Real Genius

Danielle S. Bassett, PhD  University of PennsylvaniaWe have no reason to doubt that Danielle Bassett would’ve made a great nurse. But we think it’s probably a good thing that she chose a different, more indirect way of helping people.

On Wednesday, Bassett ’04 was announced as one of 21 recipients of the 2014 MacArthur Fellowships. Nicknamed the “Genius Grants,” the MacArthur Fellows Program, according to the foundation’s website, “awards unrestricted fellowships to talented individuals who have shown extraordinary originality and dedication in their creative pursuits and a marked capacity for self-direction.”

A physicist at Penn—her full title is Assistant Professor of Innovation in the Department of Bioengineering—Bassett studies interconnectivity in the brain, research with huge implications for everything from language and memory to disease treatment. In the video below, she explains her path to academia (including that detour in nursing school) and the significance of her work:

Bassett joins an impressive list of fellow scientists, artists, educators, and social leaders who have earned a MacArthur grant since the program began in 1981. Earlier this year, she was also awarded a Sloan Research Fellowship by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. We’re proud to call her one of our own—though probably not quite as proud as her husband, fellow Penn physicist Lee Bassett ’04.

Ryan Jones, senior editor

September 17, 2014 at 5:19 pm 2 comments

Lost in the Line of Duty

DicksonThe tragic and as yet unsolved murder of Pennsylvania State Police corporal Bryon K. Dickson in an apparent ambush late Friday hits closer to home with the news that Dickson ’03 was a Penn Stater. A seven-year veteran of the state police, Dickson was killed in a shooting at the Blooming Grove barracks in rural northeast Pennsylvania that also seriously wounded a fellow trooper. Federal agents have arrived to help in the investigation, and authorities are urging anyone with information to call the state police hotline.

According to his obituary, Dickson and his wife, Tiffany Antos ’02a ’03 H&HD, had recently celebrated their 10th wedding anniversary. Dickson also leaves behind two young sons.

Ryan Jones, senior editor

September 16, 2014 at 10:01 am Leave a comment

Innovation Through Illustration

Frame ChangersOver the weekend, we heard about this cool project from Khanjan Mehta ’83g, director of Penn State’s Humanitarian Engineering and Social Entrepreneurship program. You might remember Mehta’s piece, called “Why Ideas Fail,” from the Jan./Feb. 2014 issue—or perhaps you caught his Huddle with the Faculty talk on social entreprenuership this past Saturday. In his latest project, a cartoon series called “Frame Changers,” Mehta offers a new take on those same concepts: namely, how smart, sustainable technology can improve lives for people in developing countries.

Since 2004, Mehta has made dozens of trips to rural communities in Africa. In creating “Frame Changers,” illustrated by artist Jabez Issa, Mehta hopes to share some of what those experiences have taught him. He writes on his website: “While this quest for improving the human condition has yielded a few ‘game changers’, there have been countless everyday ‘frame changers’: moments that have challenged my beliefs, values and rational assumptions. Moments that have made me revisit my philosophy of engagement and rethink my concepts of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

To see more, check out Khanjan Mehta’s website, or visit the Frame Changers Facebook page.

Mary Murphy, associate editor

September 9, 2014 at 3:59 pm Leave a comment

Twenty Years On, Still Perfect

I think I’m finally over my jet lag from five terrific days in Dublin, and just in time: There’s a home opener to be ready for.

The Nittany Lions’ meeting with Akron is notable for a few reasons, not least that it’s James Franklin’s home debut. But as both a 1995 grad and the guy who spent untold hours on the phone this past spring and summer with members of the ’94 Lions, I can tell you I’m almost as excited about the reunion of Penn State’s last undefeated team as I am about the game itself.

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Carter, Collins, and Brady, three of the stars of the unstoppable ’94 offense.

Alumni Association members by now should have their copies of our Sept./Oct. issue, which features that great shot of Ki-Jana Carter ’95 on the cover, and, inside, an oral history on that team’s epic comeback win at Illinois. While the magazine piece focuses on the Illinois game—well, really the whole trip to Champaign, a surreal experience that the players, coaches, and managers recount in the issue—it’s just an excerpt from our much larger oral history of the ’94 Lions, tracking that squad from raw recruits into arguably the greatest offensive team in college football history. I spoke to nearly 30 guys for that one, and it was very much a labor of love. If you haven’t already, you can find the entire piece over at The Football Letter Blog.

The reunion is well timed not only with the 20th anniversary of that team, but with the emergence of true sophomore Christian Hackenberg as one of the best quarterbacks in the nation. Hackenberg’s record performance against UCF in the season opener, following his terrific freshman season, has some people wondering (prematurely) how he ranks with the best QBs in program history. Well, the guy who tops that list, Kerry Collins ’94, is expected back this weekend, as are arguably—key word here—the best running back (Carter), receiver (Bobby Engram ’95), tight end (Kyle Brady ’95) and offensive line in school history. There are lots of worth guys in the argument at all those positions, but the fact that so many guys from that one team are in the discussion tells you just how phenomenal that team was.

For so many reasons, it’s impossible to compare this year’s team—still limited by sanctions, and with a brand new coaching staff—to Joe Paterno’s veteran, talent-laden ’94 squad. But based on some of the things I heard repeated time and time again by Carter, Collins, Engram, Brady and nearly everyone else I spoke to from the ’94 squad, there’s plenty that this year’s Lions would be well to mimic: Work hard, put aside egos, never doubt what you’re capable of, and never miss a chance to laugh. Solid advice for any football team—and, I suppose, for life in general.

Ryan Jones, senior editor

 

September 5, 2014 at 1:28 pm 3 comments

The Sept./Oct. Issue is Coming Your Way

SeptOctCoverOur Sept./Oct. issue is arriving in mailboxes this week, and that throwback shot of Ki-Jana Carter ’95 should grab your attention.

The photo is part of “What a Trip,” an eight-page oral history about the 1994 football team’s crazy, Murphy’s Law-inspired road trip to Champaign, Ill.—where the Lions went on to win the national championship. For the story, senior editor Ryan Jones ’95 interviewed 19 former players, managers, and coaches, who recalled the experience in vivid (and sometimes hilarious) detail.

Also in this issue: “For Hire,” an essay by Penn State prof Michael Bérubé, who talks about his son Jamie’s search for employment—and independence. Jamie, who is 22 and has Down syndrome, has faced some unexpected struggles since graduating from high school, and his father reflects on what it all means for Jamie’s future.

Other good stuff in the Sept./Oct. magazine: a collection of photos from an engineering class’s spring trip to China; a Q&A with investigative reporter David DeKok, who has some interesting insights into the 1969 murder of Betsy Aardsma; details on the proposed shake-ups to the Board of Trustees; an introduction to Penn State’s new AD, Sandy Barbour, and much more.

What do you think of the new issue? Let us know in the comments or email heypennstater@psu.edu

Mary Murphy, associate editor

August 28, 2014 at 11:11 am 2 comments

Another Emmy for Ty

Ty Burrell nabs his second Emmy. Photo: Kevin Winter/Getty Images

Ty Burrell nabs his second Emmy. Photo: Kevin Winter/Getty Images

No surprise here: Modern Family was the big winner in the comedy category at last night’s Emmy Awards, and our buddy (and March-April cover boy/bus driver) Ty Burrell ’97g nabbed the award for Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Comedy Series.

Ty’s been nominated in the same category every year since 2010. He won back in 2011, too. If you missed his adorable acceptance speech, which he claimed was written by the “kids of Modern Family,” be sure to check out the clip here.

Also, if you stayed up late, you may have caught Keegan-Michael Key ’96g and Jordan Peele introduce the Emmy accountants—turning one of the show’s most notoriously boring segments into an especially LOL-worthy moment.

Mary Murphy, associate editor

August 26, 2014 at 10:19 am 1 comment

BOT Discusses Detailed Reform Proposals

The immediate result of Friday’s meeting of the Board of Trustees’ governance and long-range planning committee is easy to sum up: Needing more time to discuss the issues in board reform, the committee decided to use its regular September meeting to decide on a proposal to send to the full board, and a special October meeting will be called for the full board to vote on the proposal.

Explaining the rest of the meeting, however, isn’t so simple.

The committee finally delved into the details of governance reform. For more than a year now, we’ve heard about the general issues the board intended to consider; on Friday, for the first time, the committee engaged in a substantial discussion of the issues.

That took a while: nearly four and a half hours.

It also took the existence of three proposals, which moved the discussion from hypotheticals and abstractions to concrete suggestions:

Proposal A, conceived by board chair Keith Masser ’73  and Richard Dandrea ’77, would shrink the board by three voting members—the three voting members of the governor’s cabinet, the secretaries of agriculture, education, and conservation and natural resources—for a total of 27 voting members. The three secretaries, the governor, and the university president would remain as non-voting members. This proposal also eliminates three alumni-elected trustees and replaces them with a trustee from the Penn State Alumni Association, a student trustee, and an academic (i.e. faculty) trustee.

Proposal B, conceived by Anthony Lubrano ’82, also eliminates the three cabinet secretaries for a total of 27 voting members. This plan has only one ex-officio non-voting member: the university president. Neither the governor nor members of his cabinet have any role. Lubrano said he intends for the plan to be a compromise. This proposal requires that one of the governor’s appointments be a student and changes the way agricultural trustees are elected (by alumni of the College of Agricultural Sciences).

Proposal C, conceived by Barbara Doran ’75, makes the biggest changes. It cuts the board to 18 voting members by eliminating as voting members the three cabinet secretaries, four gubernatorial trustees, all six business and industry trustees, all six agriculture trustees, and two alumni-elected trustees. It adds one student trustee, elected by the board, and eight at-large trustees appointed by the board. The university president and the state secretary of education remain as non-voting ex-officio members.

Those are the highlights—you can click here to see the 10-page matrix with all three proposals that the committee used as its basis for discussion, which was the most detailed the members have had about possible changes.

Everyone knows the big issues—the size of the board, the composition of the board, the way board members are chosen. Committee chair Keith Eckel used those issues as the framework for the meeting. What those discussions revealed were the more specific questions that must be resolved to come to a consensus on those bigger issues. I’m going to focus on some of those questions:

Why so many agricultural trustees, and how would shrinking the number reflect on the university’s land-grant mission?

Penn State has more agricultural trustees than any university in the country: Cornell, a private land-grant university, has two of 64, and Purdue has one, elected by alumni of the agricultural college. Penn State’s six ag trustees reflect the university’s roots as the Farmers’ High School and the Agricultural College of Pennsylvania (it became the Pennsylvania State College in 1874), and its land-grant mission. Doran pointed out, however, that only 3.6 of the student body is in the College of Agricultural Sciences.

“My real question,” she said, “is why we have so many given the small percentage on campus. We are trustees of the university, not trustees of the state.”

That’s why Doran’s plan eliminates ag trustees—and also business and industry trustees. She says the board needs to be able to address its needs and would be better able to do so by making at-large selections.

The governance committee includes four ag trustees—board chair Masser, committee chair Eckel, Carl Shaffer, and Betsy Huber. Shaffer pointed out that agriculture is Pennsylvania’s No. 1 industry; Eckel called this issue “one that the chair is prejudiced on.” Roger Egolf, a non-voting faculty member of the committee, noted Penn State’s agricultural extension program, which has representatives in all 67 counties. The committee also noted the high proportion of research dollars pulled in by the college.

Lubrano said he saw a role for ag trustees but wondered how they fit proportionally into a reconstituted board. His proposal calls for ag trustees to be elected by alumni of the College of Agricultural Sciences, but Masser pointed out that he himself is an ag trustee who graduated from the College of Engineering. Egolf added that Lubrano’s proposal would “cut out people employed in the ag industry but not from the ag college” and that “also, ag grads go on to other careers,” so someone elected by college alumni may not be working in the field.

What’s the real issue about the alumni trustees—their large number, or the fact that the most recently elected alumni trustees have been vocal in criticizing the board’s previous decisions?

Dandrea started this discussion with a look at the benchmarking—of the 36 peer institutions the board identified, 33 have zero alumni-elected trustees. He noted the “highly unique situation we have at Penn State, where we have had this huge cadre of alumni trustee elected by alumni in contrast to all the other schools basically we decided were appropriate to consider.”

Dandrea further noted that a small percentage of alumni vote in the election—between 2.5 percent and 5 percent, he said, with the higher percentage coming in the three years since the Sandusky scandal. But even those numbers have fallen in the past three years. The combination, he said, means that the board is unbalanced if it has nine alumni-elected trustees.

He called accusations that his position is an assault on alumni-elected trustees a “mischaracterization,” explaining, “Nobody is proposing that we take the alumni-elected trustees from nine to zero, nine to one, or nine to two. It’s taking the alumni-elected trustees from nine to the same number as the other major mechanisms for appointment or election to the board. That’s fair. It’s not draconian.”

He pointed out that while Proposal A, which he helped to develop, cuts the number of alumni-elected trustees to six, same as the number of business and industry, gubernatorial, and agricultural trustees, it also requires that half of those three groups be composed of Penn State alumni. The proposal also allocates a seat to the Alumni Association.

That prompted a spirited dissent from Lubrano, who referred to a previous conversation between himself and Dandrea.

“I told you that having three children, I’ve done a fair amount of studying in the area of psychology. And one of the points driven home is that fair does not mean equal. So the notion that it’s fair to me is preposterous. The largest group representing this university is alumni—over 600,000. … I must confess that when I saw this proposal, it struck me that the hue and cry against the alumni election the last few years is in part against PS4RS, that folks at least quietly within the board are talking about how the process had been co-opted, that we can’t afford to have the kind of elections we’ve had the past three years. So this is really a control issue. If the alumni have nine, they can gain control of the board, and we’re going to harm the university. I find that insulting, frankly. … My only interest is to leave this school better than I found it.”

Lubrano, who had previously called the influence of Penn Staters for Responsible Stewardship “the elephant in the room,” then returned to a recurring theme—that the alumni election is the most transparent part of the board selection process.

Dandrea responded: “It is that. It is a good process. That’s why, even though only 2.5 to 5 percent or more than alumni participate in it, it’s out of respect for the bona fides of the process that we say, that I say, we should nevertheless still have six alumni trustees. Because if you look at the data and consider the micro-minority of the alumni who take the time to vote—and no criticism; there were many years after I graduated when I didn’t vote. Lots of people just don’t vote; that’s just a fact. When you take into account the micro-minority of alumni who vote, this proposal is reasonable.”

Dandrea added that a seat for the Alumni Association would give alumni representatives seven seats on the board, more than any other group, but Lubrano and Doran spoke against that addition.

Doran said that when she mentioned benchmarking with respect to the ag trustees, other committee members mentioned the importance of agriculture beyond those numbers; she said that position was “very eloquently explained.” And she said she was skeptical of benchmarking as a the motivation to reduce the number of alumni-elected trustees.

She described the perception as this: “Alumni trustees have marginalized themselves by violations of board confidentiality, violations of the standing orders, with being at odds with the majority. That’s an absolutely false narrative.”

A related discussion about the seat requested by the Alumni Association largely repeated the points from the discussion at the July meeting—that there is a conflict of interest because of the Alumni Association’s relationship with the university.

Can the process for choosing business and industry trustees be made more public?

The business and industry trustees are chosen by the board itself, a process that some reformers have decried, but that the Faculty Senate report noted was a typical means of board selection. Dandrea suggested that the process works—he noted that the two newest business and industry trustees, Daniel Mead ’75, ’77g and Walter Rakowich ’79, were unanimously approved by the selection committee, which included both a governor-appointed trustee and an alumni-elected trustee.

The committee discussed the procedure and logistics of the search with Eckel wondering whether the committee members could be made public and how important confidentiality was to those who may be nominated. (Mead, who’s on the governance committee, said it was very important.) There seemed to be some confusion over whether the names of the committee were known to the rest of the board. The members are chosen by the chair.

“What we’re saying is that I need to trust my colleagues on the board,” Lubrano said. “That’s what we’re all striving to do, develop a level of trust. It would go a long way if we had some level of information.”

And, finally, here are quick hits on the other discussion points:

—On board size, the committee discussed again having a small enough board to have all members be engaged, yet a large enough board to have members on all of the seven standing committees, which some consider an important part of the reforms that have already been implemented.

—There was widespread agreement that a board seat should be designated for a student, and that students should have input via a student selection committee.

—Dandrea said that he has “come full circle” on the idea of having a voting faculty member on the board and that any financial conflict can be managed by not having the faculty member vote, say, on the budget. Lubrano said he was still against this but noted that he was continuing to speak with “Professor Nichols”—that’s professor emeritus John Nichols, who chaired the Faculty Senate’s special committee on governance (which recommended two faculty trustees) and has extensively researched the role of governing boards.

—The need to find the right balance for emeritus trustees—taking advantage of their expertise, honoring them for their services, and making sure they don’t have undue influence after their terms expire—was discussed again. Specifically, the committee discussed the usefulness of having emeritus trustees on committees as non-voting members.

—Doran’s proposal got deeper into the details than the other two—on the matrix comparing the three proposals, three pages were devoted solely to items raised in her Proposal C. Among the ones that received the most attention: term limits, conflict of interest language, and delivering executive committee notes to the rest of the board within three days of a such a meeting. The last point generated significant discussion: Penn State lawyers said that many gatherings of the committee, such as a traditional Wednesday night dinner before Board of Trustees meeting, are simply informational and not technically meetings.

Lori Shontz, senior editor

August 18, 2014 at 12:03 pm 9 comments

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