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Is Penn State a Real University?

on February 26, 2015 11:19 AM

On its surface, the central question of ”Is Penn State A Real University? seems ridiculous. Yet its thoughtful exploration by Dr. Ben Novak, a four-term former Trustee, reveals that there is far more to the answer than one might first imagine. In this abridged version of the book’s first chapter, which was originally published in the late 1980’s, Dr. Novak poses challenging questions about the nature of university education that still resonate today.

There is no doubt that Penn State is a University. It says so on the gates to the campus, and on the stationary. But is the idea of a University something that is just a name or a title on the gate?

Is Penn State a real University? What are we really striving for? What do we want our students to become?

The last time of which I am aware that the question was seriously asked was back in 1967. In February of that year former president Eric A. Walker addressed the Faculty Senate with the question: “What, after all, does a Penn State education mean?” He went on to explain exactly what he was getting at:

“When we confer a degree upon a student at graduation, what does this degree really represent? Does it mean simply that the student has spent a certain length of time on a Penn State campus, passed a prescribed number of courses with the proper grades and piled up the required number of credit hours?”

Surely, he felt, this could not be what was meant by a Penn State education. It had to mean more than that. He pointed out that it was beginning to be just assumed that the smoothly functioning system set up to accomplish everything between registration and commencement was enough. “I suspect,” he said, “that most of us also assume that the machinery we have set up to do the job is generally adequate for the purpose.”

“Yet,” he observed, “when we actually stand back and take a look at the system, I am sure that most of us will agree that it leaves much to be desired.”

What this something was that was still to be desired, he did not articulate. But he did point out the danger that was beginning to take root and which would eventually drown out just about all discussion of what it really meant to be a University. This is how he described the problem taking root:

“The real danger is the tendency we have to view the student’s progress through the University in simple bookkeeping terms. If the student manages to stay out of trouble, takes the courses that have been prescribed for his curricula, and gets the proper grades, we add up his credit hours, and when the total reaches 144 — or some other magic number — we declare him ready for a degree.”

The danger President Walker spoke of was certainly real. I have not heard anyone seriously question the bookkeeping approach since his 1967 speech. Every year we congratulate ourselves on how many degrees have been conferred and how many students have received jobs or professional advancement with their degrees. Whether a Penn State education means more than that has at all ceased to be asked.

But back a generation ago — 21 years to be exact — the question was still being asked by the President of the University. But surely, he said, “a Penn State degree means something more than a certain number of credit hours passed.” If that is all a University education means, there would be no point to having a residential college at all or a campus at University Park. A University education, especially a Penn State education, had to mean more:

“Otherwise,” he said, “all courses could be taken in absentia, everything could be given by correspondence or television, and all a student would have to do would be to pass his exams and pile up credits.”

As President Walker pointed out at that time, we simply would cease to be a University if all we were doing was asking the students to pile up credit hours and conferring degrees. The University was not an education factory that could simply count its products in numbers.

There had to be something else to justify Penn State’s existence as a University. But, he said, “if we really believe such things, then it seems to me that we should think very seriously about what we are actually doing to accomplish such ends.” Indeed, to become and to continue to be a real University is an unceasing quest.

That is the last time that I know of such questions being asked. Since then I have heard President Oswald liken a Penn State education to a supermarket shelf where students come to choose their courses and pay at the registrar. President Jordan recently compared students to customers who purchase cars from General Motors. Another administrator described the real question in terms of student “satisfaction levels,” as though the issue were a poll of Toyota or Honda owners.

Is Penn State a real University? It is clearly that. Penn State is a huge, bustling institution, with classrooms and faculty and libraries and facilities of every kind under the sun. But do all these things a University make, or is there something more necessary to make this institution able to really call itself by the most honored name among all the institutions ever created by man, a “University?”

The real meaning of a University is not something which, when once achieved, is gained forever without further effort. The real meaning of a University is, as Homer phrased it, “to strive always for the highest excellence (arete), and to excel all others.” We must, to achieve that excellence, reopen the question of what it means to be a real University, and to seek out those ends which are proper to a University. A smoothly functioning system, by itself, we all know, does not by itself imply excellence, at least not to Penn Staters who really love Penn State.

Is Penn State a real University? It is not so simply because the word is carved on the gates or printed on the stationary. The excellence to which Penn State aspires, and the excellence which it achieves, is in more than just a title. It is an excellence which is inherent in the word “educate,” to lead out of. What Penn State leads out of her students and alumni is excellence, which is the real proof of Her worth. To explore the real meaning of the University is to turn the pursuit of excellence into an adventure of mind and character.

“Is Penn State A Real University? An Investigation of the University as a Living Ideal” is available in print and digital format from The Nittany Valley Society, a non-profit cultural conservancy dedicated to enhancing appreciation for the history, customs, traditions, and spirit that make our home unique and special.

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