Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Helping Penn State Live Up to Its Mission

The Collegian had a story earlier this week on Seth Williams' victory in his race for Philly DA. I'm very happy about that win and I'm sure that Seth will be an extremely good, progressive district attorney. But from some of the quotes in the story, it appears that he's lost touch with what Penn State has become since his days at Penn State when he fought valiantly to make the University a more inclusive place.
Williams, Class of 1989, said he owes his new job to a simple principle he learned from his father, one he used at Penn State and has stuck to ever since: "Unless you're willing to be part of the solution, you forfeit your right to complain."


At Penn State, Williams quickly showed his willingness to be part of the solution. He joined the Alphi Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc., became president of Penn State's Black Caucus and was later elected president of the Undergraduate Student Government (USG).

But it wasn't always easy.

After Williams was elected president of USG, the Ku Klux Klan posted racist slurs about him around campus. He even received death threats.

The incidents never changed how much he loves the university, he said.


In 1989, Williams' senior year, protests erupted over the unwelcoming atmosphere for black students at Penn State.

Sit-ins were conducted at the Telecommunications Building until then-President Bryce Jordan promised to raise black attendance at Penn State to 8 percent.

Williams said the protests taught him to find similarities between people, rather than pointing out their differences. Finding common ground was what got him elected as district attorney, he said.


Williams said Penn State is a great university because it provides education for the middle class of Pennsylvania. He spent his time here making sure Penn State provided education for everybody, regardless of skin color or ethnicity."Penn State's mission is to provide an affordable and quality education for the working class," he said. "I wanted to help Penn State live up to its mission."
Twenty years ago Seth wanted a promise of a student body with 8% black representation. Today the student body is only 4% black. Seth believes that the University is great because it provides an education for Pennsylvania's middle class. But at what cost?  The debt load of graduation seniors averages $26, 800 and the total need based loans which parents take out-this is excluded from the student debt calculation-is  $57,615,173. That number is up from zero at the beginning of the decade.

Then there is the question of the most needy students.  At about the time (1992) that Seth graduated, 22.2% of Penn State University Park students had Pell Grants compared to 27.7% of students overall in Pennsylvania. Penn State's number had dropped to 18% in 2004 while the Pennsylvania number grew to 33.6% according to study done by the Education Trust (Dead link fixed here.). Today only  15% of  University Park students have  Pell Grants.

There is more on Penn State's abandonment of its mission in this University Faculty Senate report on Access and Affordability from a few years back.

I don't write this to be critical of Seth, because, as should be clear from his victory, he has been busy with other things and he is to be forgiven for losing touch his Alma Mater.  And while I don't think that his dream job-"As Williams prepares to take office in January, he said the only other job he would want is president of Penn State."-will open up anytime soon, I do think that there is a role that he can play right now to help Penn State "live up to its mission."

He could  field a progressive slate of alumni candidates for Board of Trustees election next year. Ideally I would love to see him be a part of that slate, but I understand that he will have a lot on his plate for the next few years. However, with his political connections I'm sure he could find a group of alumni  who will help Penn State "live up to its mission."  

It is  time for Seth to help finish the job he began two decades ago.

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