Friday, September 13, 2019

Yes we can. Yes we must.

So it happened; crept up on me, taking me unawares.

On September 4, while sifting through 21 years of stuff and memories in our recently sold Seattle home—finally packing for our official move to Harrisburg—I passed my one-year anniversary as Chancellor of the State System. And, what a year it’s been.

Here are a few reflections and a request for you to consider:

The transformative powers of public higher education are real, they are potent, and they are alive and well in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.

They are fully on display in the students and alumni of our 14 universities. During this past year, I have met with so many of you on campus, in the capitol building, via the Internet, and in too many random occurrences to mention (passing the TGI Fridays restaurant in Pittsburgh Airport – what!!?). Your experiences are as different as you would expect from those who come from so diverse a system. And yet you share some things in common by my observation: a profound appreciation for the transformative role your alma mater played, launching you onto a career; finding a life-long partner; engaging with and finding genuine appreciation for people from different backgrounds; developing a talent you did not know you had for a subject, a sport, an instrument, a language; engaging critically with complex ideas; learning countless life lessons and resilience from the many trials, errors, and successes associated with your experiences as a student.

Our challenges are real—some of them severe. But while they may be a catalyst for our transformation, they are not its raison d’ĂȘtre. 

That is what we find in our shared sense of mission and purpose. I have met with many of our faculty and staff, learned your personal stories, shared mine (am humbled, even blessed, by the vulnerability and openness you’ve extended to me). And I have learned we are bound together by a passion for, commitment to, and a genuine and continuing excitement about our mission—improving the lives of our students, and through them, strengthening our communities, this Commonwealth, and our nation. That is why you show up every day. It is the source of the creative and caring energy you bring to your work and to your commitment to this mission. It is as inspiring as it is infectious, and it will serve us well in the months and years ahead as we change in order to meet the rapidly changing needs of our students, the employers, and the communities we serve.

Our universities are “legacy centric” for good reason—to preserve the quality, integrity, and value of our students’ experiences. But let’s not bury the lead here; we can also be agile: 

I have seen how we adapt to new and emerging practices that contribute demonstrably to our students’ success. Where to begin? With the tremendous growth of our online offerings? First year experiences fundamentally re-tooled to improve student engagement and retention? Efforts to integrate holistic approaches to student supports and advising? Animated, practice-sharing  intended to improve performance that takes place amongst faculty, university police, facilities managers, RAs, counsellors, coaches, librarians, instructional designers, career services staff, and others?

I have seen how we have evolved credentialing programs to meet rapidly changing needs of our students and our employers. Did you know we have introduced 160 new programs since 2014, most of them in high-demand, workforce-aligned STEM, business, and health care fields?

I have seen how our universities are improving the effectiveness of operations in a range of functions from enrollment management to accounts payable and back again, with results showing up in real cost reduction or quality improvement.

I have seen tangible evidence of the agility of our faculty and staff every time we have the honor of engaging directly with each other, whether during a campus visit or with one of the many systemwide groups that gather to pursue a common interest, advance System Redesign, or engage in an essential leadership role for our universities, our system, and our bargaining units. So many discussions in these interactions focus on faculty and staff work as professionals, as dedicated employees of our State System—on improving our practice, expanding positive impacts on the functioning of our enterprise, on responding creatively to changing circumstances in which we find ourselves.

After a year in this seat, I come away appreciating how agile we are. And I have a deeper understanding of how hard-won that agility is, how it requires as much art and instinct as it does science, how it reflects your outstanding professionalism and integrity, and how—for so many of you it is a source of tremendous joy and fulfillment—a means through which you engage in and derive tangible meaning from your sense of our shared public purpose.

Progress along our transformational journey will require us to pay attention to our culture and to one another.  

I have spoken on and thought about this topic a great deal and am struck by a contradiction. At an individual level, virtually everyone I’ve met and spoken with over the past year shows a genuine and profound engagement with our mission. Additionally, those interactions corroborate the results of the Ready, Willing, and Able survey we conducted last spring during my university visits. Those results show that at an individual level the great majority of us are ready, willing, and able to change in pursuit of our mission. And yet, there are fault lines that show up routinely:

in distrust that too often characterizes relations, e.g., between universities and the system office, management and unions, council of trustees and board, and between employee groups.

in a tendency to “demonize” the other rather than to understand and to treat one another as members of our extended family.

in skepticism about our ability as an organization to innovate and/or effect the changes that we all know we need to make in pursuit of our mission.

We will not effectively address our many challenges—realize our many opportunities—until we deliberately address these cultural issues.

In the past year we have made a small beginning:

given voice to our cultural issues that we know we need to address.

given priority at the system office to engaging in partnership with our university and union leadership to guide this great enterprise.

embraced and acted upon the spirit of transparency in everything that we do, from the information that we collect and share—both good and bad—to the progress of our System Redesign.

This week—on September 17—we will take an important next step by fielding an employee survey that seeks to identify both the strengths and the weaknesses of our organizational culture. The survey will be completely confidential. No one within the System (including at the System office) will have access to anything but the aggregated results, and that aggregated data will be made available to our broader community. Discussion of those results will help us to discover, define, and create a language to talk about and resolve the cultural challenges that we face. They will also provide baseline data that will help us in the years to come to understand where we are making progress and where we need to continue—or double down on—our efforts.

My ask of you

To faculty and staff, I know the survey will land at a busy time of year, but it is vitally important that you take the time—perhaps as much as 20-30 minutes—to fill it out. Your voice is critically important. It needs be listened to. It needs to be heard. You deserve this much and so much more.

To students, alumni, donors, supporters, and everyone following our System Redesign efforts, please stay engaged as we work to transform the System and public higher education.

An African proverb reminds us: To go fast, go alone. To go far, go together. Let’s continue to go together.

Monday, August 12, 2019

A Time of Transitions

On August 29th we will drop off our daughter—our baby—at college, then fly to Seattle and turn the last page on a long and cherished chapter of our lives.

On September 30th, my partner and dearest friend, Melissa, will at last join me here in Harrisburg. We will take out our pens together and turn their attention to the blank page that lies before us.

Every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end. 
— Seneca

This scene, in part, is playing out all across America and the Commonwealth as students prepare to make their way to campus in the coming weeks—nearly 100,000 right here in our own system. As we prepare to receive them—and gear up for the fall semester—I wanted to reflect a bit on the past few months.

This summer has been all about transition—saying goodbye to the familiar, mustering the courage to face the unknown, suspending the fear that forces us to cling to our past, the disbelief that a different future can be better than a present that is as comfortable as it is unsustainable.

Many transitions are under development as part of the ongoing System Redesign. A short list includes:
  • Developing business cases that will drive decisions (in October) about what shared services the State System will pursue—and how and in what sequence;
  • Figuring out how to offer educational programs and courses on a multi-university and systemwide basis, and what educational programs and courses are best-suited to offer in this way;
  • Re-engineering strategy planning and budgeting processes so that they align clearly with well-articulated and measurable goals having to do with the success of our students and the sustainability of our universities; and
  • Addressing—head-on through the design of a financial sustainability policy—how to bring our collective talents to bear in supporting universities experiencing the greatest financial pressure while at the same time holding one another accountable for making decisions that are good for our students, our universities, and our system.

A small body of determined spirits fired by an unquenchable faith 
in their mission can alter the course of history. 
— Mahatma Gandhi

Literally hundreds of you are involved in these efforts—unselfishly devoting time and talent amid the very busy work or class schedules that you already have—and I’ve enjoyed the opportunities to visit with many either on campus, here in Harrisburg, or in one of countless Zoom sessions. I’m inspired by your energy and excitement; by your commitment to our mission, to our students; by your willingness to peer over—perhaps even jump off—any cliff as we navigate our path forward. You are, each and every one of you, contributors to a multi-authored volume, and you have begun—as Melissa and I are beginning—with little more than a pen, your passion, and a blank page. You fuel my optimism and my courage.

So, if you’re still with me, please read on a bit more regarding three critically important transitions that will define our future.

A Relationship in Transition

Through nearly two dozen very long, carbohydrate-fueled days, a small group of faculty and staff—along with our Board chair, Cindy Shapira—has been meeting in rooms at the Dixon Center and at APSCUF’s office (spoiler alert: the food is better at APSCUF) to negotiate our collective bargaining agreement with the faculty.

For me at least, there’s a meta-effort underway—one that seeks to fundamentally change the nature of a long-standing relationship; a relationship that—let’s face it—has rested heavily on mutual suspicion and distrust fueled by real and painful personal experiences on all sides.

A transition in that relationship relies on listening, hearing, healing, and having the courage to learn anew how to work together to articulate and collectively address our many challenges. It requires that we dig deep to find the faith and the trust and the courage to start our relationship again. (Thanks to all who are engaged in this effort and who are demonstrating that it is possible to do.) We have come together as colleagues to work through legacy anger and layers of misunderstanding that have accreted over time. We have identified, defined, and taken the time to explain and learn about the sources of genuine disagreement and distrust.

We have a long road ahead, but wherever it leads, I am grateful for the opportunity these discussions have afforded. They are the best training ground for a new leader. They have opened my eyes to the notion that so many of our challenges rest more in the practice and application of—and less in the letters of—our collective bargaining agreement. I have learned many things including that our expectations of one another and ourselves are too often unclear or inconsistent; our accountability mechanisms are too weak. And while I’d like to think we are making good progress in renewing our contract, we are also defining a path for a longer journey towards a brighter, better relationship.

Take the first step in faith. You don’t have to see 
the whole staircase to take the first step. 
— Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

A System in Transition

Our system of 14 universities is owned by the state, and we return enormous value to the people of this Commonwealth. Our impacts are real, and they are measurable:
  • Producing more than 26,000 career-ready graduates each year, 95% of whom are employed within two years of graduation; 88% in their field of study;
  • Generating $6.7 billion annually in economic and employment impact equating to $11 for every $1 of public investment; and
  • Supporting a resurgence of rural economies with knowledge workers and jobs​; 90% of our students are from PA, and the vast majority will stay here after graduation.
Despite this, Pennsylvania has significantly underinvested in our universities. Even with five years of successive incremental increases in state appropriations, for which we are grateful, the state remains 48th in the nation in its expenditure-per-student. While we are still the most affordable four-year option for Pennsylvania residents, the net price of attendance is high compared to what it is in other states. As a result, the average debt with which our students graduate with also is comparatively high.

Here are a few questions to ponder:

Is Pennsylvania economy unique needing a college-educated citizenry?
No, it is not. As in other states, the majority of jobs (and the vast majority of new jobs) require employees who have some postsecondary education, yet a significant skills gap persists. As in other states, the most reliable pathway into and beyond the middle class is postsecondary education. Everything from positive health outcomes, to civic participation rates, employment patterns, and family stability—yep—they all track directly to educational attainment as do taxes paid, jobs created, and so the list continues.

Does Pennsylvania need affordable pathways into and through a postsecondary education?
Yes. As in other states, we simply cannot meet our workforce development needs on the backs of the affluent. This is not a social or a political statement, it is a mathematical fact. There are simply not enough affluent people to educate into the roles our economy requires.

Is Pennsylvania alone in its need to attract out-of-state, educated workers to fill the projected workforce gaps?
That’s a tough one. Personally, I’m fond of our ancient and rolling hills, our small towns and big cities, our lakes, rivers, and forests—not to mention our warm and generous people. But we don’t see the influx of educated workers as do California, Colorado, and Washington, or the population growth as in places like Texas and Florida.

What does all of this mean? For Pennsylvania to thrive and better compete into the 21st century, we need to grow our own educated citizenry, and we cannot do that without affordable pathways into and through postsecondary education.

A Partnership in Transition

This points to yet another transition—a transition in the way we partner with our owners—the Commonwealth. Through our System Redesign, our universities are doing everything possible to ensure students have affordable access to postsecondary education. In the past 10 months alone, we have frozen tuition, taken tangible steps to improve our operating effectiveness and align revenues with costs, and have gotten our arms around our financially challenged universities. We have become radically transparent and accountable to elected officials, the broader public, anyone, everyone. We have, in effect, responded to issues that our owners have been concerned about for years.

We know that we have a great deal more to do through our System Redesign:
  • Retooling our universities so they are even more responsive to workforce needs (and while we do that – let’s not underestimate how responsive they are already!);
  • Enhancing our educational programming for students—including first-time and returning adult learners—who are looking to earn short-course certificates that enhance their skills and better position them in the labor market;
  • Improving our student retention and graduation rates (we are a little better than average in our sector, but we are capable of so much more);
  • Strengthening the pipelines through which students flow into our universities from high schools and community colleges, and into the workforce; and
  • Operating with even greater efficiency and doing even more to remove unnecessary duplication in educational programming.

We also know that we cannot make significant progress in these and other areas without greater support from the Commonwealth. So, as we consolidate our track record of effectiveness and impact, we seek a wholly new kind of partnership with the Commonwealth through the General Assembly.

Again, the blank page.

We look for a genuine partnership that expands opportunity for all and that invests properly in public higher education while holding education providers accountable to the highest of standards. In this partnership, our role is as much about framing choices as it is about advocacy. In doing so, we demonstrate the many strengths of our universities—the contributions they make to this Commonwealth. We speak openly about areas where we know we must improve. We bring together data and analytics to help legislators understand the implications of the different public policy options that are available to them.
  • Are we okay that the lagging level of state investment is driving low- and middle-income students out of the higher education marketplace altogether? Are we comfortable that without them we will have to outsource the talent our Commonwealth’s economy needs to succeed?
  • Are we comfortable with the thought that a Pennsylvania resident could attend a neighboring state’s university as an ‘out-of-state’ student for a lower cost than staying in PA? Are we comfortable knowing that many who leave PA won’t return after graduation?
  • Are we okay with the long-term impacts on the economic health and wellbeing of our Commonwealth that result from our failing to take action now owing to the very real and significant challenges inherent in changing how and at what level the state raises and allocates public funds?

This transition to a new kind of partnership with the General Assembly? It starts now.

The first step towards getting somewhere 
is to decide you are not going to stay where you are. 
— JP Morgan

Tuesday, July 16, 2019

Because the easy thing is not always the right thing to do

Life is full of both easy choices and hard ones. We make them every day, whether at home or at work.

For me, coming to Pennsylvania almost a year ago wasn’t an easy choice, but I didn’t come to do the easy thing. I came out of a deep, abiding, and long-standing commitment to the promise of public higher education, to the students and communities it serves, and to its incredible potential to uplift individuals and communities. Public higher education saves lives, energizes regional economies, contributes to a more equitable, just, fair, and tolerant society.

I came here because Pennsylvania’s State System of Higher Education is confronting the full range of challenges that are present in public higher education today. Here, the challenges are severely acute— concentrated in exceptionally high doses. From a national perspective, it’s fair to say: “As goes the Pa. state system, so goes the country’s public comprehensive universities.”

A move to this great state was not an easy choice because it entailed leaving my family behind—in Seattle—and missing our youngest child’s senior year in high school. I missed her 18th birthday party, her prom night, and countless tennis matches. And while I struggled with and supported her through the college application process, it was all by phone.

No, I did not come to Pennsylvania last September to do the easy thing.

Which brings me to the Board of Governors meeting last week where we all stared in the face a projected $63 million budget deficit for this year and still recommended a tuition freeze that the Board adopted by unanimous vote.

That budget gap is not only real, it is an underestimate. It only factors in the incremental cost of salary and benefits agreed to by the state with AFSCME—costs the System must bear but for which we will not receive additional funding.

The weight of resolving this deficit will be borne by university leaders who will continue with difficult budget trade-off decisions, the kind they’ve been making for over a decade. At the same time, faculty and staff will be asked to make do with less.

To date, the entire State System community has done remarkably well protecting our students and the quality of their experience, which testifies to our collective strengths. However, our current operations are financially unsustainable.

Despite this reality, another tuition increase was clearly the worst of all evils. Here’s why:

  • Our students already bear a heavy burden. Pennsylvanians are 50th nationally in terms of worst student debt load, and there is evidence that after two decades of annual tuition increases, we are in danger of pricing ourselves out of the market. Students from low- and middle-income families—the Pennsylvanians our universities were created to serve—are turning away from us. There are a lot of factors contributing to this—including a strong economy and growing doubt about the value of college—even though research shows the advantages of a college education far outweigh its costs. But the total price of our education has a role to play.
  • Our budget gap is structural. It reflects declining enrollments as well as rising costs. To address it systemically, we would have to increase tuition by more than seven or eight percent, which is neither conscionable nor sustainable. The drip, drip, drip of annual tuition hikes—which don’t even begin to address our financial challenges while unduly burdening our students—make no sense. To raise tuition again would be like giving aspirin to a terminally ill patient; it addresses the pain without proffering a cure.
  • Public higher education is a partnership with the state. While we genuinely appreciate a fifth consecutive year of budget increases, the increase we received for 2019/20 is just a two percent boost, bringing the state’s share of our overall revenues to 27 percent. Twenty years ago, when last the Board of Governors froze tuition, the state’s contribution made up 47 percent of revenues.

But this isn’t about the math. Public higher education is a policy choice and Pennsylvania—for a larger part—has chosen divestment despite the fact that the State System generated $11 in economic activity for every dollar of state funding invested. Still, Pennsylvania ranks 48th in the nation in terms of its per student expenditure—a ranking that includes funds distributed through PHEAA grants.

State System universities—still the most affordable option for postsecondary education in this state—produce 26,000 career-ready graduates each year; 95 percent of them are employed within two years of graduation; 88 percent in their field of study; 72 percent in Pennsylvania.

Our universities employ more than 10,000 people; most institutions are the top employer in their regions and produce more than $6 billion in economic impact annually. They factor significantly in any forecast of the state’s economic health and well-being. The vast majority of new jobs in the 21st economy will require employees who have had some postsecondary education.

Higher education is a public good. It is a policy choice. And it is no longer feasible to continue to heap the burden of historic state divestment onto our students.

To address our structural challenges, we must refresh and renew our partnership with the state.

Through the ongoing System Redesign, our universities have committed to make tangible progress this year—managing the rising cost of tuition, aligning costs with revenues, getting our arms around the challenges that are confronted by our low-enrolled universities, and becoming radically transparent and accountable to our stakeholders, including our staff our faculty, our students, their families, and to members of the General Assembly.

Anyone who listened in on the Board meeting last week would have come away recognizing not only the commitment to this redesign but the significance and rapidity of its progress delivering on each of these promises.

In return, we must begin and make progress with a discussion about the level of state investment and about the regulatory environment that adds unnecessarily to our costs, remembering that our students pick up 75% of the bill for pretty much everything we do.

Investment in public higher education is not—or at least should not be—a partisan issue. It is a conversation—a vigorous debate even—about the future of Pennsylvania, about opportunities for social mobility, about stimuli for inward investment, and about the future of regional economies and communities. That debate forces us to ask serious questions:

  • Will employers invest in a region where it is hard to find educated employees? (Amazon didn’t.) 
  • Where will our high school graduates enroll when it is less expensive for them to attend a public university in a neighboring state than it is to enroll in our most affordable in-state option? The data suggest that students who attend college out of state don’t tend to return home.
  • What will happen to rural communities that are presently served so well by their universities if those universities continue to struggle financially? Is the cost of alleviating their severe socio-economic dislocation lower or higher than the cost of sustaining their universities?

I did not come to Pennsylvania to do the easy thing. I came here to do the right thing.
And I am heartened to find a growing number of partners—in our leaders, our faculty and staff, our students, and particularly in the General Assembly—who are willing to confront the most consequential challenges that Pennsylvania will face in next few years, challenges for which their resolution will one way or another mark a long-lasting impact on the health and well-being of the people of this great Commonwealth.

Friday, June 21, 2019

Ready. Willing. Able.

Summer is unfolding in central Pennsylvania, and for an avid road biker, it is beautiful to behold. I’ve discovered the quickest routes for getting out of town and onto the rolling hills (head up to Fort Hunter and right out Fishing Creek Valley Road; or down to New Cumberland and right out to Round Top).

By the way, I’m also getting re-acquainted with humidity after a 17-year respite from it. What fun.
Oh, and there’s quite a lot going on in the office too, especially with System Redesign, which is actually the subject of this blog. Let me start with what I learned from you:

At the open forums I attended during my springtime visits to our universities, I had the opportunity to meet with you and answer your questions about the System Redesign and the sharing system vision towards which we are moving. I also distributed a survey designed to evaluate our own perceptions of our collective readiness, willingness, and ability to change.

Let me say thanks to the nearly 900 people who filled out the survey—especially for their honesty and thoughtful comments. The results—summarized below—fill me with optimism and provide essential guidance for the ongoing work. Three key insights into those perceptions follow:

We are READY for change: Seventy-five percent agree or strongly agree with statements about their university facing significant competitive challenges, needing to improve performance to compete, and about people in “my unit” or the university being ready to change. There is variation though among the universities (the four most “ready” are between 80 percent and 96 percent ready; the four least “ready” between 62 percent and 74 percent), and among different groups, but the overall patterns hold strong.

We are less WILLING for change than READY for change: Only 55 percent perceived that we are willing to change. Though there is nuance in the aggregate—fully 91 percent of respondents agree they are willing to change their role if it helps improve the university’s performance. That’s amazing and shows incredible dedication and commitment to mission. Seventy-two percent agree that people “in their area” are willing to change. However, when asked about management support of the change (47 percent) and the willingness of the wider university to change (35 percent), there is a higher degree of uncertainty. We also need to do a great deal more to flesh out the vision of the sharing system—only 34 percent agree it will address our challenges while most are not yet ready to form an opinion one way or the other (54 percent neither agree nor disagree on this point).

We are less ABLE to change than we are WILLING or READY for change: Only 39 percent perceived that we are able to change and that their university has the culture, implementation capability, and management supports necessary. And the pattern is similar to the one revealed for willingness. While respondents feel they are able to change—and to a slightly lesser extent so are people in their areas—the same respondents are doubtful about the ability of their broader university to change and about leadership commitment/support for that change.

My take-aways:
  • I am in awe of the extent to which we recognize the need to change and—even more—in awe of our collective willingness to do what it takes at an individual level to improve our universities’ performance, indeed our System’s performance. Having been here now for nearly nine months and having spoken with so many of you, this does not surprise me. But it is still impressive, and I want to honor it.
  • At the same time, we need to work harder—even faster, if possible—to clarify the detail of what is being proposed with respect of the sharing system and to align and support leadership across the System in representing and enabling the sharing system vision to move towards implementation.

Figure 1. Summary results of the Ready Willing Able survey

We are taking real action to position us for success. The follow-ups listed below are focused in two areas and are directly responsive to what I learned from the survey and during my visits:

Redefining Leadership: I have formed a Systemwide Leadership Group (SLG) because we recognize—as you do—the critical role university leaders will play in building the sharing system. The SLG includes presidents, vice presidents for administration and finance, chief academic officers (provosts), people identified by the presidents as representing leadership with respect of student success and retention at their universities, and the top staff here at the Office of the Chancellor (see Figure 2). We have also initiated conversations with the Leadership and Governance Committee of our Board about the importance of shared governance, generally (more to come on that in the months ahead). The objective is to build a cadre of leaders who are working together for the benefit of our students, our universities, and our System.

Figure 2. System Leadership Group and System Redesign Project Structure

Clarifying Change: A number of advances are being made:

Five-year System Redesign goals are being defined, each associated with measurable outcomes that focus on improving our students’ success, achieving university financial stability, and laying track for a future in which this system of universities continues to sustainably and affordably fuel the economic development and social mobility of the state.

The scope of work necessary to achieve our System Redesign goals has been defined. It involves five workstreams (see Figure 3):|
  • Enhancing our culture and investing in our employees’ success.
  • Building a modernized shared infrastructure.
  • Scaling innovations that promise to improve our students’ success, reach new student groups, and meet high-demand employer needs.
  • Strengthening governance and accountabilities.
  • Engaging partners across the Commonwealth within the General Assembly.

Figure 3. System Redesign’s five workstreams, showing planning, execution activities, and outcomes

A team-based approach to moving the work forward has been launched (Figure 2) to ensure our efforts are:
  • Transparent—the work of System Redesign teams is published online to enable and invite community engagement.
  • Inclusive of all key stakeholders—faculty, staff, students, university and system leadership, etc.
  • Capable of efficiently enlisting talent at all levels of a university and distributing the workload so “redesign” takes place even as we operate this $2.3B enterprise.
  • Clear with respect of the roles, responsibilities, decision rights, and expectations of redesign teams and their members.
  • Supported out of my office with a coordinated approach to project management
Our communications approach for System Redesign has been fundamentally re-tooled:
  • We are continually improving the System Redesign website to allow for easier navigation and visibility into our progress.
  • We’ve created an internal social media platform to engage employees in the dialogue.
  • In the fall, we will work with the student government leaders to engage even more students in System Redesign.
  • Next month, we are launching an e-newsletter that will provide regular updates on our progress and collect the most timely and relevant information into one, easy to access location.
There’s a great deal more to do, including making the detail available to you that underpins the framework. But, I figure for a blog post, this has got to be enough for a lovely summer afternoon—a Friday as it happens—when the sun is out, the wind is light, and Fishing Creek Valley Road appears to be calling. As I leave the keyboard, I look one last time at the word cloud shown in Figure 4. It is built from the one-word descriptions that survey respondents were asked to describe how System Redesign makes them feel. Like an overwhelming number of you, I am hopeful, optimistic, excited (maybe a little nervous). Today, as most days, I am also tremendously grateful for this opportunity to work with and to serve you, our students, and the people of this Commonwealth.

Figure 4. Word cloud showing how System Redesign makes respondents feel 

Tuesday, May 21, 2019

Your insights, your voice

Fourteen universities in 16 days, and I come away as optimistic as ever about our future.

Some summary observations here and in the next several blog posts, but before diving into them, I have to tell you how much I appreciate and am inspired by your willingness to speak openly to me on any topic, however challenging or difficult. It is so important for me to hear from you.

Your insights, your voice – they ground me in the work, and shape my thinking and leadership. It is an honor to be trusted with them, whether you tell me in person, at, or, increasingly I hope, as part of a more public and inclusive ongoing conversation.

So thank you

1. We are fully committed to our students and constantly asking whether we are doing enough for them.

At every university, I met with faculty and staff in groups ranging in size from 10 to more than 30 people. And at every one of those meetings, our students were front and center in our conversation.

Students today are so different from students even five years ago. Their needs are different: the pressures they face, the anxieties they feel, the way they engage with us, the way they engage with one another, the way they learn and engage with information. Our passion for our students and their success, our concern that we do right by them, our drive do our best and help them navigate their challenges, build on their strengths, and prepare for a rapidly changing world is a primary motivation under everything we do.

It is also at the heart of a second theme I encountered everywhere…

2. We are wide open to change.

I was inspired at every university in virtually every discussion by our willingness to explore new ways of doing things in every aspect of our work: from the way we look after our facilities to how we engage with students and support them in residence halls, on sports fields, in dining centers, and, of course, in their teaching and learning.

This openness to change showed up in the results of a survey I conducted at every university – a survey intended to get at our readiness, willingness, and ability to change.

Our openness to change emerged so frequently in conversation that I started asking you to explain why. Responses touched on several things: the severity of our various challenges, intellectual curiosity, but above all, concern for our students.

And these weren’t general conversations about change. They were specific and focused on areas where we need to improve our practice and where we are already applying ourselves. This is one thing I value most about our culture… we never spend too long “admiring the problem”, preferring instead to jump right to “solutioning.” Hallelujah!

Hot topics?  They won’t surprise you. Counselling, academic and career advising, financial aid packaging, supplemental instruction, the use of high-impact instructional practices, our students’ first year experience, credit transfer, online instruction.

Here’s good news -- as we discussed these topics, we recognized together that they are not only hot across our system but across all of US higher education. We pointed in each of these areas to emerging, evidence-based industry good practices and to examples of them at universities across the country and inside this system.

The question is no longer what to do to improve our students’ success, but how to do it here.

3. We are resilient.

I encountered anxieties about the future, about the challenges our university and system face, and about the impacts those challenges could have on us personally. These anxieties are real and we need to acknowledge and be willing to speak openly about them.

I am honored so many of you were willing to share your concerns with me. Those were courageous moments for which I want to say, “Thank you.”

A few observations follow:

Our challenges are significant. But I am confident we will address them, not all at once, not always easily, but address them we will by working together in the months and years ahead. Our universities have evolved several times in their proud and long histories. They will continue to evolve.

The second has to do with our culture. Our universities are like families -- their members share a common identity and culture. That culture is a huge asset but only if we nurture it.

At every stop on my tour, conversation veered into how, operating under financial constraint, people sometimes act outside their values: husbanding scarce resources, hoarding information, and focusing on advancing their unit or their university over others. These threaten collaborative approaches that contribute so much to our students’ experience and our universities’ collective success.

I was grateful for the opportunity to discuss these issues with you. I was inspired by your commitment, despite uncertainty, to act inside our values and with integrity, and to hold ourselves and one another accountable for showing respect to one another, assuming that each one of us is acting with the best of intent, offering trust to one another, working together in the interest of our students and our collective success.

We will get through these challenging times. And I will be transparent, open and honest with you now and forever about where we are and where we are headed – at every step along the way.

4. We want transformation now.

This theme was pervasive. You asked, in effect, what can we do now? And you supplied the answer, reflecting on initiatives already underway. I recorded these as best I could and organized them into a taxonomy of practical actions that can be taken at the individual level (by each and every one of us), at the unit or department level, at the cross-department level within your university, and at the system level (across universities).

Illustrative examples are drawn from material that you supplied in discussion –initiative that you reported to me.

At the individual level:

Engage a student who is struggling. We know who they are. We can identify them. So many of us do. It means so much, as demonstrated in powerful stories you told me – stories from faculty and professional staff, and also from colleagues in facilities, registrar’s offices, administrative and security roles. Student retention is key to our success. All of us have a role to play in improving it – after all we are family.

Holding ourselves and also others accountable for acting inside our values. Hard to do because it requires us to engage courageous conversations with civility. It also requires us to give feedback to others (with compassion) and to seek and accept it from others (with humility). And here, we are so active. I collected so many examples of people going out of their way to nurture our culture, strengthen our family, in countless almost unnoticeable but profoundly important acts of kindness and care.

At the unit level:

Discussing, agreeing, and working on specific behaviors that a unit wants to strengthen with a view to improving its culture. A unit manager working on being an effective unit manager, for example by giving feedback – give feedback with empathy, receive it with humility – or by supporting on colleagues’ professional development.

Working within a department to improve performance with respect of student success. I recall a department chair creating a platform for colleagues to learn from one another about high impact teaching practices that improve success of students that they teach.

Introducing an even higher standard of professional practice aimed at improving quality or efficiency (a procurement professional reporting a higher level of diligence in vendor review).

At the cross unit level:

Addressing specific, well-known challenges. Lots of activity here, sometimes formally organized by the university, but as often organically grown. From my list: improving the first year experience, “writing across the curriculum,” identifying strategies for helping our veterans navigate their unique challenges, taking a whole-student, cross-silo approach to student advising, working campus wide and with alumni to align messaging in ways intended to counter negative narratives about the value of higher education and/or the future of the university.

At cross university level:

Again organized formally (librarians, career services, leaders of online initiatives) and informally (criminal justice faculty looking at shared programming opportunities) to share information, build professional practice and learn from one another, drive shared services, purchasing, and program.

Finally, as you know, I am convinced the most significant task ahead of us involves us strengthening our culture. Why? Because unless we learn how to work together with joy and compassion and integrity and respect, we will not have the positive impact we want for the students and the communities we serve. As I said in my open forum remarks: “Organizations aren’t great places to work because they are high performing. They are high performing because they are great places work”.

On countless occasions you asked about the work that guides my thinking in this area. Here is a selected sample of some of my faves. If you need a starting point – go directly to Brown’s Dare to Lead and Grant’s Power Moves.

Brené Brown
Dare to Lead: Brave Work. Tough Conversations. Whole Hearts
Daring Greatly: How the Courage to be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead

Daniel Coyle
The Culture Code: The Secret of Highly Successful Groups

Jeanie Daniel Duck
The Change Monster: The Human Factors That Fuel or Foil Corporate Transformation and Change

Adam Grant
Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World
Power Moves: Lessons from Davos

Dan and Chip Heath
Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard

Bryce G Hoffman
American Icon: Allan Mulally and the Fight to Save Ford Motor Company

Kim Scott
Radical Candor: Be a Kick-Ass Boss Without Losing Your Humanity

Friday, May 10, 2019

A bright future we can all support

The pomp and circumstance. The students. The stories. The celebration.

Saturday, I stood on stage watching hundreds of students—of all ages and backgrounds—process to their seats, united in the fact that they all achieved something special, something most people in the world have not—a college degree.

The payoff of a State System degree can’t be denied. It provides so many students, more than 700,000 since 1983, with the opportunity to have a high-demand career in their own community or anywhere around the world. Not only can our graduates earn significantly more money throughout their lifetime than those with only high school education, a degree puts them on a path to upward economic mobility. As someone who has spent his career working to educate leaders across the country on initiatives designed to raise educational-attainment levels and to promote economic mobility, especially among low-income and minority students, I’m thrilled to be able to part of these life-changing moments. It’s the icing on the cake for me as chancellor.

Over the next week, we’ll continue to celebrate the achievements of thousands of students who are graduating from our 14 universities. These students are prepared for success by the outstanding faculty and staff who set the bar high and guided them throughout their journey.

As our students succeed, so will our state. Eighty-eight percent of our students come from Pennsylvania, and most will stay here after graduation to join half a million other alumni. Our students are Pennsylvania’s future and we are helping write that future today. Our System Redesign addresses the need to expand the breadth and quality of the educational opportunities we offer students to respond to workforce demands in our state. We will continue to provide all Pennsylvanians with affordable, career-relevant educational pathways into sustaining careers.

Here are just a few examples of our outstanding spring graduates:
And to our graduates, we say congratulations on a success well earned. You deserve it. Go make your impact and make us all proud. I’ve no doubt that you will. To those returning next semester or this summer to continue your journey, we’ll see you back on campus refreshed and ready to learn.

Monday, April 15, 2019

Campus visits…part deux

At the risk of over-sharing… I’m a huge fan of sequels. All genres – from Shakespeare (the Henry IVs) to JK Rowling; all media – from film (The Avengers) to bike frames (I’m fascinated but probably past being able to ride a frame out of Parlee’s Z series).

So, as I approach the end of my freshman year as chancellor, I can’t think of a better way to wrap it all up than with a sequel of my own—another round of visits to our campuses. My objective is the same—to listen. I want to listen to you and to everyone who cares about our universities. Last fall I listened so I could learn from you about your hopes and dreams, about our opportunities and challenges, and about your thinking about what we should become as a system of 14 incredible universities.

In January, I integrated what I learned during my fall visits into a vision for a sharing system – a framework for our System Redesign. I wrote about that vision in my last blog describing a system that will:

allow our students easier access to programs across the System
double-down on retaining and graduating students
expand educational programs that meet workforce demand and provide pathways for adult and returning students
preserve our distinction as the high-quality, affordable higher education option for every Pennsylvanian.

During this spring’s campus visits, I want to explore that vision with you, understand more deeply how—by greater collaboration among our 14 universities—we can prepare our students for their best possible future, address our many challenges, and position our universities not only to survive but to thrive in the 21st century. What opportunities should be expanded? How do we improve the student experience? How can we keep the cost of attending a State System school affordable? How do we effectively tap the talent and creativity of our faculty and staff to support our nearly 100,000 students—students who chose to come to our universities because of the life-changing opportunities we have to offer? Those are just some of the important questions I will want to tackle head-on, while also having an opportunity take your questions and address your issues.

In this next round of campus visits, I’ll also want to dive deeper into our culture and seek to better understand how we can strengthen it. Why am I so fascinated by our culture? Because the research demonstrates what we all know: organizations aren’t great places to work with strong organizational cultures because they are high performing – they are high performing because they are great places to work with strong cultures.

As last time (as ever), I hope for and expect open, honest, and courageous conversations that will propel our System Redesign forward and build on our historic mission of providing all students—from every walk of life—access to high-quality, affordable educational experiences that open pathways to successful lives and careers.

With your help, this sequel will be a blockbuster.