The Rise of Empathy

This blog might appear to be something appropriate for the holidays, but in fact, the timing is entirely accidental. Rather, the idea was generated from multiple opportunities to participate in discussions with students, and the ability to pause, step back, and ask the question whether the tenor of student concerns has changed significantly over the last few years.

The leadership of the Board of Trustees met with the leadership of the University Park Undergraduate Association (UPUA) during the last board meeting. The students were prepared, including distributing three “cards” that outlined the major objectives of UPUA (click on images below). The list of objectives is rather remarkable and demonstrates a true sense of compassion for fellow students. For example, the Affordability card doesn’t call out tuition, it is a call to support students suffering from financial and food insecurity. Together, the three cards define an overwhelming commitment to support student wellness and community.

Another key example is the class gift. Historically, the class gift demonstrates a tendency to support physical objects. Many have become landmarks that signal support for our great institution. I personally appreciate the legacy of more than 150 class gifts at University Park. But, over the last four years, the senior classes have created gifts that are very different — the Classes of 2016 and 2020 supported Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) and student mental health; the Class of 2017 made their gift to enable the Lion’s Pantry food bank to serve those in need; and the Class of 2018 dedicated a portion of their gift to enhance the Textbook and Educational Resources Fund to provide textbooks and low-cost or free electronic resources where they are needed. In the long history of the class gift, there has never been such a multi-year concern for the needs of fellow students.

I also have the pleasure of teaching a course for sophomores called the Presidential Leadership Academy. In the last class, we went through the exercise of having students take a shot at setting tuition for next year. It began with this question — “What should the University be doing even if it might cost more money?” Many of the first responses focused on student wellness and helping those overcome challenging personal circumstances. In response to a second question — “Would you agree to have your tuition increased to support the wellness of others?” — the majority of students nodded in affirmation.

There are also many examples from our Commonwealth Campuses that show a commitment to projects that benefit others. Abington, Behrend, Berks, Brandywine, DuBois, Harrisburg, Lehigh Valley and Mont Alto also have food pantries to assist with food insecurity. At Penn State Berks, our students are collaborating with the United Way of Berks County to bring fresh, healthy produce to Reading’s population that is struggling with obesity, diabetes and other conditions relating to a diet lacking in fruits and vegetables.

In Doris Kearns Goodwin’s recent book, “Leadership: In Turbulent Times,” she begins with an analysis of personal attributes of four presidents universally viewed as significant leaders. A common attribute among the four is not their personalities, far from it. Most notably, a common attribute was empathy. Their leadership was defined by empathy and compassion that compelled them to take action that would serve their fellow humans in untenable or less fortunate circumstances. Her analysis raises the question of whether empathy is a basic requirement for great leaders — those who truly moved society forward.

What I find remarkable is that Penn State’s student body, as well as its leaders, are signaling their empathy for their fellow students and demonstrating that our priorities should be driven by the wellness of all.

I wonder if future students, faculty and staff, looking back at past class gifts and the other actions by our students, will see this as a pivotal moment in turbulent times. Regardless, I am incredibly proud to serve a group of students whose priorities are driven by compassion for others.

Images courtesy of the University Park Undergraduate Association: 

New Student Veteran Center to serve those who’ve served

Each year on Veterans Day I like to reflect on and honor those who have so bravely served our country. It is a rare privilege to live in a nation that has never had enemy troops march through our cities, and we have largely been shielded from the physical toll of war — thanks to the dedication of those willing to serve our country.

Penn State has adopted the tradition of honoring veterans and service members with our annual Military Appreciation Week. This is the eighth year of festivities, and it will focus on America’s Greatest Generation, those who grew up during the Great Depression and fought and served in World War II.

Many of us have personal connections to this generation. I had four uncles who served in World War II and my father was a paratrooper in the Pacific theater. The experience was profound, and it was followed by the opportunity to gain a college education on the GI Bill. Thousands of Penn Staters were among the 16 million Americans who served during WWII. Among the Penn Staters who fought in the war were future University presidents Milton S. Eisenhower and John Oswald, along with a number of students, including William Garfield Thomas, a sailor and the first Penn Stater to lose his life in the conflict, and IFC president Eddie Wagner, after whom the current ROTC building at University Park is named. Of this distinguished group, it is estimated that less than 5%, or roughly 400,000 veterans, are still with us today — most 90 years old or older.

Penn State and other universities contributed to the war effort in many ways. I believe, witnessing the impact on my father, that educating service members when the troops returned from war changed the whole trajectory of the United States. Notably, 2019 is the 75-year anniversary of the GI Bill.

One exciting new effort is the opening this week of a new Student Veteran Center in Ritenour Building at University Park. This center will serve as a central hub of services for more than 400 student veterans at University Park and more than 5,000 student veterans at Penn State Commonwealth Campuses across the state, including World Campus.

The Student Veteran Center will be the hub of activity for student veterans, a place of community, and a place where they can take part in peer-to-peer mentoring. In addition to providing a dedicated space for student veterans, the new center will house key services they will require. It’s purposefully located in the core of campus, so it can be an integral part of the fabric of our community.

What’s more, the Student Veteran Center is not only for University Park student veterans — it will serve student veterans studying at other campuses, using livestream video to present workshops on timely topics. Creating a successful environment for veterans is a priority for every Penn State campus.

Opening the Student Veteran Center has long been a goal at Penn State, and donors, friends and institutional support has made it possible. I’m thrilled that we will have the ribbon cutting during Military Appreciation Week.

I hope to see you at some of the other events this week, especially the Military Appreciation Tailgate and Football Game, where I’ll have the chance to personally thank the many veterans and service members who will be in attendance. The all-volunteer tailgate is a tremendous effort, welcoming up to 8,000 active-duty service members, veterans and their families before the game. Thanks to Penn State supporters — who funded over 7,000 tickets through the Seats for Servicemembers program — service members, veterans and military families received free tickets to the game.

This will be a wonderful week of reflection, gratitude and community. I hope you’ll join me in honoring and publicly commending those who have bravely served our country. And I hope you’ll also take a few minutes to see some of the physical reminders of Penn State’s history and commitment to the military on campus, including the bell of the battleship USS Pennsylvania, which was present during the attack on Pearl Harbor; Penn State’s Veteran’s Plaza, a gift from the class of 2011; and even Beaver Stadium, which is named after James A. Beaver, a former Pennsylvania governor and colonel in the Civil War.

Happy Veterans Day!

Greek-life reform and refocus: Progress update and our steadfast commitment

After a profound tragedy, Penn State was faced with a decision. It was clear the existing model of Greek self-governance here and at universities across the country was broken. We considered withdrawing University recognition of Greek-letter organizations and walking away from Greek-life altogether. But we believed that Greek organizations operating without University oversight would make our community less safe. We also believed, that through concerted effort, we could both recapture many of the positive ideals of Greek life and minimize risky behaviors.

Consequently, we implemented a number of sweeping changes in 2017, the heart of which were aimed at increasing student safety and decreasing risky behaviors — particularly heavy drinking and hazing. We opened new lines of communication with national organizations, chapters, alumni, trustees and our own students. And to that end, many students, together with alumni, legislators and law enforcement, have stepped up as important partners.

Is reform working?
Although it is probably too early to claim a trend or to demonstrate a clear causal relationship to the reforms, the signs are encouraging. For the first full academic year with Greek-life reforms in place, Highlands neighborhood total crimes reported are down by 20 percent and total cases at fraternities are down approximately 30 percent compared to the last year without reforms in place. For the fall 2018 semester, there were 17 percent fewer alcohol-related Mount Nittany Medical Center emergency department visits by students than in the fall 2017 semester. And, Greek-life academic performance is stronger with Panhellenic grade points up by 0.3 and Interfraternity Council grade points up by 0.2. All four student-led Greek councils have increased their new member grade-point averages since the implementation of deferred recruitment and enhanced eligibility requirements.

In addition to the State College Borough statistics, we are collecting data and sharing it through our Greek Chapter Scorecards — and it has been met with great interest. Our scorecard, for example, had almost 10,000 unique downloads between March and December alone. This is proving to be a vital tool for the community — for students and their parents it provides key information about the strengths and weaknesses of individual chapters, encouraging decisions to be made with much greater awareness. We have harnessed learnings and are committed to sharing outcomes here and beyond.

Through our compliance coordinators, hotline reports, police and direct reports to Student Conduct, we have seen the departure of 12 organizations in the past two years for violation of our stated expectations for their behavior. We also welcomed new Greek-letter organizations. I am particularly pleased to see growth within the National Pan-Hellenic Council, which governs historically black fraternity and sorority chapters. The council added two chapters in 2018 — Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority Inc. last spring and Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity Inc. — and is in the process of adding other organizations in the coming months.

Our momentum continues in our collective efforts to promote student safety. This year, the Timothy J. Piazza Antihazing legislation was signed into Pennsylvania law and codifies significant criminal penalties designed to prevent hazing. Pennsylvania’s Medical Amnesty Law and Penn State’s Responsible Action Protocol protect students from prosecution for consumption of alcohol when they seek help for a peer who is passed out, unconscious or unresponsive as the result of over-consumption.

Continued challenges
These measured improvements haven’t come without challenges. To be successful, we need collaboration and cooperation on all fronts, not resistance.

A recent challenge to the State College Borough ordinance to maintain properties as fraternity housing without University recognition is a critical issue. A November 2018 court decision will allow members of two suspended fraternities that lost University recognition to continue to live together and operate as fraternity houses in the borough. The ruling goes against a longstanding municipal housing ordinance that prohibits groups of unrelated individuals from living together in the same house unless they are recognized by the University as a fraternity. This would impede any ability to promote student and community safety. This is an example in which some unrecognized student organizations are operating independently of the University, and in some cases national fraternity organizations are sustaining charters under these circumstances — it is questionable and troubling judgment as well as potentially dangerous.

We have communicated with parents to warn them about students joining these rogue chapters — Sigma Alpha Mu and Alpha Sigma Phi. We also have expressed our frustration with the national chapters and call on the media and public to hold these organizations accountable. And, we are supportive of the borough’s efforts to appeal the decision. As hospital emergency room visits by students decline significantly, as crime rates decrease, and as grade points go up, we simply can’t afford to go backward.

On balance, we are making progress, but face significant challenges here, and across the country. We thank our Greek-life partners who have embraced change, and we encourage others to seriously consider the lasting consequences of decisions that are counter to the tenets of student safety and well-being.

I am proud of the students who have stepped up in the face of adversity. Because of them, I see a future where Greek-letter organizations at Penn State can continue with a renewed purpose, focused on leadership, service and camaraderie. I commend the student organizations and alumni that have embraced our new measures, and especially those that have gone above and beyond to not only implement necessary changes, but who also are taking responsibility for their organizational outcomes, and commitment to their missions and values.

I remain hopeful that we will continue on this trajectory in 2019. Penn State remains steadfast in its commitment to transforming the Greek-letter community.

The Free Expression of Religious Beliefs

Freedom of religion is at the very foundation of the United States, codified as the First Amendment of the Bill of Rights. Even more importantly, we recognize the free choice of worship as a fundamental human right. We are approaching a season where many of us will be celebrating some of our most valued traditions and beliefs. It is worth taking a moment to consider how we would feel if the symbols of our religious beliefs were stolen, or vandalized, or if the expression of our most sacred beliefs risked violence.

The menorah shares the universal message of religious freedom. It symbolizes universal enlightenment, and that good will prevail over evil, freedom over oppression, and light over darkness. Lighting the menorah is a joyous time that gives us the opportunity to celebrate and reflect on the messages of light, truth and goodness.

Unfortunately, today my thoughts are on anti-Semitism and the ugly truth that it still exists in our society. My thoughts are on the risks to every religion and set of beliefs if we do not join together in protecting our fundamental human rights.

Within the last week, the Zeta Beta Tau menorah was vandalized and then stolen in two separate incidents. I am deeply saddened by these incidents. Every individual who treasures their personal faith should be saddened by these incidents.

Attacks that target the Jewish faith are chilling, particularly in light of the recent horrific shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue, which serves many Penn State faculty, staff, students and alumni. Nationally there is an increase of anti-Semitism. According to the Anti-Defamation League’s report, the number of anti-Semitic incidents was nearly 60 percent higher in 2017 than in 2016, marking the largest single-year increase on record and the second-highest number reported since the organization began collecting incident data. In the context of the national climate, we need to protect against hate and prejudice of any kind, they have no place in our community or society.

The Zeta Beta Tau menorah was recovered, but there is lasting damage — to the menorah, the Jewish community, and to all Penn Staters who value their own personal rights of worship. It is difficult for me to fathom why anyone would engage in such acts, and I know I’m not alone. I have seen our Penn State community unite to support and encourage one another. There is tremendous good in the hearts of those who live, learn and work on our campuses. We cannot allow the misguided and hateful acts of a few to stand unchallenged. If you see something, say something.

At this time, I also ask that you extend extra kindness to those in Zeta Beta Tau and the entire Jewish community. Let them know they are not alone, and we are united in condemning all acts of hate and intimidation. Resources are available for individuals in our community through CAPS, and I encourage you to use them.

Finally, I ask you reflect on what the menorah means. I ask you to reflect on the importance of being able to worship freely to you personally, regardless of your faith. We have an obligation to illuminate the world, and to be one by cherishing our diversity and our fundamental human rights. Thank you for taking this moment to reflect on what we value. I hope to see you at Wednesday’s menorah lighting on Old Main lawn.


Honoring Those Who Serve

With Veterans Day comes the official end of Penn State’s Military Appreciation Week events for 2018, although military appreciation is an ongoing commitment for Penn State. What began in 2011 with a football game has grown into a nearly monthlong celebration — featuring the largest annual Military Appreciation event in the Big Ten — beginning in October and running through Veterans Day, observed on Nov. 12.

Today is a special time to honor and reflect on our nation’s heroes and the families who support them.

One example of Penn State’s commitment to military veterans, service members and their families is the Seats for Service Members Program, which provided complimentary tickets to active duty, guard and reserve military, veterans, and fallen and Gold Stars families for the Penn State football game (Oct. 27) against Iowa. Over 6,000 seats were donated by Penn Staters, community members and businesses for these heroes. And, a host of volunteers in the hundreds worked tirelessly to make the Military Appreciation Tailgate an extraordinary event. I wish to extend my sincere appreciation to all of the volunteers, organizers and donors who made our Military Appreciation events possible.

At the Military Appreciation Tailgate, I had the privilege of meeting a veteran of World War II. He was so proud and so pleased to be with us for the tailgate and game. He told me attending the event was a dream come true, and it was the best day he could remember having in a very long time. It was our honor to host him and recognize his service, along with so many other heroes.

At Penn State, our connections to the armed services run long and deep. Ever since 1863 when Penn State took on its role as Pennsylvania’s sole land-grant university, our relationship with the military has been part of our DNA. Military science and training have an important place in our curriculum, and the University continues a strong tradition of supporting the military community.

Veterans have had a profound impact on our institution over the years. Several of our past presidents were veterans, including George Atherton, John Fraser and James Beaver, who served in the Civil War. They all played a key role in shaping our college as a land-grant institution. Presidents John Oswald and Bryce Jordan served in World War II and helped Penn State grow through the 1970s and 80s.

Not only did the University’s veteran leaders have an impact, but so have our student veterans. After World War II, Penn State reserved student slots for our returning veterans. In 1946, 55 percent of Penn State’s full-time students were veterans and that number increased to 80 percent by the fall of 1947. The personal qualities and life experiences that student veterans brought with them to Penn State, and the second order benefits of the G.I. Bill, led to the greatest expansion of higher education in this country.

Today, more than 5,600 military-connected students are taking advantage of G.I. Bill benefits at our University, and Penn State has one of the largest, oldest and most successful ROTC programs in the nation.

Penn State also is one of the leading research universities associated with the federal Department of Defense. Our faculty, students and staff conduct about $200 million a year in defense-related research. As a result of our long record of outstanding work, the U.S. Navy recently awarded a 10-year, $2.1 billion contract to the Applied Research Laboratory at Penn State — to conduct research and development to improve U.S. national security.

Penn State is consistently ranked as a military-friendly institution. For veteran students at every Penn State campus and online through the World Campus, the University offers peer counseling services and assists with VA benefits, the college application process, financial aid and living arrangements through our Office of Veterans Programs. We’re proud of that ranking, and we’re proud of our role in preparing those who serve and protect our nation.

Our student veterans and service members enrich our University with their diverse life experiences and with their demonstration of the true meaning of hard work and sacrifice. Thank you for your service and for being a part of Penn State.

Support and Resources for Adult Veteran Students

Penn State is committed to providing the necessary resources and support to help veteran students succeed in and out of the classroom, including:

  • Aid for student veterans’ transitions from service to college through a host of programs, including a peer-to-peer sponsorship and mentoring program run by current student veterans, veteran student clubs and organization, and a veteran-only first-year seminar class, “Transition is the Mission.”
  • Penn State’s Office of Veterans Programs provides services in outreach, certification, mentorship and general counseling to veterans and Department of Veterans Affairs benefits recipients.
  • The Penn State Law Veterans and Servicemembers Legal Clinic provides students hands-on experience representing veterans and current service members in some of the unique legal issues they encounter.
  • Penn State World Campus has aligned its online degree and certificate programs, student support services, and policies to address the unique needs of military and veteran students. World Campus also has an academic military support team, representing every academic and support unit within the University to help facilitate student success and achievement.
  • The Clearinghouse for Military Family Readiness is a valuable, interactive and comprehensive resource for professionals working with military families. Its staff engage in applied research and evaluation, implementation science, education and outreach to advance the well-being and health of military families.
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