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Time to Cover Higher Ed Like Sports Teams

Most institutions want spotlight shining on their best efforts
University Business, Sep 2009

It doesn’t seem like seven months have passed since the Pittsburgh Steelers were parading around Raymond James Stadium in Tampa Bay with that glistening Super Bowl trophy. Part of the reason is that thanks to the news media, and in particular to 24/7 sports coverage, the National Football League never really leaves the public’s consciousness.

The Steelers and their fans were still celebrating when post-Super Bowl attention quickly turned to the new crop of free agents. Who was leaving their team for greener pastures and who was staying put received daily coverage on sports pages and on TV and radio broadcasts, not to mention seemingly endless internet sites and blogs.

Next, attention turned to the annual draft of college talent and the first appearances of draftees with their new NFL teams at spring mini-camps. Then, pre-season training camps opened. The start of the regular season looms, culminating in the Super Bowl next February — after which the cycle will repeat itself.

So, what does this rant of mine have to do with higher education? During the days I spent at more traditional universities and witnessed all the media attention and hoopla bestowed upon collegiate sports, I sometimes wondered: What if educators at colleges and universities lived in the same fishbowl as athletes? What if my colleagues and I had to hold regular news conferences? What if there were a “professors’ draft”? What if the decision of high school valedictorians to attend a certain university brought the same circus-like attention surrounding the signing of a key free agent player, or, for that matter, a blue-chip high school football player signing a college letter of intent?

Higher education wouldn’t welcome that type of media spotlight. Most institutions want the spotlight shining only on their best efforts and would wither under the media storm that sports teams endure daily.

Most college presidents would be embarrassed to have to explain daily the spiraling costs of tuition, billion-dollar endowments with yearly tuition increases that regularly exceed the CPI, the lack of educational coherence in cafeteria-style curricula that seem to benefit faculty first and students second, or the length of time it takes for institutions to respond to corporate needs. And before my colleagues protest too loudly, I can only say: If the lab coat fits, wear it.

Those of us at the Harrisburg University of Science and Technology (Pa.) would welcome that kind of coverage — and benefit from it. Here’s why. Much is being made in higher education circles right now about the so-called STEM disciplines — science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. It is in these areas in which the United States has fallen significantly behind other countries, notably emerging economic powers such as China and India, and where the cornerstones of 21st -century economic development and expansion lie.

As a candidate last fall, President Obama often mentioned STEM education. He followed up with financial commitments after taking office in January. His actions underscore my earlier musings on the what-ifs of covering higher education like sports.

It took the visibility and stature of the presidency to draw attention to the importance of education in applied and science and technology fields. It’s great that Obama did, and nobody knows this better than Harrisburg University, and the many corporate and community leaders and public officials throughout central Pennsylvania.

Regular media scrutiny and dissection of higher education would have let the country know that we at Harrisburg U. started developing the “West Coast offense’’ of STEM education several years ago.

Harrisburg University’s foray into becoming a leader in STEM education actually came on the heels of the San Francisco 49ers’ pioneering the West Coast offense. The idea for a new four-year university in Pennsylvania’s capital city started in the 1990s, and by 2001 we were incorporated as the first independent, non-profit university to focus on STEM fields established in more than a century in the Keystone State. You might have heard of the previous one, a place called Carnegie Mellon University (Pa.).

We handed out our first diplomas four years later, and in January we moved into a state-of-the-art, $73 million, 16-story academic center only a block from the state capitol in downtown Harrisburg. Although bricks and mortar are nice, it’s what we are doing within and beyond those walls — and what we started before public and private benevolence blessed us with a terrific facility — that is the real story.

We are not your typical four-year institution of higher learning. I came to this position out of an opportunity to write on a blank piece of paper, as I’m fond of saying, and it was that opportunity that attracted some top faculty as well. Speaking of the faculty, we don’t just have career academicians and researchers. Although an important part of Harrisburg University, they are supplemented by professionals from companies with interests and talent in the STEM fields.

This highly cultivated relationship with central Pennsylvania companies and government entities at all levels leads to the internships that form a critical part of a student’s four-year education at Harrisburg U. The potential job opportunities for students and the unique training field this provides for the private and public sectors present a win-win situation for all.

And like the West Coast offense, there are a lot of Xs and Os. None of this happened without a lot of study, preparation, and vision. It also didn’t happen by setting out to create a traditional four-year university. Harrisburg U. was market driven. We listened to what nearly 100 CEOs, other business and community leaders, and government officials had to say about their needs and how a new institution of higher learning in their backyard could help meet those needs.

They participated in planning and developing our academic programs. Our interdisciplinary programs prepare students for the 21st-century workplace, enhance those job opportunities through our association with the corporate and governmental communities, and help attract new science- and technology-based firms to our region.

We have direct links with the Technology Council of Central Pennsylvania and have partnered with our friends across the state in Pittsburgh at Carnegie Mellon. Although we think a formal relationship with an institution as renowned as Carnegie Mellon speaks volumes about what we have accomplished in just a few short years, this relationship has drawn only scant media attention; yet, think of the buzz that would be created if the Steelers and the Eagles were undertaking a joint venture to develop players!

At the same time, we are heavily involved with continuing education by offering working professionals graduate courses. We also reach out to military veterans by helping to counsel them on education and financial aid.

We are doing this with our version of basic blocking and tackling — something legendary coach Vince Lombardi subscribed to long before the flashy West Coast offense and zone blitz defenses took hold.

We are also unique in another way, and again it’s this aspect of our educational model that is drawing attention in higher learning circles. I’m talking about so-called no-frills education.

HU has no university-owned housing and no dining halls, no campus entertainment venues, and certainly no sports teams. Our non-commuting students find their own apartments, rooms or accommodations at the nearby International House in downtown Harrisburg.

The urban setting of casual eateries, museums and the performing arts at Whitaker Center just down the street easily fills any voids. As for sports, the Harrisburg Senators minor league baseball team plays within walking distance of the university, and the Calder Cup champion Hershey Bears minor league hockey team is only 12 miles away. And yes, the Senators and Bears draw much more media coverage than Harrisburg U.

We have no plans to start a football or basketball team anytime in the near or distant future, though doing so would undoubtedly garner greater attention by the print and electronic media than many of our endeavors so far.

Some of my colleagues in higher education are likely thinking, “Mel, you are doing an end zone dance and should be penalized for excessive celebration.’’

OK, throw the flag. But please take a look at the model we’ve created for applied science and technology education. We’ve re-invented the wheel in this regard, but remember those who most effectively copied the 49ers offense made it a point to study it first.

We don’t have anyone who grabs the headlines or gets microphones shoved in his face the way Joe Montana and Jerry Rice once did. But in terms of pioneering a new model for STEM education, Harrisburg University and central Pennsylvania have already fielded the kickoff and are moving the ball downfield.

Mel Schiavelli is professor of chemistry and president of the Harrisburg University of Science and Technology.

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