All of us have learned how to reply with the right words when we hear someone shout “We are…”, but how much effort have we put into spelling out what we mean by that response in a way that enables us to articulate to others precisely why it means so much to us to be able to respond in that way?

This recent post from Onward State calls on Penn State students across the commonwealth to Stand Up and defend the university in the face of what amount to the largest proposed budget cuts (in terms of both percentages and actual dollars) in the history of state-funded higher education. Like all members of the Penn State community, we at the Rock Ethics Institute share in the concerns expressed in that post. We also do what we can to promote an environment in which students will take the suggestions offered there: to read, participate, care, and be heard. In fact, the Speak Up blog and the Rock Ethics Institute Facebook page were created for precisely this purpose.

Thus, it seemed like a good idea for us to add one further suggestion. We hope that students will Speak Up and participate in informed dialogue not only about how to respond effectively to this threat, but also about the core values that are being threatened, the other values that are being prioritized over these, and the place of our various and sometimes-competing values in defining who we are; both as a university community and as a commonwealth that has historically both supported and been supported by its public universities.
We have already posted a couple of topics on the Discussion Board of our Facebook page to get things started. We encourage everyone who stands to be affected by the proposed budget cuts and who has an interest in being heard to contribute their responses, to share them with their Facebook friends, and to create new topics for further discussion there.  

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15 Responses to We are…

  1. Sam Loewner says:

    I think his column presents some points that we’ve heard elsewhere in a new light, which I appreciate.

    But I think he should have mentioned (and others should mention this too) that if we go private, our Board of Trustees can shed roughly ten members (if you consider the Governor and his Secretaries as ex-officio members, otherwise the board would decrease by six). That could make a substantial change in University Governance.

    I am inclined to think that it would be a positive change for the University, because it would allow alumni of the University to have a proportionally greater say in its direction. What do others think?

  2. Mark Fisher says:

    Here Jay Paterno offers his thoughts on the situation: He suggests that if the budget passes, we should think about going private, so we can avoid this yearly process and make our own decisions about which of the services we provide the state will be maintained.

    What do you think about that?

  3. Michael Berkman says:

    As a Political Scientist I look at this in terms of democratic responsiveness: elections have consequences. It has been very clear in the last couple of years, and certainly in the last election campaign, that the Republican party is a conservative party strongly opposed, on principle, to government itself. This was the resounding theme of the tea party and its candidates, as well as other Republican candidates who rallied around the tea party agenda. Within Congress and across the states we are seeing Republican governors and legislators carrying through on that agenda, whether this means trying to permanently dismantle their opposition in the public employees unions (whose substantial campaign contributions and electoral manpower go almost exclusively to Democrats), or attacking public school budgets (while at the same time promoting programs that enhance parental choice to exit the public school system, or making across the board cuts in discretionary programs irrespective of their value or effectiveness while at the same time refusing to even discuss additional tax revenues. While the outrage to Corbett’s budget seems sincere, I can’t help thinking that there was an opportunity during the election to prevent this from happening. I have little sympathy for parents who voted Republican—or students who stayed home on election day– who will now face higher tuition costs and higher real estate taxes (or lower quality schools). To bring this back to the ethics, I think the Republicans are acting quite ethically in carrying through on their promise to defund and weaken the government and what it does. From my own point of view, it is a sad retreat from the collective responsibilities we have as a community, but the philosophy that saw great value in public higher education is clearly no longer ascendant. Given these realities I think we all need to recognize that remaining a high quality institution may be inconsistent with the current governing philosophy and move more completely to a tuition driven private institution.

  4. Mark Fisher says:

    Thanks Sam, thanks Geoff, for those thoughtful clarifications. I agree that there is disagreement about right and wrong, and that we need to deal with each other reasonably in those cases–I also tend to think that it is a moral imperative to do so, so that doesn’t take us out of the realm of morality. Just as importantly, though, I don’t want to paint every disagreement over policy as a case of conflict between basic commitments concerning right and wrong. I think that tends to downplay the significance of the common ground we generally share, and to hide the fact that a lot of disagreement concerns the best means for achieving our common ends.

    Geoff, your last post makes me wonder if one of the central questions we ought to be considering concerns whether or not the governor should have the right to force greater privatization upon the university (even if going private would not destroy it). If President Spanier speaks for the PSU community in saying that is not what we want to do, who has the right to say “too bad”?

  5. Geoff Halberstadt says:

    I want to add something for the sake of clarity, because I don’t want this to be misunderstood. I don’t support Gov. Corbett’s proposed budget. His drastic cut is unreasonable and devastating. Penn State is a good investment for the Commonwealth. We have a positive economic impact and legislators need to understand that. I simply want people to consider that Penn State’s future may not be as a land grant institution. Going private may not be the worst thing for us in the long run.

  6. Geoff Halberstadt says:

    Mark, to be concise: yes, I’m saying it is a matter of opinion.

    But, I don’t think I implied that it is “merely” a matter of opinion. Obviously, if your look at it legally the University owes the Commonwealth something in the relationship. And vice versa. That is the nature of the land-grant institution and mission. However, within that framework arguments can be made about whether that relationship is efficient or effective.

    Where I believe it is subjective – here, I think the evidence supports me – is in the ethical and moral arena. Lets stick with the ethical framework for the sake of blog. The University has already subjectively looked at the relationship it has with the Commonwealth. A perfect example is the Core Council recommendation for the College of Agricultural Sciences. The University’s opinion is that they can’t continue to provide extension services in the traditional sense of Penn State’s agricultural extension history. It is their opinion that this no longer feasible. In fact their opinion is that Ag Sciences needs to be essentially cut in half to survive. That recommendation is subjective and directly impacts the relationship between the University and the Commonwealth. Penn State spokesperson Ms. Mountz has said that Penn State can’t be all things to all people.

    From the proposed budget for the Commonwealth, the proposed budget (and previous budgets from Gov. Rendell’s administration) show us that the relation between the Commonwealth and the University is very much subjective. People believe the University is bloated, inefficient, and capable of surviving without significant contributions from the State. In fact, I have old Free Lance articles that decry the shameful appropriation given to the University. The battle between the Commonwealth and University is over one hundred years old. The relationship is subjective.

    Now, do I believe that the proper relation between the University and Commonwealth should be completely subjective? No. I simply believe both sides view it through subjective lenses. Mark, I believe there are some common goals we can refer to. In fact, I think the Morrill Land-Grant Act (and further acts) did a good job of articulating those basic goals.

    But, if we return to my original post, I will stand by what I said. Penn State can become a private institution and philosophically keep commitments to Pennsylvanians. Cornell University is the perfect example of how this operates. Cornell University is a land-grant institution, but only four of it’s colleges are directly tied to the school’s land-grant mission. Why couldn’t Penn State work to adopt this type of approach? It just seems to me that it is time to re-assess our direction. Every institution has a turning point; ours could be right now.

  7. Mark Fisher says:

    Geoff, what do you mean when you say the proper relation between the University and the Commonwealth is subjective? Are you saying it is merely a matter of opinion? Aren’t there some common goals we might refer to make sense of claims about better and worse ways for them to be related?

    Sam, I wonder how we ever found ourselves in a position where we wonder whether budgets and fiscal policies can be moral issues. If we link moral issues with zealots, and fiscal policy with mathematics, we are failing to see that all budgets and policies presuppose some conception of the good (goals or aims) of our institutions and some commitments about how these are best pursued. Isn’t it only because we value certain things and are prepared to make sacrifices to achieve them that the numbers involved have any action-guiding significance? If we abandon the discussion of morals, how are we going to articulate why, and to whom, any of this makes any difference?

    • Sam Loewner says:

      Mark, that’s a good point. I rashly conflated all those concerned with morals as zealots. But I maintain that approaching a budget through the prism of morality is harmful. Perhaps my limited interpretation of morality is partially responsible for that notion, but I believe that an argument that focuses on morality – the right and the wrong – allows for little movement and less discussion.

      If we approach the budget negotiations through a different frame: one that acknowledges that we share different concepts of right and wrong, but need to set those aside and consider what will work, given the greater context of the economy, then we will be able to move forward more productively.

      So, yes, I agree that our own understanding of what is important in the world should guide our budgetary decisions. But I don’t think that it helps two people who have different such understandings reach an agreeable solution, which is my aim when I consider the budget and fiscal policy.

  8. Geoff Halberstadt says:

    The proper relationship between the University and the Commonwealth is subjective. Ethically, how do we answer that? Legally, as a land-grant institution we offer certain services and programs to the residents of Pennsylvania. Practically, we do that. Hypothetically, if we became a private institution, we still could offer those services and programs. Do those commitments need to change if we become private? As I’ve said before, no. We can imagine a position where we are still committed to Pennsylvania.

    The values of this budget are pretty self evident. It’s all about fiscal responsibility. It’s about the morality of fiscal responsibility and self-reliance. Gov. Corbett’s proposed budget articulates a distaste for large government spending and views fiscal responsibility favorably.

  9. Christopher P. Long says:

    Good to hear from Sam and Geoff here. But this is the Rock Ethics blog, so I think it might help if we began to ask some ethical questions about the proposed budget. What are the values it embodies?

    For my Republican friends, I imagine it embodies the values of personal and fiscal responsibility as well as a certain degree of freedom from the heavy hand of government; for my Democrat friends, I imagine it embodies the abdication of our shared responsibilities for the education of the citizenry of the state.

    What is the proper relationship between our University and our State? What are the ethical values articulated in an through this proposed budget?

    • Sam Loewner says:

      I think your first line of questioning is interesting given some of the federal-level rhetoric that I’ve heard recently. Republicans have driven the message that fiscal responsibility (and I don’t mean to imply that their version of fiscal responsibility is the only or correct version that exists) is a moral imperative for a democracy. Democrats have driven a message that indicates support of certain programs and government work is an equal or greater moral imperative. I hope I’ve captured that debate correctly.

      It an interesting question, whether a budget and, more broadly, fiscal policy can ever be a moral issue. Spending vs revenue, taxation vs cutting – these are mathematical concerns and people disagree about how the numbers work out. I think if we abandoned the discussion of morals and (excuse my cliche) came to the table more like intellectuals and less like zealots, we’d reach more agreeable solutions. But electoral politics rarely allow for it, as your Republican and Democrat friends will probably both acknowledge.

      From a social scientist’s point of view, I think the most sincere criticism of Corbett’s proposal is the short-sightedness of it. I understand his desire to bet the house on Natural Gas extraction given the potential it has for PA energy exports, but even if everything were to go perfectly with the Shale extraction, the gas is finite. Even in that perfect world, it’d be gone in my lifetime, probably. Then what? This budget does not account for a world after PA’s role as a natural gas provider. And I think it should.

  10. Geoff Halberstadt says:

    This is a fascinating conversation. At first, I was outraged by Governor Corbett’s proposed budget. I was furious. In many respects, I found it insulting to me and all of my peers. But, I’ve calmed down considerably since I first heard the news.

    Let me say, I found Scott Paterno’s blog post extremely interesting. He is right in many respects. I suspect that of any state related school Penn State could sustain the cut the best (if you can call raising tuition “the best”). Penn State has exploded. It has exploded even in my four years at the school. Almost at an obscene rate. Penn State has grown because the people running the University wanted growth and expansion. We are a very large school and the most expensive public state schools in the nation. In the nation! Why is that? Is it because state funding has declined over the year? Is it because we’ve grown at an unsustainable rate? I don’t have that answer. But I do know a few things. Since 2007, tuition for in-state students has risen over 20 percent. That is ridiculous. Are Penn State’s costs rising that rapidly? If so, management of the University needs to completely be reviewed. And yes, I understand there are multiple factors involved with that. Additionally, increasingly we are seeing the University take more and more students from other states and other countries. Is that a bad thing? No. But, that trend doesn’t demonstrate to me that Penn State is committed to being available to all students in the Commonwealth – which is what we should be doing if we are truly a land-grant institution. Instead, our administrators have decided the Commonwealth Campuses will serve the educational purposes for a majority of Pennsylvanians while University Park (main campus in layman’s terminology) serves thousands upon thousands of out-of-state and international students.

    Penn State has made itself more of a “private” institution then the Commonwealth has. It has significantly grown its endowment and runs a large development operation. We raise tuition more and more each year. We take in funding from other sources. Essentially, we are already going down the road to becoming a private institution and we should become one. We will still be Penn State University. Sam is correct in his comments. The label and the money that come from Harrisburg don’t make us a public institution. Our programs and services do. We can still operate with the mentality that we exist to serve Pennsylvanians and be a private institution. Becoming a private institution wouldn’t be so bad. It would provide us stability and self-reliance. No longer would state politics dictate the price of tuition for students. Battles between Republicans and Democrats could stay in Harrisburg and not manifest themselves in the checkbooks of Penn State students and parents. We have been a public university for 157 years, but does 8 percent of our budget make us a public university? Or does our commitment to Pennsylvanians make us a public university? I believe it is the latter, and that commitment doesn’t need to end if one day we become private.

  11. Sam Loewner says:

    Penn State’s status as a public school and how “private” it is becoming and will become is a topic that I’ve thought about for a few years.

    In response to the question implied in the post and stated more explicitly in Chris’s first comment, I would say the superficial title of “public” or “private” isn’t worth much anymore. Consider that state money accounted for less than one-tenth of the school budget in recent years. Does that mean that Penn State was one-tenth public and nine-tenths private? I do not think so.

    I think that if we pause to consider the things we love about Penn State’s status as a “public” school, we find that many of these things could remain even if we stopped calling Penn State a “public” school. Penn State is more affordable, and will likely remain that way even after the next round of increases, than other schools in the Commonwealth like Albright or Bucknell or Swarthmore. It certainly could remain that way. Penn State provides a number of agricultural extension services. Certainly it could remain that way.

    I realize that we’re talking about massive sums of money coming and going from the appropriation, but I believe that even without any money funneling out of Harrisburg’s coffers, Penn State could remain a fundamentally public institution and continue providing services to the people of the community, the commonwealth, and the country. Right?

  12. Christopher P. Long says:

    Looks like Scott Paterno has weighed in on this question. His answer: cut the entire state appropriation to Penn State to save the state system schools.

    What do you think?

  13. Christopher P. Long says:

    From my perspective, the proposed budget cuts invite us to consider the very idea of public education.

    It seems that the Governor is challenging the fundamental notion that education is a public good that should support and be supported by public institutions. I say this not only because of the impact the proposed cuts would have on Penn State and higher education in Pennsylvania, but also because of the impact the proposed cuts would have on the K-12 system as well.

    Penn State certainly could move to become a wholly private institution, but should we? I would be interested in hearing reflections from the community on that question.

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