Town & Gown: A Real University?

By Chris Buchignani, March 15, 2015

Nearly 30 years ago, Ben Novak, a local lawyer and PSU grad who would go on to earn his PhD from the University and serve four terms as an alumni trustee, was moved to pen a series of essays about the condition of higher education at Old State with the provocative title, “Is Penn State A Real University?” The name was, of course, intended to raise eyebrows, but it also speaks to his central theme of examining the modern Penn State through the lens of John Henry Cardinal Newman’s “The Idea of a University.”

IPSARU-Digital-Cover-08-28-2013-200x300The real meaning of a University is not something which, when once achieved, is gained forever without further effort. The real meaning of a University is, as Homer phrased it, “to strive always for the highest excellence (arete), and to excel all others.” We must, to achieve that excellence, reopen the question of what it means to be a real University, and to seek out those ends which are proper to a University. A smoothly functioning system, by itself, we all know, does not by itself imply excellence, at least not to Penn Staters who really love Penn State.

Is Penn State a real University? It is not so simply because the word is carved on the gates or printed on the stationary. The excellence to which Penn State aspires, and the excellence which it achieves, is in more than just a title. It is an excellence which is inherent in the word “educate,” to lead out of. What Penn State leads out of her students and alumni is excellence, which is the real proof of Her worth. To explore the real meaning of the University is to turn the pursuit of excellence into an adventure of mind and character. [Read More]

While these essays were originally published by State College Magazine in the late 80’s, they are now available, along with supplementary material, in book form from The Nittany Valley Society. An abridged version of the first chapter is published as part of our series of monthly Town & Gown columns.

For those who’ll read this first chapter of Novak’s book, I hope it serves as a tantalizing enough invitation to draw them into the larger work. This book was the very first published by Nittany Valley Press, and I strongly suspect it will long, if not always, remain the most (relatively) controversial piece we put out. Novak (no stranger to rattling cages) strongly declares views that will, in some quarters, seem at least as radical now as they did in the late 1980’s. I have frequently noted that our intent in assembling the essay series into a published book was not to proselytize its ideas, but rather to ensure current and future members of the Penn State community have an opportunity to engage with them. From the NVS perspective, it is less important what conclusions readers ultimately draw about Novak’s premise than that they have the chance to think about them at all. “I don’t care what you think about it; I care that you think about it.”

Cultural conservation, especially in a college community, is in no small part an exercise of the mind. Merely the encountering of a thoughtful, challenging conception of what Penn State can and should be, spending time with it and considering, will inevitably enrich the experience of this place for any “Penn Staters who really love Penn State.”