By David Loomis
INDIANA – Daniel Greenstein, new chancellor of the state system of higher education, visited system member IUP last week to deliver bad news with a boyish grin in front of an overflow audience at the Hadley Union Building.
Seven months into his new gig, the migrant from Seattle’s Silicon Valley brought an expansive 21st century techno vision to Rust Belt Appalachia, where high-speed broadband internet penetration is akin to rural electrification in the Dust Bowl Depression-era ‘30s. And where the local public school system recently cancelled its participation in Summit Learning, a high-tech platform produced by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and his wife.
But Chancellor Dan was not here to address the economic health of the community with which the university has had a symbiotic relationship for going on a century and a half, the community in which IUP is the largest employer, the community that benefits from the university’s economic footprint to the tune of an estimated $637 million, according to the system’s 2015 analysis.
Greenstein’s message was focused on the university: It’s out of touch and may be toast unless it embraces “massive change.”
TO HIS CREDIT, Greenstein delivered his message in person (video: 3,339 views in one week), and he did not prescribe specific policies and solutions. But his mantra of “imagine” (“Imagine a Chemistry 4 plus 1 or a single school of nursing…. Imagine what it takes to get there, right?”) suggested that if you don’t start imagining, then he will. (On rewards and incentives for imagineers: “I recognize the whole horrors of what I said.”)
“Does anybody else watching that video go, ‘OMG’?” Greenstein asked to nervous laughter.
Next came the slide show from hell showing steep enrollment declines and widening budget deficits to come.
THEN CAME the Q & A. IUP professor emeritus Peter Broad, president of Indiana Borough Council, posed the first question.
“I love the enthusiasm that you’re presenting this with, and obviously things need to be done,” Broad said. “But I didn’t see anything in what you said about the fact that each of these universities represents not just an academic institution but a community. And it has a direct relationship with this community within which it is located and the community that it has traditional ties with. I know that there has to be collaboration. But there also needs to be something that’s going to keep these ties vibrant.”
“This is a really important point,” he began. Then:
“I think of it as a pure infrastructure play where you are putting in place massive infrastructure, which might be policies, practices, systems which allow universities to differentiate themselves. So, imagine being able to serve this community’s nursing needs – geriatrics to pediatrics and everything in between. Imagine being able to draw on those specialties from other universities and provide the full sweep of nursing professional education. Imagine responding to an urgent need for data science ….”
On to a plug for Amazon Web Services, a cloud-computing platform “which is just deep infrastructure,” he said. Then, he returned to State System of Higher Education member schools, which he said are accountable to each other.
“That system is there to drive innovation and differentiation,” he concluded. “If that makes sense?”
When the Q & A ended, Chancellor Dan rushed out, steering questions to a couple of staffers in his wake.
And Peter Broad’s reaction to the chancellor’s response?
“He didn’t answer my question,” Broad said.
IMAGINE IF CHANCELLOR DAN had been more responsive to Broad’s question. Imagine if the chancellor had expanded his narrow nursing analogy to enumerate the many ways and means by which a public research university might buoy a rural community struggling with legacies of boom-bust extraction industries, epidemic opioid addiction, aging and declining populations, lagging median incomes and lack of diversity.
What works to boost a community? A university can be a lifesaver. Research Triangle Park, the vibrant North Carolina Piedmont region anchored by three major research universities, comes to mind.
So does Erie, Pa., a Rust Belt city rebuilding around local universities. Profits from a casino go to “innovation spaces” at the campuses. The city also welcomes foreigners –10 percent of its citizens are refugees.
Indiana, Pa., is taking some steps, including a home-rehab program and a more welcoming posture toward students engaging in “high celebratory events.” A new warehouse on the outskirts of town may deliver 225 new jobs.
BROAD WAS JOINED BY two other local elected officials at the chancellor’s public forum last week.
“IUP’s health and success are vital to Indiana County’s economy,” wrote state Rep. Jim Struzzi, R-Indiana, in an April 24 email following Greenstein’s IUP remarks.
“We know how Indiana’s vitality and economic success are tied to the success of IUP to a great extent,” wrote Democratic county Commissioner Sherene Hess in an April 24 email.
Imagine if the commitments of local elected officials, together with Chancellor Dan, could leverage additional improvements to build a more open, resilient, sustainable, attractive and collaborative university community, along with a new university.
David Loomis, Ph.D., emeritus professor of journalism at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, is editor of The HawkEye.
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