Hope & Change in Harrisburg

, Malcolm A. Kline, Leave a comment

On the face of it, opening a new university in this day and age would seem to be akin to selling refrigerators to Eskimos. Yet, like that time-honored saw, such a launch can be productive even when the circumstances do not seem to warrant it.

An old joke goes like this:

The Eskimo goes home with a refrigerator. His wife says, “What are you doing? We can’t even fit it in the igloo.” Her husband replies, “I know, but I always wanted a summer home where the light goes on when you open the door.”

The founder of the Harrisburg University of Science and Technology has been opening a lot of doors since HU opened its in 2005. “Of the 115 graduates we’ve had so far, 106 were employed after graduation in their field of study,” HU co-founder and president Mel Schiavelli said when we chatted with him on a recent Washington, D. C. visit.

Dr. Schiavelli has had a distinguished career in higher education going back decades. He has served as provost of William and Mary and president of the University of Delaware.

He surprised many of his long-time academic associates by electing to open HU without tenure, a policy that the school maintains to this day. Of the original dozen full-time instructors whom Dr. Schiavelli hired, all left tenured positions to take untenured ones at HU. Only two have exited, by their choice, not Dr. Schiavelli’s.

“There’s nothing like being able to fill a blank piece of paper,” Dr. Schiavelli says of the appeal of working in a new school. Dr. Schiavelli is making every effort to fill reams of pages and not with fluff.

“Last summer, we had 12 African-American women taking organic chemistry,” Dr. Schiavelli said. He noted that, ironically, at a time when institutions of higher learning are making every effort to sign up women and minorities in STEM fields (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics), HU is not.

Similarly, 43 percent of the students are minorities and 57 percent women, although HU does not pre-ordain such enrollment results via goals and timetables.  Moreover, although the school, as its name indicates, sits in the capital of Pennsylvania, its students come from as far away as China to partake of HU’s course offerings.

Interestingly, about 40 of HU’s part-time faculty are drawn from corporations in Dauphin and surrounding counties. Harrisburg is the seat of Dauphin County.

Correspondingly, many of these instructors work gratis. Local businesses have been supportive of HU from the beginning, seeing in the school an attempt to fill a void that industrialists see lacking in many university graduating classes.

Thus, HU may be one university that actually does contribute to the local economy.

Malcolm A. Kline is the Executive Director of Accuracy in Academia.

If you would like to comment on this article, e-mail mal.kline@academia.org