Q&A with Penn College's Provost


Photos by Cindy Davis Meixel.

What are your initial impressions of the institution, its administration, its faculty and its students?

Penn College, and the town of Williamsport, has completely charmed us. We have been blessed to have a really smooth transition to the region. I’ve had the opportunity to meet many of our students, and I’ve been impressed with their work ethic and dedication to their fields of study. Penn College students take real pride in their chosen field and it shows. The faculty and staff here are phenomenal. The commitment to learning pervades the entire college and results in a level of collaboration and teamwork that is impressive. The faculty are amazing. Student learning comes first and foremost, and they bend over backwards to make sure that occurs. Our faculty are in the labs with students constantly. The relationships built there make for a great learning environment. The administration has a commitment to providing the resources to allow that learning to happen. This results in data-driven decisions and a bias for action. This is a fast-paced place that makes for an exciting work environment. I am very grateful for the opportunity the board and (President) Davie Gilmour have given me to be a part of this team. Davie and my colleagues here are amazing. They are warm, friendly, dedicated and talented. I am honored to be a part of the team.

How has your previous experience in higher education (at Delta State University in Mississippi since 1986) prepared you for this leadership role at Penn College?

I spent my entire academic career at Delta State University. While I spent the last 10 years prior to coming to Penn College in a series of administrative roles, my first 15 years were spent as a full-time teacher, and that is my first love. Indeed, I continued teaching in a part-time capacity throughout my time at DSU. Because of my background as a teacher, I hope to have an understanding of the needs of our faculty at Penn College.

My administrative experiences were varied. I have led a traditional academic department, outreach/continuing education units and a graduate school. In those roles I’ve been involved across the entire college and been heavily involved in building relationships. That broad base of experience is what I’m finding to be the most useful for me in my role here at Penn College.

I was very fortunate to have great mentors in my career. One was my former provost, and he really challenged me with new and varied assignments. That was tremendously valuable in learning the complexities of college administration. Another mentor was in Student Affairs. His influence led to my deep appreciation for the “whole college” experience and the realization that learning doesn’t stop when students leave the classroom or the lab.

Penn College is a hands-on technical college emphasizing teaching over research. How does this approach differ from your previous work experiences, and has it required any adjustments on your part?

Penn College’s commitment to applied technology is markedly different than my background. I’ve gained a deep appreciation for the commitment of our faculty to the science and art of teaching and learning. I’ve also gained a real appreciation for the sheer amount of work our faculty members are willing to put in to assure that they are effective at what they do. This commitment to learning is admirable.

From an administrative perspective, Penn College’s commitment to applied technology has required me to very quickly learn about disciplines and fields of study with which I had practically no experience. The staff in Academic Affairs and the deans and assistant deans who lead the eight schools at Penn College have been very patient and helpful in teaching me about their programs and what goes on there. Tom Gregory (associate vice president for instruction) and Carolyn Strickland (assistant vice president for academic services) are two of the most talented administrators I’ve ever had the privilege of working with and are extraordinary in their efforts to ease my transition. Our commitment to applied technology also requires a real commitment to providing state-of-the-art resources for teaching and learning. A quick review of the investment the college made in the Stage X (Building Program) projects reflects that commitment.

Penn College students Jordan A. Pennypacker, Corey Shank, Sarah K. Mariano and Adam S. Feather

Penn College students Jordan A. Pennypacker, Corey Shank, Sarah K. Mariano and Adam S. Feather get acquainted with Vice President for Academic Affairs/Provost Paul L. Starkey in the Madigan Library.

Do you envision the college making any changes to its curricula as a result of the nationwide economic downturn?

The Penn College faculty and administration are constantly reviewing the curricula to assure that we remain current. Tom Gregory does a wonderful job of both encouraging innovation in curriculum offerings and in assuring the absolute highest standards and expectations. We continue to make adjustments, additions and deletions to our offerings. For instance, many of our information technology areas now focus on their baccalaureate (four-year) degree program rather than an associate degree (two-year) program because the job market simply demands that entrants in those fields be more thoroughly prepared for those careers.

We are constantly aware of the changes in industry and seek programs that fit our mission and allow us to serve our constituents. We will always maintain a focus on the applications of technology in our programs. I believe we are likely to consider expansion of programs that are “green” in nature. I also believe that geospatial technologies may be considered, as well as interdisciplinary efforts to blend the applications of diverse fields.

The college takes pride in its ability to respond rapidly to workplace needs. Are there specific career areas that may generate new course offerings in the near future?

We do recognize the ever-shifting landscape of the demands of the workplace, and we have a history of anticipating such changes and preparing for them. Some recent programmatic initiatives are wonderful examples of this responsiveness, including “green” programs in building science and sustainable design, renewable energy, building automation, the emphasis on hybrid power in automotive, and on-site power generation, to name just a few. We have also led the nation in response to the development of the natural gas industry in the region. Practically every program in the schools of Natural Resources Management and Industrial and Engineering Technologies have made curricular adjustments to the needs of this industry.

The schools work closely with industry and often partner with Workforce Development & Continuing Education at Penn College to address the needs of employers in the state and across the region. New programs are in the works or have recently launched that address the interdisciplinary skills needed in industrial design and interactive media. Information security is a growing emphasis in our information technology area, as is health information management. The availability of health-related careers in general is growing by leaps and bounds. We are expanding enrollment in baking and pastry arts at a phenomenal rate in response to industry demands. Every school has ample evidence of innovation in programming in response to anticipated industry changes.

Penn College offers a variety of academic support programs. How important are these for students, and do you envision any changes in these areas?

Two of the principles to which I am firmly committed as an educator are that we should never lower the standard of excellence to which we hold our graduates, and that we have an obligation to meet every student at their point of need. Aligned with the first, I have seen the college’s high expectations of performance in all programs. We do not lower these expectations because then we devalue education across the board. If we are to be the premier college of technology in our region, we must produce the absolutely best-prepared graduates. Evidence of this commitment to excellence is our recent ranking as one of the Top 10 public colleges in the North Region by U.S. News & World Report.

Penn College is, at the same time, an open-admissions institution. This means that our students come to us with varying levels of preparation. We must recognize this and craft means by which students can attain the levels of excellence we expect of our graduates. We must meet them at their point of need.

To that end, Penn College has made serious commitments to assuring success for our students. We recently reorganized the Academic Success Center to broaden the services offered and make them available in many more locations. We recently launched SupportNET, a means of identifying students who may be struggling academically. Most importantly, Penn College undertook the Foundations of Excellence process in 2009-10 and is in midst of implementing the recommendations that resulted. We will see many changes in the future that directly address assisting our students as they make successful transitions to college and throughout their academic careers.

Paul L. Starkey

Starkey chats with students in the Madigan Library.

Are more adult/nontraditional students enrolling at Penn College? What special challenges do they face, and how does the college help them cope?

We are seeing an increasing number of nontraditional students enrolling at Penn College. Over the last years, our numbers of students over 25 years old, the standard for identifying nontraditionals, has increased to over 20 percent of our total student body. Those over 30 years old make up almost 12 percent of our student population, a double-digit increase over three years. We are seeing an increasing number of returning veterans, as well as more students retooling for new career fields.

Penn College recognizes that nontraditional students have unique needs, including balancing family, work and school. We address those needs in numerous ways. Many of our programs have Prior Learning Assessment options to award credit for professional and life experiences, thus shortening their time required for graduation. Residence Life recently created a department to assist with off-campus housing, and Student Activities has created a lounge specifically for commuting students, with both programs serving primarily nontraditional students. Penn College has been recognized on multiple occasions as a Military Friendly School. As part of the Stage X renovations, the Children’s Learning Center has new expanded space with priority placement awarded to children of students. We have a number of 2+2 programs and many are offered via distance to serve adult learners. Adult learners are a high priority for the college.

Bachelor-degree majors now account for 42.5 percent of enrollment at the college. Is that percentage expected to change? How does the college serve (and market its programs to) both associate- and bachelor-degree student populations?

In the 20-plus years Penn College has offered baccalaureate degrees, we have seen a steady rise in the number of students pursuing them. This trend is expected to continue as more and more career fields make the four-year degree the standard in their respective professions.

One of the things that first attracted me to Penn College was the manner in which many of our programs are structured to allow a steady progression of advancing degrees. For instance, in Construction and Design Technologies, a student could pursue a certificate in residential building. Those courses transfer directly into at least two associate-degree programs with no loss of credits. All associate-degree programs can then be used in baccalaureate programs. Similar degree progressions exist in every school and program. There is a seamless transition that allows students to move forward with maximum use of credits, and every single student earning a two-year degree can move forward to a four-year program. We often tell our potential students that they don’t have to commit to the baccalaureate program upon entry, but start with the first two years, and then do the last two.

The bachelor’s degree in technology management has become our umbrella program, providing a route to a four-year degree in fields that may not have a program of their own. There are a number of 2+2 programs, designed to make the maximum use of credits earned in an associate degree. There are several distance-based programs that are designed for those students employed full-time. All of these programs stress the need to continue lifelong learning.

The Foundations of Excellence initiative that the college is implementing aims to have more first-year students stay on track and continue their education. What can we expect from FoE in the coming year?

The Foundations of Excellence report was distilled down to 37 recommendations by the Implementation Team. These recommendations are in nine different categories and all have plans for implementation. Some are already complete and most are in progress.

What may be the most visible of the recommendations is the requirement for all first-year students to take the First Year Experience course beginning in Fall 2011. This course aims to acclimate first-year students to Penn College, to aid in development of academic and social skills, while providing an environment for students to build relationships that are likely to last a lifetime.

FoE implementation, led by Carolyn Strickland and Eugene McAvoy, dean of academic services and first year programs, is involving every aspect of the Penn College campus. This is truly a collegewide commitment to ensuring that our first-year students get off on the right foot and continue to succeed at Penn College. ■

Editor’s note: Paul L. Starkey, Pennsylvania College of Technology’s new vice president for academic affairs/provost, began his duties in July.