Q&A: Chancellor Kevin Snider on seven years, Penn State New Kensington’s future

Students ordering Starbucks coffee at Penn State New Kensington’s Junction coffee bar chat with Chancellor Kevin Snider, who has his Starbucks already in-hand. Credit: Bill Woodard / Penn StateCreative Commons

On July 1, 2015, Penn State New Kensington Chancellor Kevin Snider marked seven years in office. The campus communications committee sat down with him to review his tenure as chancellor and to talk about what's next for the campus.

Q: What have you learned about the campus over the past seven years?A: It has evolved quite a bit. We’ve evolved from a place where people come and go, to a place where people come and stay -- stay to study, stay to work, stay to eat, stay to learn. We have a whole new campus look. That’s really been beneficial to us. The biggest thing I have learned is the campus has great, resilient people. We had to ask folks to do a lot -- think differently, act differently, work differently, as well as take different approaches and take on incredible workloads. We are at 680 students, but if we hadn’t done that, we would be worse than that. It’s the demographics of the area. A lot of places would become demoralized and rundown and not want to do stuff, and that’s not this group. People are still excited about coming to work. They still love students and want to be here and love the campus, and that is terrific.

Q: What are the things that most surprised you?A: The resilience and the good education environment were surprising. We had to really do a lot of different things -- upgrading facilities, improving the look of the place, promoting academic programs and getting people to believe they were doing great. People had a little bit of self-doubt and just didn’t have a lot of confidence. Some people did, but overall, we didn’t really believe we could be a model for folks. The most surprising thing was not that we couldn’t be a model, but that we already were a model. We have a great product. We just had to refashion things on the academic side. We are able to show that you can save a lot of money, graduate on time and compete very well. We do a great job of preparing students. So if you look at the overall retention figures, graduation figures, grade-point averages, and success of students after they graduate, I think we compete really well with every other campus, including Penn State Behrend, and in some cases with University Park.

Q: What do you consider your biggest accomplishments?A: Changing the perception of the campus is probably among the biggest. The other would be the engagement of the community and the mileage we get from the GREAT1 program, the WEDIG2 organization and the Entrepreneurial Center3 initiative. We’re involved with the community. I go to committee meetings at the city, county, state levels and in Pittsburgh. People are starting to think about us. Being involved with the community also helps with the “quality” perception.

Q: When you first started at Penn State, building public/private partnership, becoming more involved in the communities and developing a strategic plan for the future of the campus as well as the Alle-Kiski Valley region were all a part of your vision. Are you satisfied with the progress made so far?A: I am really satisfied with the progress. The campus is now seen as a partner in the community more than it has been in the past. There are some private-public partnerships that haven’t come to fruition, like a private partnership in housing. I do think we’ve done extremely well for our size. I get a little frustrated because we are so small sometimes. I can see us doing more but not with our current number of people, students and where we are.

Q: What is Penn State New Kensington’s biggest strength?A: It’s the family atmosphere and the people. In my entire career, this place has a much higher percentage of people who are here because they believe in the educational process and helping students. That comes through from staff, faculty, and other students. It’s a really an incredible place in that regard. It’s a huge strength.

Q: What is Penn State New Kensington’s biggest challenge?A: Our biggest challenge is the demographics in enrollment. We can overcome that by attracting people from within a reasonable communing distance. We also need to expand the market somehow, but without adequate housing, that is a challenge.

Q: You unveiled your seven-year strategic plan last year. How are the goals coming along and how do they fit with Penn State’s plan?A: I think they’re coming along okay. The biggest issue was trying to make a plan flexible enough that we could adapt to Penn State’s plan, which is still evolving. The things we are doing are important to the University so that is good. In some areas, we are further than I thought we would be. So overall, we’re doing a pretty good job.

Q: Why are you so passionate about sustainability?A: For a couple reasons. We are getting to the point now, where we’re starting to feel some effects of the environment in which we live. I worry about the future for our kids. I also think this is an incredible learning opportunity for students. It’s a healthier lifestyle. It’s good for future generations. The more we can educate people and ourselves about sustainability the better. I’m learning a lot from Green Paws4 and sustainability.

Q: The campus received a $50,000 grant to spur economic development in the local area. Why is innovation and entrepreneurship so important to the campus?A: I think the way this economy is going is the way of the future. Because of technology, more and more people are finding ways to fund their ideas and make a profit. It’s important because we need to introduce students to that world and to support and educate them on how they take an idea to a sustainable, marketable product. If we don’t do that, I worry that our students might be left behind those in other places. The entrepreneurship initiative is great for the community. There’s a whole subculture of entrepreneurs growing up in Pittsburgh now. And they are changing neighborhoods, such as East Liberty, Bakery Square and the South Side. It’s having a significant impact on who is moving to those areas and the economic development in those areas. This is something that is doable in the city of New Kensington. If we can help the city while helping our students, that is a great thing for us.

Q: What would you like to be your major accomplishment to be in the next seven years?A: I would like to see enrollment grow to about 900. I would like us to be considered the destination campus in the west for engineering-related majors, as well as for other majors. I would like to have a reputation because of our academic programs, such as nursing, business, communication and administration of justice. When we start seeing students coming to the campus because of the reputation of our academic programs, then that will be an accomplishment. Our ABC Create Lab5 is another accomplishment. If we can find a way for local school districts to increase their test scores and the interest in STEM-related skills through cooperation and more effective use of integrative technology, then it helps all of us. It will mean that families are coming here to live because of the quality of the school district. It will mean the reputation of the area is going to increase, and it will mean that the students who come to us will already have a lot of the skills they will need. This will reduce the amount of remedial work we do.1 GREAT (Growing Regional Excellence through Experience, Academics and Training): The program matches promising engineering and information sciences and technology students with local internship opportunities. The GREAT program is a partnership between the New Kensington campus, the Penn State Electro-Optics Center and industries within the greater Pittsburgh region.2 WEDIG (Westmoreland Economic Development Initiative for Growth): An organization of more than 100 business and government officials who work together to achieve economic growth and global competitiveness through private-public partnerships. Snider spearheaded the establishment of the group in 2009 to foster quality development in communities throughout the county. Members come from five Alle-Kiski municipalities -- Allegheny Township, Arnold, Lower Burrell, New Kensington and Upper Burrell.3 Entrepreneurial Center: The Alle-Kiski Economic Generator (AKEG) is developing an entrepreneurial center in the downtown area of the city of New Kensington. The center is designed to attract and nurture innovation and small business development in the local area. The AKEG initiative is a collaboration of students, faculty and campuses working with businesses and communities across the state to improve the lives of Pennsylvanians. AKEG is funded by a $50,000 grant from Invent Penn State, a new program that brings together Penn State’s intellectual resources, alumni, private and public businesses and investors to support the efforts.4 Green Paws: A four-step sustainability initiative for resource efficiency in campus offices. Each level comprises nine sustainability categories: energy, recycling, waste reduction, purchasing, outreach and production, events and meetings, transportation, kitchens and break rooms, and publications. Each category has a checklist of certain criteria to meet, and each level makes the office "greener." Certification is bestowed upon those who complete the checklist at each level. Since April 1, campus teams have been reducing waste and saving energy. New Kensington is the only Penn State campus with 100 percent participation by its faculty and staff.5 ABC-CREATE (Alle-Kiski Best Practices Collaborative - Community Robotics Education and Technology Empowerment Lab Satellite Network Regional Hub): A campus partnership with 15 local school districts, and the CREATE Lab at Carnegie Mellon University, Westmoreland County Community College and Penn State Electro-Optics Center. The program expands innovative teaching and learning through science, technology, engineering and math, the STEM disciplines. Buoyed by a $300,000 grant from the Grable Foundation, the campus is working in concert with the school districts to share best practices and to integrate technology into classrooms to prepare students for future careers.

Penn State New Kensington Chancellor Kevin Snider at his stand-up desk in his office. The chancellor looks back at his seven year at the campus. Credit: Bill Woodard / Penn StateCreative Commons

Last Updated November 05, 2015