This year’s Centennial observance at Pennsylvania College of Technology, celebrating 100 years of adult education at an institution nationally known for providing graduates the practical tools with which to build substantial and sustainable careers, will include a July gathering of those who helped chart that historic course.
The yearlong commemoration coincides with another watershed anniversary: 25 years since Penn College was created as a special mission affiliate of The Pennsylvania State University on July 1, 1989.
The July 25 Centennial gala, to be held in Madigan Library, will bring together about 125 invitees including former presidents, administrators, board members, President’s Council and selected friends of the college. The day will feature lunch at Le Jeune Chef Restaurant (the fine-dining laboratory for students in the School of Business & Hospitality), campus tours, a reception, brief remarks and dinner.
The event falls about midway through the yearlong Centennial fete, with other summer events including a July 22 “Pack the Park Night” with the Williamsport Crosscutters at Susquehanna Bank Park at Historic Bowman Field.
Also marking the occasion are an award-winning History Trail through main campus, a series of commemorative books, colloquia on technology and society, custom merchandise from Penn College and its predecessors, gallery exhibits, Centennial art installations – including a just-completed mosaic and welded sculptures to be dedicated in October – concerts, donor recognition, alumni reunions, an expanded fall Open House and themed athletic events.
There’s cause for celebration, too, for the Penn College Scholarship Campaign, a multiyear initiative that coincides with the 2014 Centennial.
To date, the college has raised over $5.5 million in gifts, pledges and planned gifts for the scholarship campaign. This additional support means that in 2014-15, the Penn College Foundation will be able to more than double the annual amount of scholarship support provided to students prior to the start of the campaign in 2011.
Whether fun, informative or philanthropic, the slate of activities honors all those who have helped Penn College and its predecessors reach this milestone and advance its mission into the next century.
“We won’t have to wait a hundred years to see the value, the importance, the necessity of having institutions like Penn College,” U.S. Sen. Bob Casey said of that legacy in a video interview in conjunction with the Centennial. “We need Penn College right now, as we’ve come to depend on it all these years. It’s got a reputation and a place in the economic strength of the state that we have to continue to maintain.”
A Golden Moment’s Silver Anniversary
This summer also marks the 25th anniversary of the innovative affiliation that gave rise to Penn College’s present-day identity, a brand that speaks loudly and credibly everywhere from hometown businesses to Fortune 500 boardrooms.
The partnership blazed new ground logistically and legislatively and opened doors of opportunity at the college: the addition of bachelor’s degrees, the construction of on-campus housing, new buildings that reflect the needs of students and employers alike, and (most recently) provisional membership in the National Collegiate Athletic Association, among them.
What a difference a quarter-century makes.
Born of equal parts determination and desperation, the college’s 1989 transformation into a special mission affiliate of Penn State was anything but smooth.
Not all that long before the senator’s father, then-Gov. Robert P. Casey, affixed his resuscitative signature to the document that gave birth to Penn College, the landscape was littered with parochial hurdles, stopgap remedies and – with no trace of hyperbole – the very real possibility that the preceding institution would close.
When Robert L. Breuder assumed the presidency of Williamsport Area Community College, institutional sponsorship was in the hands of 20 school districts in 10 regional counties, a majority of which had to approve the college’s annual operating budget.
Those districts eventually withdrew from their 20-year commitment, prompting a scramble for an alternative that would meet the local requirements of the statewide Community College Act. The Lycoming County Commissioners were approached to no avail and a short-lived alliance with The City of Williamsport failed to provide the necessary long-term financial security.
The clock ticked on; the college simply had little time to find a solution. What it did have was a distinct mission, a solid reputation, a measurable impact on the commonwealth’s labor force … and friends like state Reps. Alvin C. Bush and Thomas W. Dempsey and Sen. Roger A. Madigan, all of whom enjoyed bipartisan access and respect in Harrisburg.
In fact, the ultimately successful affiliation was informally floated by the governor in a frank conversation during the sponsorship crisis, Bush recalled. (Comments from the former legislator, as well as others quoted here, are from interviews conducted for the college’s Oral History Project.)
“In the course of that discussion, (Gov. Casey) said – just kind of in an offhand way – ‘Well, maybe you are going to have to see if you can make an agreement with someone else, like Penn State, for example,’” he said.
As pipe dreams turned to practical discussions, one of the most critical steps was a campus visit from Penn State President Bryce Jordan and other key players in his administration.
“(Breuder) decided that, somewhere in this process, we had to bring them on campus, host them for a day and show them everything that Penn College is about,” remembered Robert G. Bowers, a retired administrator and emeritus faculty member. “We wanted (the college) to look its finest, and it did.
“We showed them all the centers of excellence and they were blown away. We had equipment and processes they didn’t have at Penn State and it was recognized (that) we were not just some community college down the road. We could be a star in their crown. And, so, it was the turning point: We realized this actually could happen.”
And happen, it did, after negotiations in which “t’s” were crossed, ‘i’s” were dotted and ledgers parsed. There was a new name to consider, a logo to design, a curricular framework to construct and memoranda to float. And, finally, a solution: House Bill 1086, which transformed WACC into a Penn State affiliate.
“If you’re going to merge … you marry the biggest and the best,” Breuder said. “Merge with someone who can bring something to the table, who can bring something to then-Williamsport Area Community College. Where else but Penn State University?”
Much of the crucial legal language was drafted by solicitor Gene Yaw, now a state senator and chair of the college’s board of directors.
“When you stop and think about it, this is the only institution that’s ever been let out of the community college system in Pennsylvania,” he said. “There’s just no question: That has to go down as one of the bigger accomplishments that I’ve ever done in my life.”
The magnitude of the agreement, of breaking the mold while respecting the educational traditions of both parties, is not lost on Bush, either.
“It was the crowning achievement for me,” he said. “It was unique – and it still is. At the time Penn College was created, I don’t think there was anything like it in the country. And I’m not sure that isn’t still true.”
For current Penn College President Davie Jane Gilmour, who was dean of instruction at the time, the affiliation was an opportunity for measured jubilation.
“We could celebrate, but we had to wake up the next morning, and we had to be the best institution we could be because we were one-of-a-kind,” she said of the agreement, which put Penn College under the Penn State umbrella, but with separate budgeting and an autonomous board of directors. “We had to show that we were an institution that could demonstrate quality, demonstrate our mission and really make a mark for ourselves. It’s like you have to wake up and live the rest of your life the way that, yesterday, you were dreaming it to be.”
Decades later, that celebration continues. A 100-year success story, the past 25 aligned with Penn State in a collaboration that is every bit as promising as it was precedent-setting.
“I just feel wildly optimistic about it. We have different challenges and different opportunities, but this place will go on forever, and there will be new leaders, and there will be new marks of distinction, and there will be new significant accomplishments,” Gilmour said. “And we haven’t even thought of them yet.”