The staff editorial in the March 9th edition of The Slate clearly described the high stakes in the selection of the next president. It also offered a cogent argument against any merger of universities that would render Shippensburg University a junior partner following a shotgun wedding.
State System officials have repeatedly asserted that Shippensburg University is on the bubble for sustainability. That negative assessment stands in sharp contrast to the lofty rating SU receives from U.S. News & World Report. The suspicion is system leaders are looking at a selective set of indices to arrive at their bleak and alarming judgment. They must not be giving full credit to the emergence of a school of engineering and a retooling of general education requirements to meet employer expectations among other quantum curriculum improvements.
Whatever the reality, the current circumstances materialized with the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education (PASSHE) in firm control. Granted, not this chancellor, but certainly the rest of the system apparatus carries responsibility. Could it be the directives and limiting decisions coming from the bureaucratic bunker in Harrisburg exacerbated, rather than mitigated, problematic trends?
Speculation continues that SU will be folded into Millersville on the second round of mergers. Sure, the brass gives glib assurances no such step is contemplated. Nonetheless, amazing how plans magically emerge from the chemistry labs where they brew SSHE-label reform.
The selection of a new president is always a crucial decision. It is doubly so this time because of the political uncertainties surrounding SU. By the time a new president is selected and has a chance to establish his or her agenda, the decision-making process may be too far along to reverse.
The orchestrated advocacy from regular channels deployed to date has obviously failed to overcome the reputational deficiency with which SU is being tarred. So who has the persuasive power to turn things around? The first thought is the alumni, who have a strong emotional attachment and a significant financial investment through contributions. After all, we do not want our degrees coming from the Shippensburg Branch of Millersville University, irrespective of how they might gild it.
In this debate, however, the heaviest impact will be on current and incoming students. No one can tell the SU story better, and with a less conflicted perspective, than you can. If you support the university and value the education you are receiving, now is the moment for effective civic engagement.
For your views to matter, they must be intelligently expressed to the right audience. Forget about form letters, canned emails and online petitions. These are standard avenues for participation, but their utility is next to nil, even in bucolic times.
So here is a recommendation: Be your own lobbyist. Compose an individual message conveying several key points. Describe why you picked SU. Delineate what the university has done to satisfy your educational goals, engage your curiosity to learn and prepare you for productive life. Talk about professors who inspired you or went above and beyond to prevent you from running off the rails academically. Catalog what steps you believe will further improve the experience at SU. In effective advocacy, first person testimony is the gold standard.
Make no mistake — this exercise is not about preserving the status quo. The question is whether the university will be allowed to continue on the carefully charted reform path, or someone else is going to determine a different path or institutional structure based on a mystery matrix.
Your messages should be directed to the chancellor, the board of governors, the governor, and the majority and minority chairs of the Senate and House education committees. The alumni association can provide the necessary contact information. That way, those in positions of power cannot suffer any confusion over what students believe. They cannot hide unpopular and unwise decisions behind the contention they did not hear from anyone apart from those on the payroll. Even if the board of governors does not pay much attention to an educated outpouring of concern, the media and the taxpayers will notice.
In life, there is no extra credit awarded those choosing to engage in the arena, rather than contenting themselves with sitting on the sidelines and merely cheering or heckling the players. But informed and energetic involvement is the lifeblood of healthy democracy. You have presumably been instructed so in multiple courses. Now is your chance to practice those lessons.
At the same time, you are free to question others in positions of authority. For example, you may want to ask the members of the SU board why they seem to be suffering group laryngitis at this crucial juncture. You can test whether your professors will get involved individually, rather than relying on the union to do the lifting.
System officials have cast a long shadow over SU’s future by constantly positing ominous outcomes. The concepts they are selling strike many as honestly termed destructive redesign. In raising public doubts about the survival of our university, they have handicapped presidential selection, faculty recruitment, and student enrollment. Whose interest does that serve?
There is a paramount factor missing from the redesign equation. With all the troubles afflicting more expensive private colleges and universities, public universities will be even more indispensable in the years ahead. When that occurs, SU must be a flagship for the fleet of state universities. Your advocacy can help prevent the chancellor from putting his anchor through the bottom of the boat.
David A. Atkinson (BA ’77, MS ’84)
Editor’s note: This piece refers to “The Slate Speaks: Shippensburg University must hold its own in coming months,” which appeared March 9 in print and on theslateonline.com. Mr. Atkinson is an SU alumnus and serves on the College of Arts and Sciences Advisory Board.