At the end of last semester, I wrote about the rise of empathy among Penn State students, wondering if this is “a pivotal moment in turbulent times.” I had no idea of the turbulent times that would be upon us a few short months after I typed those words … or how our community’s empathy would be tested.
As COVID-19 cases mount in the United States, stress is an inevitable side effect. This pandemic has not surprisingly led to deep concerns and general anxiety, and it also has spawned misconceptions fueled in part by misinformation or fear. As the new coronavirus spreads around the world, so unfortunately do cases of xenophobia or discrimination against individuals of Asian descent.
As members of a community of learners, teachers and scholars, we have a responsibility to tap into expertise and knowledge at our disposal to avoid not only falling prey to these biases, but to actively address these ugly prejudices that have no basis in fact. Racial discrimination and unequal treatment of any population is unacceptable and offensive to everyone in our community who cherishes diversity and inclusion. The University offers many resources for those who need support during these uncertain times, including assistance from our Penn State Global Programs staff, who can answer questions about international student and scholar advising at 814-865-6348, and inquiries related to student engagement and intercultural learning at 814-867-6101.
At Penn State, the presence of an international population or racially diverse domestic population is a gift that we welcome. I personally would like these individuals to know that their talents, knowledge, differences and cultures are a tremendous benefit to our community and to our campuses across the commonwealth.
We truly are one community, and we are in this together. Caring for each other, albeit remotely, is the only way we can move forward as one. Please remember that many in the Penn State family are dealing with the additional anxiety that results from family members in the epicenter of outbreaks around the world, including the United States. My daughter, son-in-law and darling granddaughter live in New York City. Every day Molly and I read the headlines with dread. But we operate with the unshakable belief that we will get through this, and as a united community we will emerge stronger.
I am also encouraged by the Penn Staters who have stepped up to be part of the solution. Penn State’s student leaders gathered to discuss how to “flatten the curve” of this virus and protect our vulnerable residents by encouraging fellow students to practice social distancing. Alumni are contributing their company’s resources to fight COVID-19, and they are continuing to network with students who will be entering the job market. As you know, Penn Staters are across the globe, and the Shanghai Chapter of the Penn State Alumni Association is collecting masks to send to the U.S. in this time of critical need. And our faculty and staff continue to do what they do best — keeping business operations functioning, teaching, conducting research and serving humankind.
I ask that, in addition to caring for others, please remember to care for yourselves. Challenging times like these are times when we need to care for ourselves the most. I understand that days of sitting in the same room looking at the same computer screen are difficult. But they will end, and when they do, let’s emerge as a united community ready to actively participate in the inclusive world all around us.
We are Penn State.
Last week I taught my first class on Zoom, attended my first entirely virtual University Faculty Senate meeting, announced that classes will continue remotely through the semester, and determined, based on CDC recommendations, that graduation will be postponed — sadly another first. These recent weeks have been packed with unfortunate firsts, but also filled with creative solutions, powerful support for one another, and a remarkable sense of unity. The entire Penn State community has shown a level of ‘can-do’ that rivals anything I have ever seen, and I find it incredibly inspiring.
As I mentioned in the town halls, I’m very grateful for the extraordinary efforts of Penn Staters everywhere for continuing our important work of teaching, research and service, while adhering to rapidly changing guidelines for nearly every aspect of our daily lives. I also see an opportunity to engage with Penn Staters in the temporary (I hope) “new normal” remote learning environment and hope we can cultivate community while you’re off campus. Despite the challenging times, I’m heartened by hearing the inspirational anecdotes of Penn Staters coming together in new and amazing ways. We want and need to hear your stories. I encourage you to directly submit stories and shout-outs to https://news.psu.edu/WeAre.
For now, I hope you will join with me in celebrating a few of the ways Penn Staters are helping others.
Student Care and Advocacy
I want to begin by noting the outpouring of support for our students who are under considerable financial stress because of the outbreak of COVID-19. Even as our alumni, faculty and staff face upheaval in their own lives, they have generously given to the Student Care & Advocacy Emergency Fund. Over the past week, 1,200 alumni and friends have made gifts totaling over $115,000 — an inspiring show of support at a time when students urgently need both the funds and the encouragement to persevere. Much more is needed to help our most at-risk students, so please add your support in any way you can.
Personalizing Remote Teaching
Now consider teaching — in what our students call Zoom University. Penn State has long been a pioneer in online education with our World Campus, ranked among the best programs of its kind in the country. This accumulated expertise informed our rapid shift to remote instruction for nearly 100,000 students across all our campuses. Still, as I experienced with my class, quickly pivoting to remote instruction is challenging — especially for some disciplines.
How do we effectively teach a laboratory experiment remotely when faculty are asked not to come to campus? So, Professor Neyda Abreu (DuBois), and colleagues from the Eberly College of Science and the Office of the Vice President for Commonwealth Campuses, without prompting, teamed up to offer a Zoom session on Remote Learning and Labs for all faculty teaching science labs. The session included best practices and creative solutions, as well as breakout sessions by discipline. We Are there to help each other deliver. Planned follow-up sessions on additional topics include exams and academic integrity. The College of Engineering, among others, is also planning similar sessions to help students gain the necessary skills learned in labs.
After hearing from a musical theatre student who believed his semester was lost, I talked to the director, John Simpkins. He said, “We’re scrambling, but we have some ideas that we will start tomorrow!” He added, “Our students are game and they are being awesome.”
In my own class, which met at the normal time, the discussion was rich and thoughtful. But I also heard an interesting comment. I was told that “we get to see each other and make sure we are all okay.”
Penn State Libraries have alerted faculty to valuable resources such as: Academic Video Online, which has a bevy of streaming video resources. This one covers a wide range of subjects and topics, including anthropology, business, counseling, film, health, history, music and more.
And, I have to give a shout out to Barnes & Noble and VitalSource. They are currently offering free access to digital versions of textbooks throughout the remainder of the spring semester. Students can use their school email address to log into VitalSource Bookshelf’s mobile app to access the books. In addition, although the Penn State University Libraries physical locations are closed, the staff is working overtime to provide digital options for students to access their books from home — through E-Reserves and Canvas.
This just scratches the surface of what has been created in less than two weeks.
Serving Our Community
Penn State Housing and Food Services has been supporting the students who remain on the University Park campus with All To Go — a new model for residential dining that provides all to-go food options; there are no cashiers, and everything is prepackaged. Also, along with the Nittany Lion Inn and the Penn Stater, they have donated perishable food items to the Central PA Food Bank and the State College Area School District, which is still providing meals to students in need. They are also donating non-perishables to Lion’s Pantry. Hard not to be proud of a team that, in the midst of an operational challenge, takes the steps to deliver food to the growing number of students and residents with food insecurity.
With the disruption and uncertainty caused by COVID-19, Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) continues to be open for business. Students simply need to call to get started. The Student Affairs IT staff outfitted 52 CAPS professionals in a three-day period to work at home, while still adhering to myriad health protocols and privacy standards that are mandated by the state and federal government. It was a Herculean task according to CAPS Senior Director Ben Locke, but an essential one given that last week they supported 200 students, and they expect many more to come.
The Office of Physical Plant has about 200 staff members working on campus across all shifts (24/7) to ensure that utilities are fully operational, providing for essential facility support (emergency repairs, custodial, parts, etc.), and environmental health and safety. These individuals are supporting the systems required to maintain the health of thousands of animals, on campus housing, and of course University Health Services.
Speaking of animals, spring is birthing season in our barns. In the horse barns alone, eight foals have been delivered and they expect another 13. A team of six students and three faculty and staff are caring for all the horses, with the added complexity of foaling season and adhering to human health protocols. Since they are very short staffed, they’re relying on 24/7 remote monitoring of the mares by students and alumni who know the signs of impending delivery. Those monitoring can then alert the on-site students and staff to tend to the animals as needed. Although it’s less than ideal, Brian Egan, assistant teaching professor of equine science, noted it’s the only sustainable way to get through the spring.
Finally, Penn State is working with Mount Nittany Health to turn over a parking garage for drive-up virus testing if the case load becomes difficult to handle. To keep up with rapidly changing recommendations and requirements, Penn State is coordinating with officials from communities across the Commonwealth. We have been in constant contact with emergency managers, health care professionals, experienced community partners, as well as the school district and University officials to exchange information and identify resources as part of our effort to support our communities.
In closing, please know that I’m thinking about all of you — sharing the stress caused by COVID-19 and the struggles related to conducting business in the new remote environment. Eventually this period of social distancing and isolation will pass, and you will again return to your offices, classrooms, labs and studios. Until then, thank you for carrying on the “We Are” sense of community online and in your own homes. Penn State’s community has never been anchored to a particular place — it’s in the heart of every Nittany Lion. Together we will weather this virus and its repercussions, and together we will be a stronger Nittany Nation. Take care of yourselves, your family, friends and neighbors. And remember, we want to hear your stories! In the next few weeks, we will be showcasing Penn Staters coming together in new and amazing ways to overcome the collective challenges faced by our communities, so send your stories to https://news.psu.edu/WeAre. Thank you for all you do!
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.
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.