John W. Diercks, Ballot Position No. 37

John W. Diercks ’63, ’67g, ’75g EMS
Retired, United States Air Force
State College, Pa.

Read Diercks’ official bio and position statement here (PDF download).

Answers to Questions

1. In view of sharply declining state appropriations, what steps should Penn State be taking to secure its financial future?

Reduced state appropriations are affecting universities across the country.  Penn State has been attempting to stay ahead of these reductions over the past decade or so by conducting strategic reviews that evaluate all University functions with the intent of cost savings.  There have been cost savings from these reviews.  These strategic reviews should continue on a regular basis.  However, with continued reductions in State appropriations, a point will be reached when a long-term solution may be required that changes the structure of the University.

The University needs to stay ahead of a possible future funding crisis by forming a high-level committee of knowledgeable representatives from the Board of Trustees and University to thoroughly review the advantages and disadvantages of at least three options:  1.Remain as a Land Grant, State-supported university.  2.Transition to a private university.  3.Transition to a hybrid private/Land-Grant university along the model of Cornell’s structure.

This committee would be charged to review the impacts of each option on University operations, including, but not limited to, academics, research, athletics, finances, student life, and alumni relations.  After the initial review, the committee would then present their preliminary findings and recommendations to groups across the University, State, and Federal Government for feedback and suggestions.  The key to forming this high-level committee is to thoroughly study these options with input from many sources and then have a recommendation and plan ready to implement in advance of a possible future funding crisis.

2. The rising cost of tuition nationally is making college less affordable for many students. Outline the steps you believe Penn State should be taking to address the issue.

I support holding tuition increases to the rate of inflation or lower as a priority in my position statement for the Board of Trustees.  How can this priority be met?  I suggest a three-prong approach involving the University, students, and the Alumni Association.

The University should continue its periodic strategic reviews with the goal of reducing costs and shifting the savings into holding down tuition increases.  The recent construction binge needs to come to an end.  New construction is often paid for through donations and State funds, but building maintenance following construction adds to fixed costs and results in tuition increases.

Students should be encouraged to improve planning for their college education to avoid becoming “super seniors” and adding to their overall tuition costs.  Many students also take light course loads.  These students can increase their load and take more credits per semester with the goal of graduating a semester early.  Tuition doesn’t increase for a student beyond a load of 12 credits per semester.

The Alumni Association can assist by establishing and widely publicizing a specific fund directed only to helping students with tuition costs.  This fund would be over and above funds collected for specific scholarships.  The funds collected in the “Tuition Reduction Fund” would be distributed by a pre-determined formula to all students across the University, including all campuses.  For example, a yearly collection of $50 million would mean a $500 to $600 tuition reduction for every full-time Penn State student.

3. What form should Penn State’s land-grant mission take in the 21st century?

The 1862 Morrill Land Grant College Act required Penn State to expand from a college of scientific agriculture to a curriculum that included agriculture, science, engineering, the liberal arts, military tactics, and research for the benefit of the public.  Penn State has been fulfilling its land grant mission ever since 1862 in return for public funds.

On the surface, I don’t believe you will see a change in Penn State’s support of academics, research, and in producing quality students.  The exception being the continued consolidation, addition, or deletion of academic departments in response to changing technology, scientific break throughs, and public interests.  The periodic Penn State strategic planning function will continue to evaluate outside forces affecting change in academic departments and research.

Below the surface, there may be significant changes as Penn State transitions to a private institution or a hybrid private/Land-Grant institution along the lines of Cornell University as State appropriations continue to be reduced.  Eventually, a high-level decision will be required on the status of Penn State.  That’s why I’m suggesting formation of a committee consisting of members from the Board of Trustees and the University to thoroughly study options and recommend a transition plan to a new underlying structure for the University, if required.

Although the University may no longer technically be a Land Grant University sometime in the future, I see the University outwardly increasing its support to academics, agriculture, and research for the public good.

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