A Greater Penn State

Delivered by Eric J. Barron
President, The Pennsylvania State University

At the Duquesne Club in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
September 27, 2016

The following remarks were presented by Dr. Eric Barron, President of Penn State, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, to members of the Duquesne Club, which includes area leaders in business, industry, finance, education, medicine, and the arts. Dr. Barron presented his vision for the growth and development of Penn State, and the fulfillment of its land-grant purpose. What follows are excerpts that were part of a larger speech.

What is my purpose here today? It’s really to lay out a vision, in three parts, on how a great university with a powerful purpose can fulfill its highest potential to serve the Commonwealth and the nation.

To do that, I hope you’ll permit me to demonstrate that, by almost any measure, Penn State is already a great university. But, the culture of Penn State is one constantly focused on how to do more and how to do better. We are not satisfied with being a great university, and I believe, with your partnership, we can commit ourselves to becoming a truly great public institution.

So the key question is, how can we make our great university even greater?

I plan to spend the larger part of my presentation on that question, but I believe the key is to live our land-grant mission for the twenty-first century—a mission that is defined by a commitment to serve society.

measures of a great public

To begin, let’s look at some of the most significant measures that define Penn State’s success.

Penn State educates students from all walks of life, including approximately 30 percent of our students who are the first in their families to go to college. We provide access through many entry points, from our campuses that span the Commonwealth, to the comprehensive opportunities provided at University Park, to the World Campus, and from robust undergraduate programs to a broad array of graduate and professional degrees. That is the mark of a great public. And the demand for a Penn State degree is growing, with record applications for summer/fall 2016 exceeding more than 133,000.

College rankings make a difference because they play an important part in the college selection process, as well as in the recruitment and retention of outstanding faculty and staff.

Rank implies quality, and quality matters. Penn State is ranked in the top 1 percent of colleges and universities worldwide, top fourteen among publics in our nation, number one in delivery of a baccalaureate education online (two years in a row), and a top military-friendly institution that’s “Best for Vets.” This is a phenomenal success story.

Now look at research productivity. Last year, Penn State’s research expenditures were $836 million—that’s the second highest total in Penn State history, and it’s the sixth straight year of more than $800 million in expenditures. This is especially significant considering federal and state research funding is so tight. Again, a phenomenal success story.

Penn State’s outstanding education and research enterprise translates into high graduation rates and student career successes.

U.S. News & World Report calculates an expected graduation rate for each class based on incoming student demographics. Based on that profile, Penn State’s predicted graduation rate is about 71 percent. In fact, Penn State’s graduation rate is 86 percent.

That fifteen-point differential is larger than at any other university ranked in the top 100. In other words, Penn State is very successful at helping our students be successful.

After graduation, our students join a powerful network of alumni and gain access to an extraordinary career ladder. Each year, 550 corporations come to our career fairs, and they reach 9,000 students. Companies like Siemens, Microsoft, GE, and PepsiCo have narrowed the list of schools where they’re recruiting to five or six—and Penn State is on those lists. Siemens USA now hires more Penn State graduates than individuals from any other school in the country. We are one of the top suppliers of new employees to General Electric. And Penn State is Volvo’s first academic preferred partner in the United States. These companies have analyzed their own employees, determined which ones they feel are most productive, and now go to their best employees’ alma maters to recruit.

This is consistent with a recent Wall Street Journal article that indicated corporate America is no longer recruiting at the Ivies. Instead, they are looking for students who are bright, up-and-coming leaders with innovative minds and a strong work ethic. They list Penn State as one of the top places to recruit.

The success of Penn State students is noteworthy. Penn State is among the top ten colleges in the country with the most alumni in the Fortune 500’s top seat, based on the S&P Global Market Intelligence database. It’s also why College Magazine ranked Penn State as the number one most powerful college network, citing the university as top among institutions whose graduates “continue to shape their school’s reputation through career success, fame, and mentorships.”

This is a great public university by any standard. But we’re Penn Staters. And, as I said earlier, Penn Staters are not satisfied with being a great university. Penn Staters constantly ask, How do I do more? How do I do better? That’s the type of attitude that perpetuates and advances greatness.

All of that brings me back to the beginning and three-part vision I promised you. Here’s how I believe a great university with a powerful purpose can fulfill its highest potential to serve the Commonwealth and society at large.

Our land-grant mission demands service to society. It’s about making education accessible and affordable. It’s about graduation rates. And it’s about whether or not you do the important things that enable students to be successful in society.

Open Doors

Number one is open doors. This means literally changing the financial equation for our students.

Penn State has always provided educational opportunities for the children of working families; 30 percent of Penn State students are the first in their families to attend college, and many are federally defined as need-based students. We’re proud to serve such a broad population through our multiple entry points.

We are proud of our high graduation rate. But, we are not satisfied. When you dig deeper, you discover that first-generation students at University Park with a family income under $25,000 graduate 22 percentage points below the average. We consistently see this dramatic difference in graduation rates among need-based students. Here’s why.

The students work too many minimum-wage jobs, so they can’t take a full credit load. They drop classes more frequently than other students because they’re working so hard. They don’t have time to participate in campus activities, research, or unpaid internships. They eventually realize they can’t graduate on time. They get discouraged. They give up and don’t graduate, or if they do, they’ve added a fifth or sixth year at a significant cost. The cost of a tuition increase pales in comparison with the cost of attending Penn State an extra year. Penn State students borrow $30 million for years five and six. We can save $30 million in student debt if we help them graduate on time. Quite simply, these students take longer, pay more, and get less.

We need to change the financial equation for these students. The number one way to drive down the cost of an education is to reduce time to degree.

Today, Penn State has a laser-like focus on timely and cost-efficient completion. We have launched innovative summer work-study-scholarship programs that are dramatically increasing retention rates for need-based students and advanced financial literacy programs. We have also introduced programs that attack the multitude of factors that slow the pace toward graduation.

If we could help 600 additional students graduate, Penn State would match the highest graduation rate of any public university in this country. Students would have less debt and a head start on a career. Access and affordability programs that enable every student, regardless of financial capability, to acquire a world-class degree define what it means to be a truly great public.

So that’s number one: open doors.

Transformative Experiences

Number two is transformative experiences. Engaged scholarship, conducted outside of the classroom, is highly correlated with student success, and many studies indicate that these activities have a positive influence that extends far beyond graduation.

Consider global experiences. Worthwhile international experiences take students outside their comfort zone and can prepare them for a competitive job market. Many leading corporations are multinational. Many industries work across time zones and borders. Not only do international experiences give an advantage to students in the job market, but many students describe their experiences as personally transformative.

Unfortunately, Penn State ranks at the bottom of Big Ten schools for the percentage of students studying abroad. We need to change that.

Digital innovation is also transformative.

From smart phones to self-driving cars to online educational technology to sensors that translate brainwaves into action, technology is transforming our lives. Will Penn State and its students lead or follow?

Will our students just absorb the next generation of technology or will they drive the next generation of technology? And how will teaching and learning transform? Through our World Campus and hybrid classrooms we have a head start on educational technology, but we need to create the innovative learning environments that empower students outside the classroom and create lifelong learners who are resilient in an ever-changing job market.

Another transformative area is the arts and humanities. Our rapidly changing world has created conflict, change, and many challenging questions. How do we solve social ills? How does communication take place? How do people appreciate the world they live in? Social and behavioral sciences play a powerful role in our lives.

The arts and humanities shape us and transform us. We need to ensure those disciplines are a fundamental part of a Penn State education.

Engaged scholarship outside the traditional classroom experience—from undergraduate research, internships, opportunities for service and study abroad, as well as from digital innovation to an appreciation of the role of arts and humanities in society—is fundamental to the success of our students. To be truly great, we must go well beyond delivery of just content and expertise. We must deliver a world of engaged scholarship opportunities.

So that’s number two: transformative experiences.

Impact the World

The third and final area is impact the world. The breadth and depth of Penn State allows us to tackle the most pressing issues faced by humankind.

Few problems are more important to society than food, water, and energy security. Here, the word security is defined as ensuring these critical resources are abundant, affordable, and safe. Penn State is a leader in food security and water resources management, and is poised to become our nation’s Energy University.

Let’s look at a quick example in energy security. We can divide energy into five major categories—policy and regulation, fossil fuels, renewables and nuclear energy, efficient and effective use, and environmental issues related to energy. Penn State is the only university that ranks in the top five in scholarly output in all five categories. The potential is enormous. With the right investments, Penn State can be the leader in finding a solution to one of the world’s most enduring and important problems.

Our contributions to food security are equally profound. Penn State faculty member David Hughes was born in Ireland. Although the Irish Potato Famine of the 1840s is now history, the lessons of the devastating effects of plant disease still resonate. So Dr. Hughes built his career around bringing food security to people around the globe. He began with Plant Village, a remarkable partnership that crosses the expertise of faculty from multiple colleges. Step one was a photographic database of plant diseases with a team that could respond to questions. A farmer anywhere in the world could compare a plant disease on their farm with the database and identify the problem. Step two was to use artificial intelligence so Plant Village could identify a disease based on a picture submitted from your cell phone. Step three was to add a little spectrograph to a phone that could sense cell damage before it became visible to the naked eye—saving a farmer from buying a diseased plant and providing an early warning to the farmer, because in many cases if the disease is visible to the eye it may be too late to save the farm. Step four is to add a DNA sensor to the phone, enabling an identification that can be translated into the best solutions to mitigate the disease. Now, instantly across the world, Plant Village has created agricultural extension on your phone, accessible by anyone. Plant Village is an extraordinary example of how the power of Penn State can change the face of food security.

Another area where Penn State can impact the world is in human health—personalized health and population medicine.

We have the potential to combine large amounts of data about populations, an individual’s genetic makeup and lifestyle, and environmental factors, so we can make predictions about an individual’s risk for adverse health outcomes and then offer solutions to mitigate those outcomes.

We have the power to combine the breadth of Penn State’s expertise in medicine, health and human development, nursing, life sciences, and social and behavioral sciences to create a formidable presence in fighting cancer, regenerative medicine, and other challenges.

A third area of major importance is economic development and job creation. In terms of research productivity, Penn State ranks in the top twenty, but we are only in the top seventy-five in getting our intellectual property into the marketplace. That’s a sign that we built a research engine but didn’t contemplate the best means to effectively transfer that knowledge to society. Yet, as a land-grant university, the transfer of knowledge is our mission and our mandate. And that’s why Penn State has launched Invent Penn State.

We are incentivizing and enabling our faculty and staff to get their ideas into the marketplace. We are creating more visibility for our intellectual property through venture capital fairs and online access. We are creating an ecosystem for entrepreneurship at our campuses, with more than twenty incubators and accelerators launched or in development. We call them “LaunchBoxes” and they are already enabling rapid growth in Penn State startups. Each is a direct partnership with the local community.

And, importantly, through it all, we’re focused on students. Penn State strives to give students a transformative experience. A life-changing experience. A lifelong learning experience.

There are many examples. Here’s one that combines human health and a transformative global experience.

While on a study abroad trip focused on biomedical engineering, a Penn State biomedical student discovered a problem in a nursing home they visited. She found that if you have multiple sclerosis or other debilitating diseases, you can no longer verbally communicate. While there are expensive machines to foster communication, they’re cumbersome, difficult to use, and financially out of reach for most people. She said, “I can fix that.” So she recruited an electrical engineering student to collaborate.

They made a glove. On the glove is a little device. The device disregards tremors and only responds to intentional movement. That glove turns finger movements into sounds, words, and communication.

This student was motivated to create something that has a profound significance for humans who are struggling. She met the people, found the expertise, and put it together to win a Pennsylvania-wide competition. Now her company is in Happy Valley LaunchBox, and the founders want to grow it in Pennsylvania.

Can you see how we can power a great university to even greater heights? To become a truly great public institution?

We do it by keeping our doors wide open—ensuring the success of any student who is bright and willing to work hard, and making sure that financially challenged students don’t pay more, take longer, and get less on their way to a Penn State degree.

We do it by delivering much more than content and expertise to our students. Instead, we provide access to transformative experiences that enable our students to have opportunities for great careers and lifelong learning that will ensure their resilience.

And we do it by using the breadth and depth of our university to work on problems that really matter to society—food, water, and energy security; human health; and economic development.

That is how Penn State envisions our shared future: with many areas of excellence, people who are strategic and focused on taking a great university to new heights, and all of us living our land-grant mission of service to society.

Finally, we have a sense of urgency. We can’t wait a decade if we are committed to serving society. It is all of you, through your many contributions, who will help set the pace.

Penn State is a great university with a powerful purpose—and we are committed to being truly great by delivering on our mission as a public university.

Thank you.