Dr Graham Spanier

Doctor of Laws Graham Spanier

Tuesday 19 July 2011 - Orator: Professor Eric Thomas, Vice-Chancellor

Mr Deputy Vice-Chancellor,

The current population of the United States of America is 307 million people. The UK population today is 62 million. There are 4634 institutions providing undergraduate instructional programmes in the United States of America. The figure for the United Kingdom is 296. In other words the USA has 1 such institution for every 66000 of its population whilst our ratio is one for every 210000. In 1636 there were two universities in England, Oxford and Cambridge, and one, Harvard, in the United States. By 1899, England had added another four: Durham, London, Manchester and Liverpool whilst the United States had added another 77.

What these facts show is that the Unites States has placed education, particularly higher education, right at the centre of its values and ambitions for its citizens both historically and today. I think that it is reasonable to conclude that this commitment is significantly linked to its success as a nation.

When asked to name US universities most British people struggle to get beyond Harvard and yet the United States has the most successful, vibrant and diverse university sector in the world. It always has over half the world’s top 100 universities in the league tables. One of its groups of universities are called land grant universities which were founded from the middle of the 19th century following a successful bill to Congress by Senator Morrill in 1862. This bill granted land for the formation of colleges concentrating on agriculture, science and engineering in response to the industrial revolution and as a counter balance to the liberal arts colleges. It includes some of the great names of American higher education such as UC Berkley, Madison-Wisconsin, Michigan State and Ohio State plus the university we are concentrating on today Pennsylvania State University or Penn State as it is known worldwide.

Since its foundation in 1855, Penn State has grown into a university with 94,300 students across 24 campuses. It has over 41000 members of staff of whom 9000 are academic.  It has an operating budget of $4 billion. It is ranked as one of the USA’s top public universities and always figures highly in global league tables. It requires a very special person to lead such a large and successful institution. In Graham Spanier, our honorary graduate today Mr Deputy Vice-Chancellor, Penn State has found such a person.

Graham was born in 1948 in South Africa where his family had fled from Germany. Very soon after that, they emigrated to the United States of America and Graham was brought up in the south side of Chicago. The family was poor and Graham remembers a challenging childhood in which there was not enough food on the table and he had to work long hours to supplement the family income. Even as a child, Graham recognised that the only way out of this situation was education and he worked hard academically to become the first person in his entire family network to go to university. He gained his bachelors and masters degrees from Iowa State University and his PhD from Northwestern in Chicago becoming a Professor at a very young age. He is a distinguished researcher with over 100 scholarly publications including 10 books as a family sociologist and demographer. Graham admits that very early on, although he was enjoying academic life, he felt there were greater leadership possibilities. His first leadership post was at age 28 and at the age of 30 he found himself as Associate Dean of the College of Health and Human Development following the dismissal of the Dean, a post that he held for three years

Graham was on the faculty at Penn State from 1973 to 1982 and then took further leadership positions at Stony Brook University in New York State before becoming Vice-Provost for Academic Affairs at Oregon State, then Chancellor of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and finally being appointed President of Penn State in 1995 at the age of 47, a position he holds to this day. A meteoric career in anybody’s book.

What caused this rise? Talent and hard work, of course, but Graham is a (rather extraordinary) very unusual person. He is very focused on his students, putting them right at the centre of everything Penn State does. He wants to know how they see experience directly and an example of this is that on “moving in weekend”, their equivalent of Freshers Week, he goes to live in a dorm with 6 or seven new students for the weekend. He shares all the experiences with them and gets insights into the values, ambitions and needs of his new 18 year old cohort. He then shares those experiences in a memo to his staff. I know of no other President or Vice-Chancellor who does this – mind you what his other dorm members think would be interesting to know.

If you walk round his campus with him you can see how much he loves spending time with the students. He is particularly interested in the performing arts and has performed with the students in their Musical Theatre and Chamber Orchestra. I have seen him as the drummer in the marching band at a football weekend and he often acts in costume as the Nittany Lion, the mascot of Penn State’s football team and nobody knows it is him until he takes the lion’s head off. Graham is a magician to professional standards and often plays tricks in the middle of formal university dinners and he is a washboard player with a local band, the Deacons of Dixieland. The combination of these and many other activities mean that Graham is a legend on his campus and far beyond.

But such fascinating personal attributes have not altered his capacity for national leadership positions. He is now the third longest serving university president in the US. He has chaired the Association of American Universities (their equivalent of our Russell Group), chaired the National Association of State Universities and Land Grant Colleges and the Big Ten Conference of Presidents and Chancellors. He is Chair of the National Security Higher Education Advisory Board which works with the US security services and advises the Naval Postgraduate School and the Naval War College. In 2009 he was awarded the Theodore Hesburgh award for leadership excellence, one of the most distinguished national awards for university leadership. He has many other awards and leadership positions which are simply too numerous to mention

Graham talks about “student centredness” as one of the defining features of his university but he also stresses the need for it to internationalise. It was through this ambition that the paths of Graham Spanier and the University of Bristol crossed. In 2000 Graham along with two British Vice-Chancellors established the Worldwide University Network. The idea was that there would be a global network of universities who would combine their intellectual powers and infrastructure strengths to increase their research activity and output. Such would be the power of this combination that new intellectual areas would grow and they could address complex, multi factorial problems in an inter-disciplinary manner. It was an entirely novel idea at the time and Bristol was asked to become a member early in 2001. This innovative network is now hugely successful with 16 universities in North America, Europe, Australia, South Africa and China. It has over 50 different intellectual communities with over 4000 academic staff involved, it has attracted over $60 million of additional funding and over 1000 staff and students have moved around the network with mobility grants. It is regarded as exemplary of the sort of success such a network can have – a real visionary initiative.

Graham was a natural to Chair the network, but in 2003 he demurred from that offer and allowed a rather young Vice-Chancellor from Bristol to take over the role and for four years I was Chair whilst Graham was Vice-Chair. His advice to me and to Bristol about universities in general and about internationalisation in particular was invaluable. He has hosted us at visits to Penn State and was particularly generous in allowing us to interact with his fundraising office whilst we set up our Centenary campaign. Bristol really is a global operation now in its reach both with students and staff and research; the Worldwide University network and Graham’s personal help has been a part of that change.

Mr Deputy Vice-Chancellor. I present to you Dr Graham Spanier, magician and washboard player, visionary higher education leader, good friend to this University and to all students everywhere and who from being first in his family to go to university rose to become President of Penn State as eminently worthy of the degree of Doctor of Laws, honoris causa.

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