PSU: Progress Seems Underway

On March 8, Gov. Tom Corbett started a statewide conversation about higher education through his budget address, in which he proposed significant cuts in the subsidies Pennsylvania public universities receive from taxpayers.

On March 9, Penn State President Graham Spanier declared at a press conference, “Abraham Lincoln is weeping today. He is perhaps looking down on the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania wondering if in a single budget proposal we might undo the legacy he created when he signed the Land Grant Act in 1862, the year Penn State became the first such institution in America.”  President Spanier went on to say that the Governor’s budget “will undoubtedly push the cost of a Penn State education out of reach for many Pennsylvania families.”  Other university presidents followed suit.

Today, less than two months later, the tone has changed.  Check out this story from

Penn State’s administration is determined “not to have tuition for this coming year (include) any greater than a typical tuition increase,” university President Graham Spanier said Thursday….

Speaking Thursday before the Faculty Senate, Spanier said the university administration recognizes that many Penn State students are saddled with major financial burdens right now.

He reiterated prior statements that the university is cutting expenses and finding new efficiencies, but he introduced a new element, too:

Penn State will dip into its financial reserves for the 2011-2012 academic year, Spanier said.

Penn State and others seem to be recognizing that the choice they initially offered Pennsylvania taxpayers—give us more money through taxes or we’ll take it through tuition—was a false one.  Instead, we’re seeing freezes in (generous) salaries and dips into reserve funds.  Those steps alone don’t a revolution make, but they are substantively different from what we saw initially.  They are steps in the right direction.

By the way, those steps are painful, too, and I recognize that.  Here’s the thing:  Sometimes, life brings us painful experiences that give us an opportunity to change what we’re doing for the better.  As new parents, my wife and I know that better than most.  Our schedule has completely changed.  I now run the risk constantly of getting spitup on my suits prior to major meetings.  And my wife spent 34—yes, 34—hours in labor.

You want to talk pain, Mr. University President?  We know pain.  And we also know that sometimes, pain is worth it because it accompanies big changes through which you’ve gained something incredible.  For us, that’s when our daughter smiles at us.  My hope is that similarly, Pennsylvania’s public universities are realizing that these tough times are actually a priceless opportunity to make their students, and our state’s hard-pressed taxpayers, smile—by finding innovative ways to do more with less.