Can a Start-Up College Revive a City?

In Harrisburg, Pa., public funds help a private college attract minority students to science fields.
November 15, 2006


Ivory Tower? Hardly.

In the lone building of the  Harrisburg University of Science and Technology, a rebuilt YWCA facility, the president’s office is just feet from a student lounge and the boardroom is used as a classroom.

When two administrators spot an upbeat student walking toward them on a street in this quiet capitol town, they exchange pleasantries and hugs. Professors don’t just know the names of their students; they know the names of their students’ spouses and children, too.

“The next time we break ground on a new building, you’ll have to be there. We missed you,” Una Martone, the university’s director of development, tells an undergraduate who missed the ceremonial groundbreaking for a 16-story, $73 million academic center because her child was sick.

The first thing you notice when you visit Harrisburg University is that this is not a place where anonymity thrives. Class sizes at the private institution are in the single digits, and lab instructors know everything from the academic tendencies of students to their liquid-pouring techniques.

The university’s first entering class last fall had 113 students, and enrollment reached 140 this year. Nine full-time professors and a few dozen other employees fill the top floors of the temporary academic center.

Harrisburg hopes to become a regional hub for students interested in the science, technology, engineering and math fields. A year into its formal existence, the university is still trying to develop an identity.

"When we had questions early on, we’d ask each other: 'What does the university policy manual say about this?'” says Melvyn D. Schiavelli, Harrisburg’s president. "'What policy manual?’ someone would respond. 'We’d better develop one.'”

Building From the Ground Up

Waiters working down the block from Harrisburg University are setting up patio seating, preparing for the dinner crowd on an overcast late afternoon in November. Business travelers talk on their cell phones outside a new downtown Hilton, and customers trickle into a movie theater directly across from the university, which is positioned on the main downtown drag.

Restaurants and hotels are mainstays of any vibrant urban center, and Harrisburg Mayor Stephen R. Reed is also banking on the city's new university to factor heavily in its redevelopment plan.

A few years ago, longtime residents say, Harrisburg began emptying shortly after 5 p.m., when state government officials poured out of their offices and drove out of town. Harrisburg's population declined from about 52,400 in 1990 to 47,500 last year, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.  

The Harrisburg School District was considered one of the most troubled in the state. Students who made it into college often left the region. And the area's high-tech companies couldn’t find locals to fill job openings, so they imported international labor.  

“Adults had failed an entire generation of young people,” says Eric D. Darr, vice president of finance and administration at the university.

Spurred by government officials and business leaders, Reed assembled a task force charged with creating a plan to strengthen the local economy. Its solution: Open a university that can train students in the high-demand fields.

Harrisburg University was incorporated in 2001, and four years later became the first nonprofit science and technology-focused university to be chartered in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania in more than 100 years.

"We joke that we had the ideal university then – no students, no faculty, no sports teams,” quips Schiavelli, who came to Harrisburg after serving as provost at the University of Delaware. 

From its inception, Harrisburg's goal has been to educate students who might not otherwise have the chance to pursue science and technology degrees. Tuition is $14,000 a year, but few students pay full price. Ninety-six percent receive financial aid and 86 percent are eligible for Pell Grants. About 6 in 10 students are ethnic minorities, and the majority comes from the surrounding Dauphin County.

Because the university has no alumni, it is relying on public funding and corporate donations. The commonwealth has committed or given more than $37 million. Nearly 60 companies are invested in the university, which recently launched a $40 million capital campaign. Much of the private money is coming from Harrisburg's designated honorary alumni, many of whom work for local companies that are looking to hire future graduates.

The ties between the university and local business run even deeper. A majority of trustees are high-level corporate officers. Corporate faculty members teach a number of courses. Their companies hire students for summer internships, mentor them during the academic year and help Harrisburg officials design much of the third- and fourth-year curriculum.  

"We take seriously input from the private sector, because they are the ones involved in the work," Darr says. "We ask them: 'Where are the opportunities for high-paying jobs?'"

As part of the city's plan to become a business incubator, office space is set aside for start-up companies in the high-tech sector.  

Part of the mayor's plan is to form a pipeline between the area's K-12 schools and Harrisburg University. He has assumed oversight of the Harrisburg School District, which includes four-year-old SciTech High, a school that shares a building with the university and has a math and science curriculum developed in concert with the institution.

High school students can take college-level classes through the university, and some are tutored by Harrisburg undergraduates. Harrisburg covers unmet financial aid needs for SciTech students who are admitted into the university.   

Harrisburg professors regularly meet with high school teachers about curriculum development. Yolander Renea Youngblood, the first faculty member hired at Harrisburg, makes regular trips to the area's high schools.

Almost everyone is asked to be a recruiter. "Most faculty stay in that box, and they remind you, 'I'm not supposed to do that, '" says Youngblood, an associate professor of biotechnology. "We tell them, 'If you say the university should do that, we tell them that you are the university.'"

Youngblood is featured in a Harrisburg University billboard that sits above the site of the future academic center, scheduled to open in 2008. Next door is a mixed-use facility -- including shopping and office space -- that serves as Harrisburg's de facto student center. (Students are known to study inside a glass overhang that offers views of downtown.) 

The university has no plans to build its own student union. A nearby arts and science center hosts many of the institution's largest functions. There are no dorms or campus-run apartments. Some students live in plush housing that attracts international students, researchers and interns. But most live at home. 

The mixed-use facility, arts center and apartment complex are managed by the Harristown Development Corporation, a nonprofit development group created decades ago to facilitate a downtown revival. Darr, the university vice president, says the development group is better positioned to run a city center than the university, so why try to compete? 

Besides, Harrisburg is operating on a limited budget. The university has taken the outsourcing-when-appropriate approach even further: An executive search firm provides pro bono career advice to Harrisburg students starting in their first year.

Administrators say they have no plans to make Harrisburg the kind of university that attracts students with rock-climbing walls and fancy student centers. At the same time, they aren't looking for students who only want to sequester themselves in science labs.

More Than a 'Tech Training Institution'

The promotional posters are everywhere in the main building: "Some of This Actually Is Rocket Science." Karen K. Oates, Harrisburg's vice president for academic and student affairs, said the campaign is meant to be disarming -- just add the unwritten line: "Yes, you can be a STEM star in only four years!"

The university is looking to attract students who might consider a science degree but who wouldn't cut it in a 500-person introductory class, Oates says. But it isn't looking to weed out potential biochemistry majors in their first term.

"We're taking capable students and helping them come up," Youngblood says.

"Capable but rough," adds Oates.    

Harrisburg's undergraduates major in biotechnology and biosciences; computer and information sciences; geographic information systems; or integrative science. Seven master's level students are working toward a degree in IT project management. The latest addition is an e-business and management program. (Harrisburg became a candidate for accreditation status from the Middle States Commission on Higher Education this summer.)

Students have a 45-hour general education requirement, including a sequence of courses that integrates science and engineering principles with humanities topics. "The Entrepreneurial Mind" focuses on traits that are common among successful business leaders. "The Political Mind" looks at history and economics through a science lens.

"We don't want to be labeled as just a tech training institution," says Schiavelli, the Harrisburg president.

Courses are designed to be team-taught, and professors are encouraged to run classes in a seminar style. Public speaking is emphasized and group projects are mandatory. The idea, Oates says, is to simulate what it's like to work with colleagues in a business setting.

Maria Null, a first-year student in the environmental chemistry program, says she has quickly learned to speak up in class. Nic Fulmer, a Harrisburg junior, says small classes mean students have their choice of lab equipment, which isn't the case at some community colleges or larger universities. The main drawback to Harrisburg's size is a limited range of perspectives, Fulmer says.  

This spring, the university will graduate its first class -- comprised entirely of transfer students. The hope, administrators say, is to build an enrollment of 1,500 students within five years of the new building. But for now, Harrisburg is embracing its reputation as the small, start-up institution in a city on the rebound.


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