Faculty Senate hears update on Greek life, crisis communications, budget

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Penn State Faculty Senate chair Michael Bérubé opened the January 29 meeting of the senate on a somber note, recognizing the passing of associate teaching professor of English and history Mary Miles, who died earlier in the month.

Bérubé praised Miles as a “dedicated, talented, and passionate teacher and colleague,” whose work as a faculty senator was instrumental to several major reforms.

“I was always grateful for her help, her advice, and her friendship,” Bérubé said. “I know I speak not only for myself when I say we will miss her keenly.” About her work on behalf of fixed-term faculty at Penn State, Bérubé said, "she leaves behind a legacy."

Following these remarks, the senate observed a moment of silence to honor her memory.

Greek life reform success

During the meeting, Penn State President Eric Barron shared “profound positive results” coming out of Penn State’s Greek-life reform efforts. Since implementing new rules and policies to curb dangerous behaviors among Greek-life organizations, the Highlands neighborhood in State College (which has a high concentration of fraternity houses) has seen a 47 percent decrease in alcohol-related crimes, while the Mount Nittany Medical Center emergency room has seen 17 percent fewer visits for alcohol poisoning.

Barron said the initial progress made has been encouraging, and momentum continues as the University and others look to re-focus the organizations on student safety as a priority.

Barron also spoke about the creation of the new Timothy J. Piazza Center for Fraternity and Sorority Research and Reform. When planning this new research center, Barron said that University leaders quickly realized that comprehensive scholarship about Greek life simply doesn’t exist.

“One of the things we discovered through all of this is that no one knows exactly what a best practice is, because there’s not the data collection and analysis,” Barron said. “This is an academic opportunity to take this to a different level, to be able to say ‘this is what the data and the analysis shows,’” and then institute a data-driven approach to those challenges.

Communications during off-campus crises

Barron also spoke to the senate about the recent off-campus shootings in State College borough on the night of Jan. 24 and the University’s decision-making process during the incident, which had prompted anger from some members of the University community who felt Penn State should have issued a text  alert or some other form of communication while the incident was taking place.

Barron explained that he and other top University leaders take this incident and comments from the public seriously, and that they have been reviewing the incident and the University’s response to determine if it should have been handled differently. However, he wanted to clarify the University’s decision-making to help the senate understand why Penn State responded the way it did.

“First of all, this was not in our jurisdiction. We didn’t have boots on the ground in the midst of everything going on, meaning communications are dependent on the information provided to us,” Barron said.

State College police’s main priority during the incident was responding to the shooting with a focus on public safety— meaning that University administrators could not be sure they were working with the most up-to-date information. Barron said that it is “very tricky to issue alerts when information is second-hand,” because spreading outdated or incorrect information could contribute to confusion or panic.

“It would be very unusual to take on a communications strategy for events in which the chain of command was somewhere else,” Barron said.

Barron also noted that the incident was rapidly unfolding, taking place over the course of a little more than an hour, with State College Police responding to three separate scenes or locations. Because the event took place in such a short span of time, combined with the fact that the University could not guarantee it had the most accurate information because it was not Penn State police responding, the University could not issue an up-to-date alert nor provide an “all clear” notice.

“We reviewed afterward, going through the timeline,” Barron said. “It would be harmful to provide inaccurate information, information that’s late, or to assume that, even though we weren’t on scene, we should be the agency to communicate.”

Temporary budget overview

Executive Vice President and Provost Nick Jones shared an overview of the University’s temporary budget.

Penn State’s temporary budget is one part of what’s known as the “education and general funds budget,”  a significant portion of the University’s overall budget. When revenues exceed projected estimates, these additional funds form the majority of the University’s temporary budget, alongside other non-recurring sources of revenue. These temporary funds are used for one-time or short-term investments, such as capital improvements or faculty recruitment for fixed-term appointments less than four years.

The University’s operating surplus for the 2017-18 fiscal year are higher than originally anticipated, Jones said. In July 2018, when this information was presented to the Board of Trustees, the University’s year-end figure was expected to be approximately $42 million. Actual results are $90 million. Jones said that the University expects to take $17 million from that amount to fund one-time costs included in the temporary budget.

Costs accounted for in the temporary budget include: academic program funds to support educational priorities, matching grant funding, and other program-related needs; capital funds for new facilities, fuel and utilities, and major maintenance endeavors; “central contingency” funds for unexpected costs to support operational needs; “central encumbrance” funds set aside for specific purposes, such as investments in University-wide enterprise system; the “President’s and Provost’s Strategic and Reserves” funds to support initiatives related to the University’s strategic plan; and “unit encumbrance” and “unit contingency” funds to support short-term funding needs and unexpected costs at the individual unit level.

Jones noted that the funding amounts for each of these categories vary from year to year. Since the 2013-14 fiscal year, the University has seen a decrease in “capital funds” allocations, while allocating more to support work to implement updated enterprise systems, such as the WorkLion human resources portal.

Other business

The senate also:

  • Debated a proposed change to Faculty Senate by-laws that would allow the senate chair to run for re-election for a second term;
  • Voted to accept a legislative report that proposes sweeping improvements to senate policies on academic advising, which have the support of the University Park Undergraduate Association;
  • Sponsored an annual report on benefits changes from Greg Stoner, director of compensation and benefits, and shared concerns about Aetna as an insurance administrator ;
  • Sponsored an update on intercollegiate athletics from Penn State Athletic Director Sandy Barbour, who shared information on student-athletes’ academic success and community service;
  • And sponsored a presentation on sustainability at Penn State from Chief Sustainability Officer Paul Shrivastava, who urged each senator to take a personal role in bringing sustainability efforts to their individual campuses, colleges, and units.

The next meeting of the Penn State Faculty Senate will be held on March 12 at 1:30 p.m. in room 102 of the Kern Graduate Building.

Last Updated February 11, 2019