The Penn State Board of Trustees met last week for its annual meeting at the Hershey Medical Center, the flagship of the burgeoning Penn State Health Network. Because of a schedule change this year, it also happened to be the last meeting of my term as graduate student body president. The three student government presidents are traditionally invited to give some brief remarks at the beginning of their final meeting. It was a responsibility I was greatly looking forward to — not to go over a laundry list of the year’s accomplishments, but to talk about what “shared governance” really means.
If you’ll indulge my shameless self-promotion, you can find the video and transcript below. I also encourage you to listen the remarks from my counterparts in UPUA and CCSG (link). Emily McDonald and Shawn Lichvar are two awesome stalwarts for the student voice who I will greatly miss next year.
Hello everyone, my name is Kevin Horne and I’m the president of the Graduate & Professional Student Association. I like to kid Emily and Shawn that we are the oldest of the three student government associations at Penn State, with our constitution chartered back in 1951.
But I want to use my time to talk a little bit about 1951, and how the concept of shared governance and the inclusion of the student body and its representatives in the university decision making mechanism has evolved over the years.
I want to start by saying that I think shared governance at Penn State is exceptionally strong right now – at least stronger than it has been in my five years of student government involvement at the undergraduate and graduate level. One need not look further than the latitude we’ve been given by President Barron and Vice President Sims to overhaul the student fee process, or the inclusion of a voting student-selected trustee, or our presence on the various committees of the Board and our invitation to speak today to know that we are in a better place But the importance – indeed, the essentialness – of student involvement in all aspects of university decision making is not yet embraced by every administrator and every trustee, and I want to pose a challenge to those who haven’t jumped in feet first.
Let’s go back to the 1950s for a second. Only a few years later, Jesse Arnelle would be elected as the first black student government president to serve at a major university, months before Brown v. Board of Education was decided. A few years later, Dr. Eric Walker became Penn State’s president. Dr.Walker is a man who often referred – and Trustee Arnelle can back me up – to Penn State as having TWO presidents, himself and the student body president. This is a time when the Penn State student governments had offices and held their meetings in Old Main. This is a time when Penn State students ran the library, built the HUB, and contributed to a great deal many things that continue to enrich Penn State student life today.
Now, higher education has obviously changed considerably from the days of Jesse Arnelle and Eric Walker’s two president concept, but not all of its sentiment need be lost. Consider, when working with future student government leaders in our roles, what a Real University actually means. Memory of our past can improve the present and change the future. When students are treated and referred to as customers, we lose. When trustees, professors, townspeople and administrators view themselves as simply a conveyor belt of knowledge – or worse, businesspeople — and students – the very students who give our great University its lasting and enduring spirit – are viewed as too young to be informed, we lose. When students and their ideas are treated merely as something to manage, we lose. When we all pretend to be merely participants in a marketplace, rather than soulful people living together in a community, sharing in this moment in this place, breathing in the same magic of the Nittany Valley that visionaries like Jesse Arnelle, or Eric Walker, or George and Frances Atherton, or Evan and Rebecca Pugh, or Joe and Sue Paterno breathed, we all lose. These are some of the realities that my six years at Penn State have forced me to face, and they’ve changed my life, the highest calling to which a Real University can aspire.
I believe that the larger Penn State becomes by raw metrics, by numbers of whatever measure, the more vital it becomes to make it small again. And when we let marketing and public relations rule the day, or treat Penn State like its selling a product from the supermarket shelf, as another former Penn State president once described it, we fail tragically short of living up to what “We Are Penn State” really means.
And this all goes back to students, and embracing the 97,000 people – people fully capable of informing decisions on how their university is governed – in all that you do as University leaders and decision makers. I challenge this group: Why stop at one student trustee? Why stop at 2 or 3? Why not have students on every committee? Invite us to your meetings, and we will invite you to ours. The student body is eager to participate in all that you do — the participation of which is a hallmark of a healthy university.
I thank you all for a great term, for your dedication to a true shared governance system at Penn State, and I hope and trust that our successors will be met with the same candor of openness and willingness to work together — as you all have — to continue the indomitable Penn State spirit of developing excellence in all things.