Board of Trustees

Dr. Allen Soyster: Penn State Board of Trustees candidate

Biographical information


Age: 70

Education: B.S., industrial engineering, 1965; M.S. operations research, Cornell, 1967; Ph.D. operations research, Carnegie Mellon, 1973

Work: professor of industrial engineering, Northeastern University

Experiences and activities: professor, Temple University and Virginia Tech University, 1973-198; head, department of industrial engineering, Penn State, 1981-1996; president, Institute of Industrial Engineers, 2005; dean of engineering, Northeastern University, 1996-2006; director of Engineering Education and Research Centers, National Science Foundation, 2006-2010; Outstanding College of Engineering Teacher, 1973; Palmer Faculty Mentoring Award, 1993; Penn State industrial engineering, ranked No. 4 in nation, U.S. News and World Report, 1996; engineering Learning Factory awarded the National Academy Engineering Education Innovation Award, 2006; established the Allen and Sharon Soyster Engineering Scholarship, 2007

Please describe your motivations for running for the Board of Trustees.

I am a first-generation college student (1960s) who grew up in nearby Philipsburg. The Penn State faculty and staff in that era provided me with an education with limitless opportunities. Future students from Scranton, Harrisburg, Greensburg and Tyrone should be afforded the same opportunity. My motivation for joining the board? Help ensure that the dreams of these future students can be realized at Penn State.

Future students and their families are concerned about quality and cost of their children’s education. As I have worked in higher education throughout most of my career, I am keenly aware of this marketplace. We have a high cost and high quality program. Since I addressed the cost component in another section, permit me to focus on quality.

We are ranked by U.S. News as one of the best universities in the country (37th), but we can and should do better. These rankings are based on performance and metrics like faculty resources (student/faculty) ratios, percent of freshmen class in the top 10% of their high school and graduation rates. These are critical parameters that define university performance and ultimately establish the all-important university reputation.

As a trustee, I will bring an obsession to join the top 25 universities in the country. Is this possible? Can we surpass Michigan? I know we can. Here is a benchmark. Some years earlier (1996), I became the dean of Engineering at Northeastern in Boston, then ranked 153rd. Today Northeastern is ranked 49th.

What are the most important challenges ahead for Penn State, and if elected, how would you address them?

We have a continuing fiscal challenge. Our students pay the second-highest tuition among public institutions in the country. Is it little wonder that Penn State graduates (New York Times, 2012) are the most indebted in the Big Ten? How is this explained? One factor, undoubtedly, is that Pennsylvania funds higher education at $3,875/student (45th lowest in the nation). But this fact does not relieve the board of taking action toward a more affordable Penn State, especially since the national average for state funding is only $2,000 higher.

What can be done? Some universities are adopting a financial model called Resource Centered Management (RCM).The idea is to decentralize revenues and costs by individual colleges. For example, the College of Engineering collects its own tuition (and research revenues, gifts, etc.) and then pays its own salaries, “rents” its space, and pays appropriate fees for services. With innovation as the driver, individual colleges are inherently motivated to increase revenues and eliminate waste. Such a model allows the individual colleges to optimize multi-year plans, sometimes withholding expenditures in one year in to be used in later years, all to the benefit of our students. (RCM was adopted at Northeastern, my employer, in 2010.)

Implementation of an RCM model at Penn State would require a multi-year, major budgeting overhaul. My recommendation would be to charter a one-year feasibility study and benchmark other schools, public and private, which have taken this step. US business/ industry cannot survive without continuing innovation; in the long-run, neither can Penn State.

If elected, what position would you support on the topic of Penn State board of trustees reform?

The manner in which some of our board are selected should be reformed. In this election, three alumni trustees will be elected. These three will join a voting board of 30. At the same time, a similar number of two new business and industry trustees will be elected. How visible is this latter process and how are they elected?

The six business and industry trustees appear to be elected by themselves. These six (two per year) are selected by a committee of five trustees appointed by the board chairman, which must include, strikingly, three incumbent business and industry trustees. In contrast, the six agricultural trustees are elected by representatives of the various Pennsylvania agricultural societies. No doubt our business and industry trustees have dedicated many years of service to Penn State (the three longest-serving average over 15 years of service), but this selection process should change.

Here is an “old” idea. Change the board bylaws so our business and industry constituents play a role (as they did from 1905 to 2002) in the selection of business and industry trustees. Penn State is blessed with long-standing advisories (engineering, business, information science, etc.) with talented individuals, representing all segments of business/industry. Give them some decision-making role. Such a revision by our board would send a clear message to our alumni clamoring for change. And heaven forbid, maybe even an engineer could become a business and industry trustees.

Permit me to conclude with some “math,” both symbolic and operational, about how this reform would impact our 30 (voting) member board composition:

(9 Alumni+6 AG +6 Bus/Ind)/30 > 2/3

If elected, what position would you support about Joe Paterno?

No one throughout our history has had a more positive impact on Penn State than coach Paterno. Back in the 1980s and 1990s, I served as the industrial engineering department Head and often traveled across the country to meet various Penn State constituents. Everyone always asked, including the taxi-drivers in Arizona, whether I knew Joe. Penn State’s national visibility was inextricably connected with Joe.

Joe helped our engineering college. Back in the 1990s, an engineering alumni, Hal Marcus (a fellow Brooklynite) asked me to arrange lunch with Coach Paterno. Joe agreed. Somewhat later, Hal and Inge Marcus provided a substantial gift to Penn State to name the Hal and Inge Marcus department of industrial engineering.

The board needs to recognize the unparalleled contributions that Coach Paterno has made to our university. Something should be renamed or built. Needed funds should be raised externally. Throughout my career I have organized or led many different fundraising efforts and this one would be easy — in fact, I suspect that the Arizona taxi driver would support Joe.

In the shorter term, the board should reverse course and address a vindictive NCAA sanction, namely, the vacating of the 111 Paterno-coached football victories (1998-2011). The football fans amongst us will forever remember the PSU 17, Ohio State 10 win in 2005. Is this now a loss? Not according to our honorable Buckeyes’ website — 10-17 L. They don’t want it. Maybe the NCAA should give it to Auburn—they needed another win last year!

Is there anything else you want voters to know about you and your candidacy?

In spite of boasting the second-largest engineering college in the U.S., Penn State has only one engineer on the 32-member board. This lack of balance can affect priorities. The 1994 board’s vision for Innovation Park was to “transfer university-based knowledge to the marketplace” and become the Pennsylvania edition of North Carolina’s Research Triangle Park. Today, it appears that most Innovation Park tenants have little to do with research and development. A board with some engineers would have paid more attention to the university’s role in developing new products and new Pennsylvania jobs.

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