The Student Contributions to Penn State

The Mount Nittany Conservancy’s “Ben Novak Fellowship” provides Penn Staters and Nittany Valley residents an opportunity to encounter the Nittany Valley’s legendary spirit through cultural and environmental experiences meant to enhance appreciation for our distinctive community and encourage friendships for the future. The Mount Nittany Conservancy’s Ben Novak Archives are intended to help new generations encounter the Ben Novak Fellowship’s namesake.

Ben Novak, founder of the Mount Nittany Conservancy, delivered the following speech in his capacity as a Penn State Trustee to the Board of Trustees at its November 1989 meeting:

Chairman Huck, President Jordan, President Althaus, President Martin, Representative Donaldson, Chairwoman Atwood, Members of the Board:

The subject I am addressing today is students. Everybody likes stories. So sit back and relax, and let me tell one of the greatest stories of the spirit of Penn State and what it has meant to the greatness of this University. It is a story rarely told, and so for most of you will be new. It is a wonderful story of how much the students of this University have contributed to most of the things we feel are really great about Penn State over the past 130 years. For the student body, acting on its own, independently, usually without administrative or Trustee support, has played a vital role in Penn State’s growth which is without parallel by almost any other portion of the university community.

Our story begins with a dream, the dream of our Founder and first President, Evan Pugh. When Evan Pugh arrived at the Farmer’s High School to take up his duties as President in 1859, he found little to excite the imagination. He found a building under construction, and a few students who came to learn the practical aspects of agriculture and the mechanic arts. It was a high school, and barely that; little more than a vocational trade school for farmers. But Evan Pugh had a dream that Penn State was to be more, much more than that. In his mind’s eye he saw the great University that was to be. “I would create a noble institution,” he said, “such as Yale or Harvard or Princeton.”

But how was such a dream to be even begun, let alone realized? Evan Pugh turned to the students. Penn State would have to be more than a vocational trades school. Evan Pugh had told the students that “the only regret of his entire childhood” he later wrote, had been “those two years wasted in learning a trade.” So he inspired them to make the Farmer’s High School more than a trade school and to make themselves more than just tradesmen, but to become men of character. And in the fall of 1859, the students raised $250 and began to make the school a real College. They formed the Washington and the Cresson Literary Societies. Without faculty, budget, position or status, the students began to mold Penn State into the University it was to become. These societies created their own reading room, and built up libraries that Wayland Dunaway recounts, rivaled the College Library. In 1896 funds were made available to create chairs of language, literature, history and philosophy, and the College began to provide the Liberal Arts education our land grant charter had called for. But for 37 years, the students had done it largely on their own, creating the spirit of a real University before we were even a college.

These student societies created the first printed publications ever published at Penn State. In 1873 and 1874 they brought out the Cresson Annual and the Photosphere. These were completely created and funded by the students themselves. Indeed, in the earliest issue the editors reported that their journal was not only “the latest thing out,” but that the editors were also “out, out of pocket.”

The journals continued until 1887 when these two Societies formed a Joint Committee to bring out a regular college newspaper called the Free Lance. The Free Lance, as you know, was the forerunner of the Daily Collegian. Just two years ago, the Collegian celebrated its 100th Anniversary, remembering the founding by students, on their own, of what became Penn State’s award winning daily newspaper.

But creating the forerunners of the College of Liberal Arts, and the Daily Collegian were not the only things that students created on their own.

The 1890s are recorded in the official history books as the years of great growth for Penn State. In the late 1880s under the dynamic leadership of President George W. Atherton, funds became available for new buildings and an expansion of the campus which would enable the college to increase in size by almost one thousand per cent in the next few decades.

But that period of growth was also a time of crisis for Penn State. The plans for the college called for growth, but there were no funds for dormitories. The town had not grown enough to provide for an influx of that many students. If the college were to grow, where were the students to be housed?

The College once more looked to student initiative. In 1887 the ban on Fraternities and secret societies was lifted. Students were allowed to organize themselves independently. The results were spectacular. In the next 20 years, the students built 38 dormitories on the campus and downtown, in the form of Fraternities. The student body grew from 287 in 1887 to about 2,500 in that period, with about three quarters of these new students living in entirely student created housing.

In effect, once freed of administrative oversight and intervention, students built an average of almost two dormitories a year from 1888 to 1918. They did this without administration support, without a Dean of Students to do it for them, and without government funding. They did it on their own. And they made those Fraternity houses the most beautiful buildings and architecture in the entire Borough.

Without students providing this housing on their own, our campus could not have grown. There was no General State Authority then. There were only the local banks and local mortgage financing. But Penn State students were able to bond themselves together, in such strong bonds of loyalty, that the Penn State Alumni News reported in the 1920s that banks considered these student fraternities to be the safest investment in the United States.

Football today we like to think of as one of the most important parts of Penn State life. It, too, was begun entirely by students, without help from faculty, administration or the Board of Trustees. Intercollegiate football games were originally organized entirely by students, beginning in about 1882, with the first “regular season” in 1887. This was set up without any administrative support, without coaches, and little but student initiative. Indeed, it is recorded in the history books that,

“…prior to 1894 the student body frequently raised and discussed the question; why do not the Faculty and Alumni take more interest in athletics?”

Indeed, the early athletic programs at Penn State were entirely funded by the students themselves. Dean Erwin Runkle reported:

“Games are financed by subscription; by contributions from the players themselves; by a series of lectures and entertainments…”

From the earliest, intercollegiate games, until 1891, there was no paid coach, until in that year the student body petitioned for one, and voted to add one dollar to their student activities fee on their tuition bill to fund a “Chair of Physical Culture,” so that they could have a coach.

It was student initiative, student self-sacrifice, and student creativity which created both our football team and our College of Physical Education. They raised their own tuition, taxed themselves, and initiated the whole sports program at Penn State, by themselves.

Student initiative also created our college spirit and traditions. In 1907 a few students anonymously brought out a monthly publication, called The Lemon. In it, the students ribbed the Professors and other students, and argued strenuously for a school flag, school mascot, school colors. They raised school spirit and the student body adopted the Nittany Lion as our mascot, blue and white as our school colors, the official class ring, and the school songs we still sing at Football games.

The editors of The Lemon also had a magnificent sense of humor. Shortly after starting The Lemon, another anonymous publication appeared, called The Squeeze, which lampooned and ridiculed everything which The Lemon advocated. The campus came alive through the dueling of The Lemon and The Squeeze for almost two years. It was only after the students who brought out The Lemon graduated that the campus learned that both journals had been brought out by the same group of students!

You can easily guess that these two journals were also the genesis for The Froth, Penn State’s longtime student humor journal.

In the 1940s came new challenges to students. After World War II Penn State grew like “Topsy” in order to meet the needs of thousands of returning veterans on the GI Bill. The Administration grew, and soon took over almost all of Old Main. The student offices and club rooms and meeting rooms were removed. The students were given a small temporary building, called the TUB, to serve the needs of 5,000 students. That same building we know today as the Robeson Cultural Center.

This time the students needed help. They petitioned the Board of Trustees for a student bookstore and commissary and a student union building. All were denied. The Board had funds for everything except students. But, rather than demonstrating or protesting, the students once again showed that magnificent Penn State spirit which had served the College so long and so well. It was the Penn State student “can do” spirit which said, “Okay, we’ll do it on our own.”

And they did. They created their own student bookstore and book exchange, the forerunner of the huge Penn State Bookstore today. That bookstore was entirely run and managed by students from 1949 until the late 1960s. I particularly remember this because from 1962 to 1964 I spent many long hours and late nights serving on its student board of control.

The students not only created a store, they also built the HUB, their own student union building, by themselves. They devised a two part plan. First, a student insurance program with funds from premiums going into a student union fund. And, second, in a wonderful show of student spirit and self-sacrifice, the student leaders of the All-College Cabinet met in 121 Sparks in May of 1950, and once again voted to raise their own tuition.

At that time, and since the 1890s, when the $1 was added to the start the football team, the tuition bill had two parts; regular tuition, and a student activities fee set by, and distributed by, students themselves.

It was this student activities fee portion of the bill that they increased. Now that increase in 1950 was much larger, percentagewise, than the 10 per cent increase in tuition which this Board voted just two years ago. But the students, at that time, gladly voted to increase their tuition because they knew the College needed a student union.

What was most impressive was a rather startling fact. The students who voted to increase their tuition in 1950 knew that they themselves would never get to use the facility that they were paying for. The HUB did not open until 1955, five years after all the students who voted for it had graduated. But they had a belief in Penn State, and a willingness to sacrifice for Penn State, and they gladly voted to increase their own tuition for the Penn State that was to be.

It is an interesting footnote that after the HUB was built, the fee was never rescinded. In a deft move, the administration incorporated the enlarged student activities fee into the general budget and announced they would appropriate money for student activities from the general fund. Thus, at a single stroke, the student vehicle to creativity, which had created the football team, the forerunner of the College of Physical Education, and had built the HUB, was removed. And, it seems, the students are still paying for the HUB 39 years later.

But through it all, Penn State grew in depth and stature, in tradition and in size, largely made possible, when the going got tough, by looking to student initiative to create for Penn State what was needed.

Many of you enjoy the Central Pennsylvania Festival of the Arts every year. Today the festival attracts about 300,000 visitors to State College each year, and is one of the top summer attractions of both Penn State and the town.

But the Arts Festival, too, was initiated by students in the early 1960s. It was begun by students of the HUB Committee and run for several years as the “Spring Arts Festival,” a very successful student celebration of the Arts.

I fondly remember the student arts festivals very well, because in 1964 I was “pinned” to the beautiful chairwoman of the Festival (who, back in those days was still called a “Chairman”) and presented her with a lovely bouquet of red roses at the Festival Finale.

In 1966 the Spring Arts Festival was taken over by State College and the University and made the Central Pennsylvania Festival of the Arts. It is no win its 23rd successful year and many of us have annually attended it. But its beginning arose from the genius, initiative, creativity and hard work of students.

There are many more stories about the contributions which students, when they have been given the chance, have been able to make toward the greatness and growth of Penn State. Both in times of crisis and in times of great growth, they have provided the spirit and concrete contributions which have impelled Penn State along its present path of greatness.

When we look around the campus, from Rec Hall to Old Main, from the Nittany Lion to the Hetzel Union Building, from the College of Physical Education to the College of Liberal Arts, from the campus to the more than 50 beautiful buildings of the Fraternity District. We see the contributions of student creativity, innovation, self-sacrifice and constructiveness.

What is the moral of the story I have told? It is this;

Penn State is a living body, and the student body is an important organ of that body. And just like your own body, when one organ is not functioning well—whether it be the heart, lungs or liver or brain—the entire body ceases to function well. I believe that the student body is an organ of Penn State which is as important to the health of the whole, and has as much to contribute, as the faculty, the administration, the Board of Trustees, the staff, and the alumni.

Students are not customers, nor commodities, nor resources to be managed. The student body is a vital organ of the University which has contributed much to Penn State’s growth and greatness in the past, and has an even greater contribution to make in the future. All they need is your respect and a chance to show what they can do in the future, on their own.

I have a dream. I see a day when the TK sports part of the student body at Penn State, in independent, constructive endeavors, in adventures of the mind and spirit, in publications and organizations, can engage and enlist the enthusiasm and involvement of our alumni just as much as the football team. And I see the student body, working with townspeople and alumni, making Penn State and the Nittany Valley—and all our Commonwealth campuses—the most intellectually exciting, morally stimulating and mentally alive campuses of all the colleges and Universities in America. I would like this to be our dream.

The key to unlocking that creativity is what it has always been: independence—the same key that unlocked the greatness of America in 1776. When students are free of red-tape and bureaucracy, whenever they are let go to organize themselves and encouraged to work creatively with townspeople and alumni; they have done nothing but bring glory, pride and honor to Penn State, and contribute to the greatness of our University.

And so I ask you, remember the students. They are our reason for being. They are our pride. They are the source of our spirit. They are our past and they are our future. They earn the honors. They win the football games. They are what we exist for. Without the students, no matter what else we do, we would not be able to call ourselves a University.

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