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Penn State’s Summer of Transition Arrives with Many Challenges Ahead

Penn State finds itself in a time of transition this summer, a time when leadership in two very high-profile jobs are changing. It’s hard to go around town and not be asked about new President Neeli Bendapudi or soon-to-be Athletic Director Patrick Kraft, who starts on July 1. Understandably, there is an energy and excitement about them that comes whenever new people take over.

How does that energy last when the hard decisions start to get made? That is the very core question of human nature and leadership.

For people with certain demands and expectations of new leaders, no one gets everything they want all the time from people in leadership. For people in leadership, no one ever gets unanimous support. No one. 

Don’t believe me? Even after the attack on Pearl Harbor the vote to declare war was 388-1. And one of my favorite lessons on leadership was one shared by my father: 

“Jay, even Christ only kept 11 of his 12 apostles in the fold. If he couldn’t get unanimous approval, what hope is there for the rest of us?”

Think about that. The guy literally walked on water and fed 5,000 people with five loaves and a couple of fish.

Both of Penn State’s new leaders face big challenges. That is not in any way intended as negative commentary on their predecessors. It is merely the reality of a rapidly changing national landscape in higher education and in college athletics.

In higher education, the challenges may not be existential, but they are daunting.

The high costs of a college education have this generation of both parents and students questioning if the return on the investment of time and tuition dollars is worth it. New leadership will have to continue and expand efforts to make Penn State more responsive to growing price sensitivity.

The challenges of meeting the mental health and housing and food insecurity needs of our students are constant.

The perception of higher education is getting more and more politicized and polarized. That has created an image problem. In some areas of this great Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, Penn State and State College are seen as out of touch or too woke or not woke enough.

Penn State must constantly demonstrate its value to the commonwealth. Agricultural extension programs, innovation hubs throughout the state and a network of Commonwealth Campuses and the World Campus extend our reach into every county in Pennsylvania.

And as the demographics of our population change, students are seeking more diversity reflected in the student population as well as among faculty and staff. And that is something that realistically can’t be remedied in a month or a year of even five years. It will take long-term vision and commitment.  

For our new athletic director, the athletic department faces issues confronting every school in the country. The very basis of the college athletics business model is under an existential threat, including cases making their way to a U.S. Supreme Court that seems inclined to impose major changes. 

Our new president must navigate this uncertain era amid a minefield of potential risks and controversy. It’s all part of a solemn responsibility unique to Penn State, one of remembering who we are, where we came from and what we stand for. It comes with leading an $8 billion organization of nearly 135,000 students, faculty and employees in roughly two dozen geographically dispersed locations.

In just over two months, the new fall semester begins. The sun will first rise over the campuses to the east. Minutes later the new dawn’s first rays will break behind the familiar silhouette of Mount Nittany.

By that time, cows will have been milked in campus barns. Eggs will have been scrambled in dining halls. Some students may be out for a jog as birds sing in the trees and squirrels scurry from place to place. Other students will be hustling to grab breakfast or coffee to make that 8 a.m. class. Professors will be readying to welcome a new class of students.

The promise of a new day, a new semester is thick with the anticipation of electric possibilities. And most days the pursuit of moving student potential to accomplishment is met.

But into every life a storm will come.

Any new leader ascending to a new role is very much the sum of all expectations. We all see them as someone who can meet all of the goals we personally hold for Penn State. But at some point the reality of what can and will be achieved may fall short of perfection. By the very nature of humanity, we are imperfect.

Dr. Bendapudi and Dr. Kraft will make mistakes. All leaders do so. But what separates great leaders is intent.

Mistakes made going full speed pursuing what you believe is best for the university are mistakes made with the right intentions. We believe that both of these new leaders come to their new posts with every intention of pursuing Penn State’s commitment to excellence, to our land-grant mission and doing it all out.

Given their background, their talents and indeed their human imperfections, that effort and attitude are all we can ask of them. If they commit to that every day, they will do great things here at Penn State.