Here’s a guest post from our colleague John Patishnock ’05, editor of AlumnInsider:
Alumni Fellow Award honoree Keegan-Michael Key ’96g spoke with Theatre 100 students Wednesday morning, sharing advice and talking about his process of creating characters and sketches. Co-creator and co-star of the hit Comedy Central show Key & Peele, Key is in town for tonight’s Alumni Fellow awards dinner and has been making the rounds to various classrooms. During his 20-minute talk, he told students that comedy is about zigging and zagging and challenging misconceptions about what the audience expects to see.
Key displayed big-time energy with his gregarious personality, even obliging one student who asked for his autograph amid the Q&A. Key also spoke to the work ethic that’s needed in his profession, saying he routinely wakes up at 4:30 a.m. for a 15-hour workday. What keeps him going, he said, is that he’s doing what he’s passionate about. That’s one reason why he worked so much when he was studying at Penn State, saying he wanted to stay busy because he wasn’t sure if the work would stop when he graduated. Fortunately, he said, the work didn’t stop then and hasn’t stopped since.
At one point, a student asked Key if he envisioned being where he is now when he was at Penn State. “Not in a million years,” Key responded, but he said he made the right decisions at the right time and challenged himself. For example, Key was a dramatic actor at Penn State but has carved out a career as a comedic performer, and he told students they have to allow themselves to see beyond what they think their career path will be and be ready for new experiences.
“I’m not going to lie, so much of this is luck, so much of it is being in the right place at the right time,” he said. “Another thing is you have to have some kind of training, you have to have tools that you can use, but then the opportunity has to strike, as well.”
Brandon Stanton, creator of the Humans of New York franchise, had some good advice for the 2,500 Penn State students who came to see him in Eisenhower Auditorium last night:
Don’t wait for perfect.
In the space of just four years, Stanton has gone from an unemployed bond trader to Internet sensation. His Facebook page—featuring his iconic photos and stories of everyday people—has more than 10 million likes, and his 2013 book, Humans of New York, spent 21 weeks on The New York Times Best-Seller List. A follow-up book, Little Humans, is due out next week.
But it didn’t happen all at once, he told the audience last night. Instead, he found his niche through an evolution, a gradual series of tweaks to his approach.
In 2010, as a 26-year-old bond trader in Chicago, Stanton “was looking for a hobby,” and after winning $4,000 in a football pool, he bought his first camera. Originally he photographed landscapes and landmarks in Chicago. When he eventually started taking photos of people, it was from far away, without their knowing.
Then, for a while, he would find someone who was engrossed in something—say, reading a newspaper—and position himself on one knee, waiting for them to look up and realize he was there. When they did, he’d snap their photo—which, needless to say, they didn’t always appreciate.
“I didn’t know you could ask people to take their photo,” he says simply.
When he finally did start asking, he was pleasantly surprised at how many people said yes: “I remember feeling such satisfaction. And I realized, This is kind of special.”
About five weeks into his new hobby, Stanton got fired from his job, and got the idea to move to New York City to pursue his street photography. Given New York’s rich diversity of people, he says, “I just thought, This would be such a great place to do a [photo] blog.
“I was sleeping on a mattress in the cheapest room I could possibly find in Bedford-Stuyvesant, taking 20 to 30 portraits a day,” he recalls. “And that went on for six months, in complete anonymity. It was a very hard and lonely time.
“Then I discovered Facebook.”
Stanton created a Facebook page, began posting a few photos a day, and the fans started trickling in—a huge antidote to the loneliness. “I started noticing names of people I didn’t know who were following my work. It was the most liberating feeling in the entire world … it lifted a million pounds off my shoulders.”
At first the photos carried only short captions, if any. So another turning point came in late 2011 when he started attaching stories to the photos. Stanton recounted having been sick with the flu and unable to get outside to shoot new portraits, so he rooted around in his existing photos and found one of a woman dressed entirely in green—even green hair. He remembered that she had said something to him that day, and he decided to put her comment into the caption:
The caption reads:
“So do you do a different color every day?”
“No, I used to go through different stages. But then I found that I was happiest when I was green, so I’ve been green for 15 years.”
The photo—one that Stanton had initially regarded as a “throwaway”—became an instant hit. (Currently it has nearly 156,000 “likes.”) Stanton changed his approach accordingly, and now spends as much time talking with each of his subjects as he does shooting their photos; brief excerpts from those conversations now accompany the portraits he posts to his Facebook page. The questions he asks are personal—”What is your greatest struggle right now?” “Can you remember the time when you felt the most afraid?”—and the answers he gets are surprisingly honest.
In August and September of this year, Stanton took his HONY concept to an international level, doing a 50-day world tour in partnership with the United Nations. His photos of schoolchildren, shopkeepers, and young mothers in such countries as Iraq, Israel, and Ukraine revealed that even in areas ravaged by conflict, people are … well, people. There’s a reason for that, he told his audience last night: He went out of his way to look for ordinary people and moments.
“If I’m covering a rally or protest with 12 journalists, and they all have cameras … there could be one guy who’s really angry and all 12 photographers will be gathered around that person. And that’s the photo that goes out to the world. People want to find the extreme images and stories; those are what really sell newspapers.
“I wanted to depict normality in places where very extreme headlines are coming out … to apply this normal intimate process in some scary places.
“I’m just trying to show normality. Not extremity, just normalcy.”
Stanton’s lecture last night was sponsored by the Penn State Student Programming Association.
Tina Hay, editor
Tuesday’s edition of The New York Times ran a special section on climate change, timed to coincide with the United Nations Climate Summit this week in Manhattan. Two Penn Staters with very different perspectives on the issue feature prominently in the package.
The first is Richard Alley, the Evan Pugh Professor of Geosciences in the College of Earth & Mineral Sciences whose work on polar ice cores and quirky, engaging style of bringing science to the masses has made him one of the country’s best known climate scientists. Alley serves as the primary source in the Times‘ explainer on carbon dioxide, our planet’s most prominent greenhouse gas. Alley has a gift for useful analogies, and his “pothole” comparison in the Times piece is a great example.
Then there’s Diane Ackerman ’70, the author whose latest book, The Human Age, continues a career-long passion for the natural world. Ackerman’s new book is one of three reviewed with climate change and its impacts as a unifying theme. As we wrote in our Sept./Oct. issue, The Human Age offers what Ackerman describes as a hopeful take on how humans are impacting the planet: “…how, despite our tendency to alter—and occasionally obliterate—our surroundings, humans still manage to cultivate beauty.”
Ryan Jones, senior editor
Yesterday’s board-reform recommendation by the Board of Trustees’s governance committee is playing to mixed reviews so far.
The most prominent critic appears to be state senator John Yudichak ’93, ’04g, who quickly issued a statement suggesting that the committee violated state law with its recommendation. His concern apparently is with the removal of voting privileges for the three members of the governor’s cabinet who serve as trustees: “The public members of the board of trustees and the voting privileges they have are decided by statute, not by a committee of non-lawmakers,” according to his statement.
Yudichak is the main sponsor of Senate Bill 1240, which would cut the size of the board from 30 voting members to 23. The proposal approved in the governance committee yesterday, by contrast, would increase the number of voting members to 33. Mark Dent of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette talked with Yudichak yesterday and has a bit more on the senator’s objections here.
The governance committee also heard criticism during the public-comment portion of its meeting yesterday from alumnus Jeff Goldsmith ’82, who ran unsuccessfully for the board in 2013 and who has since formed a group called Penn State Board Watch. Goldsmith expressed “extreme disappointment in how the committee has handled public input into this process,” pointing out that while comment has been allowed at some sessions, there’ve been severeal committee breakout sessions that took place in private.
A few other notes from yesterday’s meeting:
Ted Brown’s Proposal E. While much of the debate has been about whether to keep the nine alumni-elected slots on the board or reduce that number to six, trustee Ted Brown ’68 put forward a proposal to increase the number to 12. He points out that alumni trustees (three, to be exact) were first added to the board in 1875, at a time when Penn State had about 1,400 living alumni. Thirty years later, in 1905, Penn State had about 9,400 alumni, and the number of alumni trustees increased to nine. Today, 109 years later, Penn State has more than 600,000 alumni, but still only nine alumni trustees. “In less than 20 years there will be about 1 million [living alumni],” according to the rationale statement in Brown’s proposal. “At that rate we should have 540 alumni-elected Trustees. This proposal advocates only an increase of three.”
Brown’s proposal never made it to a vote. After the meeting, he told the committee, “I have to say that I am not happy with what you’ve passed, but my view is that probably nobody is. … I am happy we reached a compromise that protects all constituencies.” He added that if the full board tries again to reduce the number of alumni-elected seats, he’ll again pursue his 12-seat proposal.
Board size. The proposal passed yesterday would increase the size of the Board of Trustees (including both voting and non-voting members) from 32 to 38. Penn State already has the largest board in the Big Ten, but a Penn State news release points out that even with the proposed change, the university’s board would still be the smallest of the commonwealth’s state-related universities.
One argument in favor of a larger board comes from those who point out that the board has a large number of committees and subcommittees; with a smaller board, they say, it would be hard to populate those committees without stretching members too thin. “I’ve changed my view on board size since I got here,” Dan Mead ’75, ’77g, a new trustee who serves on the governance committee, said in yesterday’s meeting. “I used to think 12 to 14 would be enough. But I didn’t have the appreciation of the committee structure.”
Lubrano v. Dandrea. The most pointed exchanges of yesterday’s meeting, as was also the case in the August meeting, were those between committee vice-chair Rick Dandrea ’77 and committee member Anthony Lubrano ’82. Dandrea supported the original Proposal A, which would have reduced the number of alumni-elected trustees from nine to six; Lubrano opposed that. Dandrea argued that, even with six alumni trustees, Penn State would have greater alumni representation on its board than most of the peer schools that consultant Holly Gregory studied. “By the standard of our database, that is still a robust representation—exceptionally large, compared to most other schools.” Lubrano responded: “I would argue, how many other schools have 600,000—and growing—alumni?”
Dandrea, a trustee elected to the board by its business and industry members, also maintained that a relatively tiny percentage of Penn State alumni show interest in the elections. “With execption of the post-Sandusky-scandal years,” he said, “only 2.5 to 5% of alumni voted in elections. Your marketing firm or whatever tells you to cite 600,000 alumni, but ….” He pointed out that the top vote-getter in the 2014 alumni election, Alice Pope ’79, ’83g, ’86g, garnered 10,000 votes, a small fraction of those eligible to vote. Lubrano’s response: “So how many people voted to put you on the board, sir? Five. … Ours is far more democratic than yours will ever be.” At that point, committee chair Keith Eckel stepped in, saying, “I expect us all to be civil,” and the conversation moved on.
Risk management. There’s one component of board reform that came not from the governance committee, but from the committee on audit and risk. That committee is looking at the possibility of creating a subcommittee devoted entirely to “risk structure,” a concept that has to do with assessing and being prepared for various kinds of risks to an organization. (Some say the Sandusky scandal offers a classic case study in failures of risk management.) The idea has been championed in part by board member Ted Brown, who deals with risk management in his professional life—he owns a consulting firm that’s focused on the topic—and who is one of the alumni trustees elected to the board in the wake of the scandal. The audit and risk committee will report on its discussions on the subject at the full board meeting this afternoon.
Tina Hay, editor
After more than a year of discussion and debate, the governance and long-range planning committee of Penn State’s Board of Trustees agreed on a compromise proposal for board reform today, preserving all nine of the current alumni-elected seats while adding seats for a student representative, a faculty representative, and a representative of the Alumni Association.
The committee’s endorsement of the so-called “Proposal A+,” approved on a 7-1 vote, also adds three at-large seats to be selected by the board. The idea behind those seats is to add expertise in areas the board might otherwise be lacking. In all, the Board of Trustees would grow from its current 32 members (30 voting, 2 non-voting) to 38 total members, of whom 33 could vote.
The proposal will go before the full board for a vote at its November meeting. It represents the most significant expansion of the board since 1905.
Today’s vote came at the end of a three-hour meeting that was at times heated, but committee chair Keith Eckel praised the ultimate recommendation as “a very good compromise.” Only Anthony Lubrano ’82 voted against it.
In a four-hour meeting in August, the committee had debated three proposals—dubbed Proposals A, B, and C—for restructuring the board. (There’s an excellent summary of that meeting by Lori Shontz ’91, ’13g here, and a chart comparing the original three proposals can be downloaded from the Trustees’ website.) This morning, committee vice chair Rick Dandrea ’77 made a motion that the committee adopt Proposal A, which would have reduced the number of alumni-elected trustees from nine to six and added seats for a student, a faculty member, and the immediate past president of the Alumni Association.
The reduction in the number of alumni-elected trustees, as well as the addition of an Alumni Association rep, proved to be Proposal A’s most controversial parts. On the former point, trustee Dandrea cited data that alumni-elected trustees are the exception, rather than the rule, in university governance: “[Board consultant] Holly Gregory looked at 36 peer institutions, including other Big 10 schools, state-related schools, private and public land grant institutions, plus schools like Stanford and Carnegie Mellon,” he said. “It’s a rich database. And 33 of those 36 have zero alumni-elected trustees.”
But Lubrano argued, as he did at the August meeting, that there’s another agenda behind the proposal. “I’m struck by the fact that the interest in reducing the number of alumni-elected trustees comes after three years of contentious elections,” he said. “… In my mind, this is about reducing the influence of the alumni-elected trustees and limiting dissent.”
Meanwhile, there also was talk of a new proposal, Proposal D, which got very little discussion in this morning’s meeting, and a Proposal E, advanced by trustee Ted Brown ’68. Brown’s proposal would actually increase the number of alumni-elected seats, from nine to 12. You can see Proposals A through E here.
It was trustee chair Keith Masser ’73, an ex-officio member, who put forward the compromise plan that eventually passed—he called it Proposal A+. Here are its chief elements:
—Five ex-officio members who cannot vote: the governor, the university president, and three state cabinet secretaries (agriculture, education, and conservation and natural resources). On the current board, the cabinet secretaries have voting privileges; that would end under this proposal.
—Nine alumni-elected trustees, the same as are on the board now.
—Six trustees elected by business and industry members of the board, six elected by agricultural societies, and six appointed by the governor. These are all unchanged from the current board composition.
—Six new members, as follows: a student trustee, nominated by a student selection group and elected by the board; an academic trustee, nominated by the Faculty Senate and elected by the board; the immediate past president of the Alumni Association; and three at-large members, appointed by the board.
The at-large members are an idea borrowed from Proposal C, authored by trustee Barbara Doran ’75, who originally proposed eight such members.
When talk of board reform first emerged in the wake of the Sandusky scandal, it’s probably fair to say that most people envisioned the board shrinking in size, not getting larger. But Keith Eckel, chair of the governance committee, said at the beginning of today’s meeting that there’s been less focus on the board’s size lately than there had been at the outset. “I do not hear from most constituencies that there is an absolute need to reduce the size of the board,” he said. “There are still feelings in that direction, but board size does not seem to be the issue. Board composition, I would say, is a significant concern.”
In a similar vein, Dandrea, the committee co-chair, hinted that some in state government are primarily interested in seeing the divisions on the board heal. Dandrea said that a unanimous vote on a recommendation would be better than “a contested vote.”
Midway through this morning’s meeting, with Dandrea’s motion to approve Proposal A still on the floor, the committee adjourned for what was announced as a 10-minute break. The meeting didn’t reconvene until more than a half hour later, and once it did, Dandrea announced a change in plans. “We’ve had some further discussions during the break,” he said, “and we’ve received some additional input, and what comes through is a desire to try to compromise—to avoid division and potential litigation.” With that, he removed his motion and instead moved that the committee approve Keith Masser’s compromise proposal (Proposal A+). After about 20 minutes of discussion, the committee did just that.
Tina Hay, editor
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
The 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