Penn State Berks Chancellor R. Keith Hillkirk recently announced his plans to retire on Aug. 1, 2020, after more than 15 years of service to Penn State. He joined Penn State Berks as chancellor in July 2011. Previously, he served as chancellor of Penn State Schuylkill from 2005 to 2011.
“Penn State Berks has seen transformational change under Keith Hillkirk’s leadership,” said Madlyn Hanes, vice president for Commonwealth Campuses and executive chancellor. “Keith’s ardent dedication to improving the student experience, practicing the values of sustainability and engaging in the broader community has served to distinguish the college.”
Initiatives that Hillkirk has overseen as chancellor at Berks include the Gaige Technology and Business Innovation Building, a LEED gold-level certified building, dedicated shortly after he arrived. In addition, the Perkins Plaza, an outdoor seating area with a water fountain and clock tower located outside the Perkins Student Center, was constructed; and the Luerssen Building underwent a major renovation, adding new, state-of-the-art science labs, and was renamed the Luerssen Science Building. Currently plans are being finalized for a significant expansion and renovation of the Beaver Community Center, which will begin in the spring of 2020.
Penn State Berks also opened the doors to two entrepreneurship and economic development centers: the Flemming Creativity, Entrepreneurship, and Economic Development Center on campus, and the Berks LaunchBox, located within the GoggleWorks Center for the Arts in downtown Reading. The Flemming CEED Center was established to inspire an entrepreneurial spirit and innovative thinking in the Penn State Berks community and to foster economic growth and development in the Greater Reading area. The Berks LaunchBox is part of Invent Penn State, a $30 million commonwealth-wide initiative to spur economic development, job creation, and student success launched by Penn State President Eric J. Barron in 2016.
In addition to growth in physical plant, the number of four-year baccalaureate degree programs that the college offers increased to 20 during Hillkirk's tenure, and enrollment has grown to its current level of 2,600 students. This includes yearly increases in the number of students from underrepresented minority groups, as well as the number of international students.
Hillkirk has been a strong advocate for relieving student debt, with two major scholarships established under his tenure: the Cohen-Hammel Fellows Program, a comprehensive new scholarship program for outstanding Penn State Berks undergraduates, and the 60th Anniversary Scholarship, funded by the college’s 60th anniversary gala.
When Penn State Health St. Joseph joined Penn State Health in 2015, Hillkirk and John Morahan, president and CEO of Penn State Health St. Joseph, led the effort for the two institutions to collaborate on a wide variety of initiatives.
“We got together right away and the point was for us to ask ourselves what things could we do together that we don't do as well separately. What that's led to is a pretty significant partnership with Penn State Health St. Joseph, particularly at the Downtown Campus,” said Hillkirk.
The Veggie Rx program is one such collaboration: The program addresses health conditions that could benefit from increased access to fresh fruit and vegetables. Penn State Health St. Joseph physicians “prescribe” vouchers for fresh produce that can be redeemed at various locations, including a pop-up farmer’s market within Penn State Health St. Joseph’s Downtown Reading Campus.
In 2017, Hillkirk and his wife, Suzanne, created a new endowment, the Hillkirk Family Program Endowment for Ethics and Sustainability. The name reflects the passion that the Hillkirks have for these two priorities, which are emphasized in the college’s strategic plan. This new fund will provide resources for programs and initiatives that will enrich the campus community in creative and meaningful ways.
"It's been an honor and privilege for Suzanne and me to serve Penn State through our work at Penn State Berks for the past nine years and previously at Penn State Schuylkill,” stated Hillkirk. “The mission of the Commonwealth Campuses to serve students, families and communities across Pennsylvania is important, and we are thankful to have had the opportunity to share this time with such dedicated faculty, staff and alumni."
In March 2019, Hillkirk accepted, on behalf of Penn State Berks, the Frederick J. Beste III Partnership Award from the Ben Franklin Technology Partners of Northeastern Pennsylvania. The award is given to an organization whose strong vision, dedication, and commitment have helped the Ben Franklin Technology Partners accomplish its goals. This support demonstrates the college’s sincere desire to see the region thrive.
Despite the many responsibilities that come with his position, Hillkirk is always present and engaged on campus. In fact, he often can be seen walking to campus from his home in Bern Township, taking a short jaunt across a footbridge and through Gring's Mill Recreation Area. He even teaches a fly fishing course — an endeavor that combines his love of teaching with his love of the sport.
In addition to his Berks’ responsibilities, Hillkirk served on the board of directors for seven years, with two years as chair, of Opportunity House, an emergency shelter in the City of Reading that serves the homeless population and offers a childcare and learning center, services from the Children's Alliance Center, and assistance for veterans.
Prior to his time at Penn State, Hillkirk served for seven years as dean of the College of Education and Human Services at Southern Illinois University Carbondale; and nine years as a faculty member, director of partnerships, and assistant dean for teacher education in the College of Education at Ohio University. A Pennsylvania native, Hillkirk was an assistant professor of education at Penn State's University Park campus after earning his doctorate in curriculum and instruction.
Hillkirk holds a bachelor's degree in English from Allegheny College and a master of education in English from Shippensburg University. His scholarly interests include models of professional development and the creation and maintenance of partnerships among universities, schools and communities.
When asked what accomplishments during his tenure gave him the most satisfaction, Hillkirk commented that it was the campus’ engagement in the local community that has been a point of pride. From students volunteering at Opportunity House; to the work of the college’s Center for Academic Community Engagement to clean up and maintain a one-mile section of the Schuylkill River Trail; to hosting hundreds of elementary and middle school students for many youth STEAM initiatives, Penn State Berks is truly engaged in the community, said Hillkirk, and he is proud to be part of that legacy.