Safeguard Old State: Founding

The founding of Safeguard Old State was the realization of a decades long movement among widely scattered members of the Penn State family for the rediscovery of the classical university in the Nittany Valley. The following column by Safeguard Old State Founder Thomas A. Shakely, titled Rediscovering The Classical University At Penn State, attempts to shed light on our origins.

Rediscovering The Classical University At Penn State
The Pennsylvania State University, from its birth as The Farmer’s High School in 1855, has been charged with the unique mission of a land-grant university and a public institution. Penn State was founded to educate, primarily, the working class sons and daughters of the Commonwealth.

“Mold us, Dear Old State, into men,” declared the original Alma Mater. It was to this end that Penn State was established, neither to be strictly a classical Oxford-style liberal arts college nor merely an advanced trade school. Penn State was instead founded to blend the two, fostering in its men and women a rich education both in the humanities and in the sciences — a “practical education,” its founders hoped.

Today, though, many of us in the Penn State family — students, faculty, alumni, parents and friends — have forgotten the rich heritage and tradition of our university. The pernicious idea of the institution as “multiversity,” charged merely with research and job training, rather than university, a place for a liberal and personal formation, has taken hold over the past few decades, and the label of “Penn Stater” is in danger of losing its luster.

Penn State students now graduate with steadily fewer experiences of common pride, common experiences or common values. The campus has adopted the stark character of the modern research university; fewer and fewer opportunities exist to unify a fragmented student population into that precious and rare community in time that used to make each class of students so different from each that came before. We lack collective memory and are losing the fondness for our own specialness that has been central to the character of Penn Staters.

Safeguard Old State, a newly established group in State College, was founded on the humble conviction that we Penn Staters are ready to rediscover the best of our institution. It was founded with the hope that Penn Staters can rediscover their lost humanity amidst the chaos and excess of the modern multiversity.

Safeguard Old State “strives to rekindle the spirit of the classical university within the structure of the modern research institution, promoting personal growth through fellowship and genuine academic inquiry.” At the heart of it, we wish to stir the soul of our university, our “Dear Old State.”

The University sits today at a crossroads. We can either plow forward with the multiversity, thereby devolving, once and for all, into just another “Big Box College,” or, we can seek to rediscover the spirit that has defined the current reputation of Penn Staters as not only the most numerous in America, with over 600,000 living alumni, but also some of the most loyal, spirited and dedicated in the world.

To be a Penn Stater means something sacred, and it also means we are not Ohio Staters in the same way a Yale man is not the same as a Harvard man. A bit of this specialness — this unique quality — is communicated to outsiders through our traditions, from the Fall during football seasons with Coach Joe Paterno to THON, the world’s largest student-run philanthropy, in the Spring.

We can see the deleterious effects of the loss of a shared vision for our institution. In the space of a few years, administrators at Penn State have gone on a financial binge at the expense of both students and Pennsylvania taxpayers. The annual operating costs have risen from roughly $2.4 billion in 2002 to nearly $3.6 billion in 2007 — stunning numbers, considering that it equates to a 40 percent spending increase with only about a 10 percent attendance increase.

Tuition has skyrocketed from about $2,700 per semester for in-state students in 1997, to nearly $7,000 per semester for in-state students today. The University Faculty Senate has been rendered more or less impotent and tenured faculty have decreased. The Trustees defer almost without question to the decisions of President Graham Spanier.

We believe a return to sanity can be hastened with a few key reforms. These include: a return to academic excellence rather than settling for mediocrity, budget transparency, so taxpayers can see what their dollars are funding, more tenured faculty, a stronger and independent Greek system, a more informed alumni body, a greater sense of stewardship from our trustees and an informed solution to the dangerous drinking crisis.

Safeguard Old State’s mission is born out in practice by uniting the the scattered members of our community to facilitate dialog and action among fellow Penn Staters. In this way, we believe we can synthesize the best of our rich legacy and our hopeful vision for the future into a living commitment to once more genuinely pursue excellence — personal, intellectual and institutional — at Penn State.

Safeguard Old State exists to help guide the next generation of Penn Staters, preserving the rights and traditions of our university family through advocacy and education. As more Penn Staters continue to rise up to reclaim their rightful place in the life of their university, perhaps the Nittany Valley, our quiet home in Central Pennsylvania, can help a nation rediscover that long forgotten spirit of the classical university.