounding area, the farms and forestlands, flats and hillsides, rills and rocks abundant in the western end of Cumberland County and Franklin County, into an outdoor laboratory for a wide range of scientific studies. This is timely, because the area is part of the Susquehanna River basin that drains into the Chesapeake Bay, facing new requirements and restrictions aimed at cleaning up the bay. In turn, the bay is a marvelous testing ground for students and scientists to experiment with novel approaches to restoring water quality and water life.
It is not hard to think of pertinent subjects for study – implementing conservation strategies, controlling ag runoff, improving stormwater absorption and retention, undertaking effective habitat restoration, better predicting and alleviating sinkhole formation. Early efforts have shown the diversity of endeavor and the utility of the product. Helping update a county comprehensive plan. Assisting in watershed restoration and protection. Mapping a ridgeline. Compiling an inventory of historic preservation ordinances. The latter was done in conjunction with Millersville University, demonstrating in a nascent way the new level of collaboration the chancellor anticipates across the system.
This opens up countless opportunities for students and instructors to collaborate on projects that are practical rather than simply theoretical, the latter of which satisfy curiosity without attaining usefulness. When the results address real-life questions, concerns, and needs, local decision-making is better informed. This works to mutual advantage. Surrounding communities and local organizations gain a better understanding of what is taking place within the university. These external entities are direct beneficiaries of the research that is a staple of the new educational emphasis. When such two-way traffic is in effect, advocacy tends to replace criticism.
Increased interaction between the university and local jurisdictions, organizations, and employers opens possibilities for internships, giving students exposure to the workplace and making them more job-ready and their acquired skills more transferrable. This hits the basic mission of public universities – preparing graduates for the jobs of the future, and connecting them with opportunities for employment on par with their program studies.
To put together the sustainability program required breaching the mini-Berlin Walls built up around academic departments. This approach ties together lessons from what had previously been detached courses. In the unique vernacular of higher education, interdisciplinary is the buzzword of the moment. Hands-on experience has become a foundational principle of many courses. This provides field experience in the most literal sense of the term. What our generation knew as geography has morphed into geographical science. Technology has made a huge difference, with advances such as GIS and drones. Underscoring this, two students recently became licensed drone pilots. This does not mean that the principles of a traditional education have been dismissed. Rather, they are being applied in a more contemporary context, incorporating the capabilities technology delivers and the contingencies of the times.
Planning used to be a four-letter word, something associated in suspicious minds with communist five-year plans, instead of sensible and predictable community improvement. Development pressure is no longer a distant phenomenon. Anyone who has driven I-81 over the years is now greeted by astonishing development at many of the exits. The pressure on resources and decisionmakers is closing in at a rapid pace, up from Chambersburg and down from Carlisle. For a government to have inadequate planning is like a computer system lacking defenses against hackers. Smart development saves money over the long run and does not as drastically compromise habitat.
No matter where one comes down on the fiery debates over climate change, or environmental regulation and funding, it should be clear to everyone that science-based community efforts are the building blocks for protecting the world around us and lifting the quality of life. The old staples of the scientific method and peer review of results still hold their place, even as education evolves.
For the merchants of doom, the statistics depicting the current status of the state universities show only a steady descent toward shutdown. For those who take the time to probe inside the statistics, the innovative impulses coursing through Shippensburg University bring into clear focus the sustainable path toward a better future.
David A. Atkinson is an Associate with The Susquehanna Valley Center’s Edward H. Arnold Institute for Policy Studies.
Nothing contained here should be considered as an attempt to aid or hinder the passage of any legislation.
The views expressed here are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Susquehanna Valley Center.