Praising Academic Leadership Of The Highest Order

David A. Atkinson

In recent years, it is not easy finding news stories reflecting positively on Pennsylvania’s fourteen state-owned universities.  This cannot be dismissed as fake news, for there are challenges and difficulties aplenty.  Critics complain about rising tuition and declining enrollment.  They question how long it takes some students to attain a degree, and the number of those who drop out well short of the finish line.  Rising student debt is a scary subject.  Some conjecture the weakest schools should close, or merge, or become a different entity.  After all, public accountability demands the tough medicine of reform.

                Pennsylvanians reading such reports would be forgiven for thinking the institutions are verging on being declared state disaster sites.  Fortunately, at least in the case of Shippensburg University, there is a lot of academic and institutional progress in evidence.  Unfortunately, these stories are unaccountably missing from the public debate.  Even alumni are astonished to learn their alma mater now features five engineering degrees.

                PASSHE concocted a metric that supposedly shows Shippensburg University is on the bubble in terms of financial sustainability.  As a former U.S. Senator famously said about federal budget numbers, torture them long enough and they will confess to anything.  But it defies imagination how anyone could look inside the university and fail to see a positive dynamic taking root.  Dry rot it is not.

                Over the years, I have written pieces about forward-looking and trend-setting programs and initiatives at Shippensburg University.  University instructors and administrators have been ambitious and assertive in transformative efforts.  They show us live action in the classroom and the lab and the seminar.  We get to talk to the professors and students about their studies and research.  We get to see them respond under pressure to probing questions.

                Here, the skeptic would say they are cherry picking the best and the brightest to showcase.  Actually not, for the best and the brightest and the most motivated are likely to succeed under any circumstances.  We get to talk to students who got off to struggling starts, who suspended their studies because of money or academic woes, who changed majors, and who received a redemptive second chance.

                As with any large organization, the key lieutenants charged with designing and implementing plans and projects make or break the institution.

                For nearly fifteen years, one of the indispensable assets of SU has been Dr. James Mike, Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, a sprawling collection of majors.  As a driving force for restructuring programs and instruction to better serve students and the communities they will join as holders of a valuable degree, his record is remarkable.  As a scientist, he is trained to attack hard-to-explain phenomena and come up with quantifiable and defensible answers.  Glossing over negative results or sticking with a shaky hypothesis is not part of his equation.

                A particular strength is recruiting faculty.  Common threads in the individuals Dean Mike has sought out or had walk in the door are talent, enthusiasm, and diversity, in culture and experience.  You do not get impression they put personal projects or getting published ahead of spending quality time with students beyond the classroom.  All need to be in touch with the focus on mentoring students, to keep them engaged and pursuing courses of study in line with their interests and abilities.  Once they are on the team, faculty members are granted latitude in terms of instructional approach.

                The higher level of learning is exhibited in the research projects that are common across disciplines.  These are intensive learning exercises, where fundamental research principles are the start.  The students must present and defend their findings.  Some of the projects are so involved that students in upcoming classes will see them through.  The projects in the arts look familiar to people of my generation, although we can envy the amount of information instantly at their disposal.  In the sciences, seeing Shippensburg underclassmen doing projects unimaginable to us – say nanotechnology – gives confidence in the depth of instruction they are receiving.

                This quickly turns to the question of how the state universities keep current with equipment needs.  The short answer is, given their rather limited capital budgets, they cannot.  One option is to cadge hand-me-downs from larger institutions or cooperating businesses.  Another is to establish partnerships allowing students to gain experience on site, and to bring in workers from a wide range of professions to supplement classroom instruction.  A wider deployment of interns helps augment crucial skills acquisition.  Dean Mike had an outstanding record of making this happen.  He was fully immersed in action on the frontlines, rather than sitting in the office burnishing his credentials.

                Cutting his teeth as a chemistry professor, he is naturally a big proponent of the STEM courses, as witness the school of engineering.  He is equally a steadfast champion of the liberal arts, valuing the writing, speaking, researching, and reasoning skills yielded by those programs.  One of hardest lessons of the pandemic is that our tremendous scientific capacity is diminished when science is discarded by political leaders and distrusted by the public.  But the lack of civics education and the deficiency of reasoning power at the heart of liberal arts education are immense handicaps for a democracy too.

                One of the biggest challenges, because of hard-wired institutional resistance to change, was revamping what had traditionally been called general education.  Too many elective courses did not have the academic rigor found in the courses students took for their major and minor degrees.  Students looked at gen ed as a place to boost GPA.  In droves they ducked courses such as economics, constitutional law, and other necessary but difficult subjects.  Under the new configuration, student choice remains a component, but the lack of rigor in the selections is passe.

                Academic leadership requires risk-taking.  However, the nature of public universities works to make most administrations risk averse.  This helps explain why many programs, instructional approaches, and course catalogs seem frozen in amber.  Naturally, not every hypothesis will pan out, nor will every experiment realize the anticipated result.  That is particularly true for academic policy, when we add all the variables that students and instructors bring to the learning equation.

                Jim Mike never seemed captive to the tried and true.  He was a creative force, for the short-term and the long haul.   This is not to suggest he is the only star in the constellation of SU leadership.  By no means do I wish to shortchange what other capable deans are doing in their colleges.  But he surely is emblematic of the kind of results-oriented decisionmaking that is setting Shippensburg University on a productive and competitive trajectory.  He helped assemble a winning team and kept it motivated.

                At the end of November, Jim Mike started a new mission in more balmy climes, the University of Hawaii at Hilo.  Those who support Shippensburg University are grateful for the quality and purposefulness of his service.  His legacy is a core part of the brief advocates are filing in opposition to the detrimental designs being advanced by PASSHE.

David A. Atkinson, Associate of the Susquehanna Valley Center for Public Policy

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.