(Column for March edition of Voices of Central PA)
On February 2, the Penn State Sustainability Institute released the Harvard Negotiation and Mediation Clinical Program Report, written by Harvard Law students Joshua Fogarty and Tara Norris.
The Fogarty-Norris Report is the latest in a series of Penn State moves designed to reassert Office of Physical Plant dominance in institutional strategic energy planning in the wake of the 2013 PSU/Columbia Gas pipeline controversy – a conflict which opened a small window of opportunity to establish open-source energy system planning protocols built on a platform of community access to complete, accurate data about Penn State’s historic, current and projected energy usage and fuel pricing.
The campaign to close that window began with OPP’s “Our Energy Future,” a public forum held Sept. 12, 2013. The invitation-only “Getting to Zero” conference followed on April 11, 2014, hosted by PSU faculty led by Jon Brockopp. Another series of workshops began August 23: “Community Solar-on-State” was planned by Penn State professor Jeffrey Brownson in consultation with OPP staff, and facilitated by 7group consultants.
The Sustainability Institute then hosted a forum on Sept. 2: a directed discussion of the Wiker-Fowler “stakeholder assessment” of the pipeline controversy released the previous month. SI consultant Alex Wiker had been hired in March 2014 to research and write the report, supervised by Penn State law professor Lara Fowler.
Instead of facts, the Wiker-Fowler Report cataloged a range of community perceptions and feelings. At the forum, SI leaders situated the Wiker-Fowler Report as Phase 1 of a mediated institutional goal-setting process. During the Fall 2014 Phase 2, SI staff worked with Harvard Law students Fogarty and Norris to develop “design principles” for a “stakeholder engagement” model, producing the new report.
Oddly (since Penn State is a first-rate public research institution), fact-finding has been placed beyond the scope of Penn State-directed projects. OPP leaders have also consistently stymied independent fact-finding efforts, by classifying energy strategy documents as “confidential.” Nonetheless, the limited public record includes a 30-year contract for natural gas delivery by Columbia Gas, the new 400-psi pipeline across campus, and the conversion of the West Campus Steam Plant from coal to natural gas and diesel fuel at an energy production capacity far higher than required for current campus demand.
Citizen activists think about long-term energy planning issues in factual and emotional terms, and in the context of other town-gown issues, including student housing development, zoning and property maintenance issues; State Patty’s Day; the Penn State’s employee health care controversy; the Sandusky scandal; the Penn State employee child care controversy; sexual assault rates and reporting procedures; Marcellus fracking and the PSU Institute for Natural Gas Research; and the recent appointment of Margaret Gray as the new Director of Local Government and Community Relations.
We’ve now become familiar with a pattern of Penn State behavior marginalizing community members to the detriment of the University’s own long-term interests in institutional and community stability. Public announcements of top-down, closed-door, justification-free decisions spark skepticism and anger among affected subordinates. Penn State leaders hire external consultants to convene task groups and write reports, but direct the consultants to focus on cataloging and deflecting emotional responses to the controversies, not on resolving factual disputes or developing policy alternatives. Penn State leaders also compartmentalize issues, marginalizing alternative analytical and problem-solving frameworks.
The Fogarty-Norris Report exemplifies both forms of marginalization, proposing one appointed Borough seat and one appointed “resident” seat on a 24-member energy goal-setting committee that specifically excludes “operational” goals from consideration and ignores the fact that the most significant long-term energy decision for the next several decades has already been made and (so far) declared beyond reconsideration: the decision to convert the West Campus Steam Plant from coal to natural gas and the probable installation of a Combined Heat and Power (CHP) unit at the West Campus plant.
Financial outlays for mediation, public relations, lobbying and other forms of activist management don’t support the collection and consideration of a wide variety of data-supported citizen-generated proposals. They do support marginalization of non-institutional voices and controlling supervision of local government officials to push a demonstrably unsound, fossil-fuel-dependent regional energy agenda.
Penn State leaders sometimes argue that the University is simply a large organization making internal decisions through internal procedures. But the school’s position as the primary regional economic engine means that internal decisions overwhelmingly shape regional developments.
The people of State College – roughly 75% Penn State students and 20% Penn State staff and their dependent spouses and children – don’t renounce our right to self-governance when we study or work at Penn State. We retain the right to protect our health, safety and welfare by adopting and enforcing local laws equally binding on residents, businesses and University operations.