Friday, June 4, 2021

Timeless Traditions. Changing Times.

Summertime is here, which means another academic year has come and gone and with it a further cohort of students who have completed their degrees—experiencing for themselves the true promise of a public higher education. To those graduates, let me offer my sincere congratulations. You have accomplished something that would be remarkable in the best of times, but something truly extraordinary in these times of pandemic. I can’t tell you how much I admire your tenacity, grit, and determination and how much I honor the faculty and staff, friends and family who stuck with you and supported you along the way. All our graduates inspire me by what they accomplish, but I believe you inspire me most of all. You have learned and demonstrated tremendous resilience—something I hope will serve you well going forward in your lives. Yours is a special class—a special cohort; each and every one of you a special person. Kudos. 

As this year’s graduates take their leave of our System’s 14 life-changing universities, we gird ourselves to continue the transformative work that will ensure we continue to be here for all of Pennsylvanians now and into the future—meeting our students where they are, supporting their needs and the needs of their communities and future employers. The work focuses intensively on integrations, but there is energy behind transformation all across our universities.

It’s been just more than a month since we released plans to integrate two groups of three universities each (Bloomsburg, Lock Haven, and Mansfield in the northeast and California, Clarion, and Edinboro in the west). The plans result from the work of over 1,000 people—students, faculty, staff, and trustees at the aforementioned institutions and an extensive array of consultations with all stakeholder groups, including alumni, civic leaders, donors, and elected representatives. They are: 

  • amongst the strongest, most creative, most powerfully student-centered, and most deeply analytical I have seen for higher education, and I consider myself to be a lifelong student and fan of the genre;
  • practical—that means implementable;
  • grounded deeply in the history and culture of the six universities involved (seeking deliberately, while building something wholly new, to maintain their distinctive strengths, identities, cultures, and community ties); and
  • developed inclusively and transparently. 

The plans are presently being strengthened by a public review and comment period that is prescribed in Act 50 (the legislation that gives the Board of Governors the limited authorities it needs to consider integrations). The process is a good one. We’ve already learned a great deal from respondents, and I am grateful to all who have taken time to present comments, especially those that make constructive suggestions about how to achieve the goals we are pursuing through integration and system redesign generally. We are also able to clarify issues that are causing confusion (for example, the fact that the staff reductions resulting from our sustainability planning are completely unrelated to integration, reflect protracted and extensive enrollment declines, and will happen even if the Board does not approve integration plans).

Comments are being cataloged as they are received and fielded to the integrations planning team to determine what actions to take in response.  We are creating a record of what we have heard and how we are responding. We will also be itemizing changes to the plans that result from public comment so that they are instantly recognizable in subsequent drafts of the implementation plans. 

Only part of our system is involved directly in these plans, yet it is important that all become familiar with them. (You can view FAQS here.) Here are three reasons why: 

First, we are Pennsylvania’s public higher education system. As such, we share in a mission that extends beyond the walls of the specific university community into which we quite properly focus our work, hearts, souls, allegiances, and passions. That broader mission is to ensure that all Pennsylvanians, irrespective of their zip code and background, have access to postsecondary education—the last most reliable engine of economic development and social mobility, the most durable and direct bridge to opportunity. But it goes deeper still because most of our universities are fundamental to the health and well-being of the regions in which they are located. They create jobs—in most cases are one of their region’s largest employers. As important, they produce the teachers and health care professionals, and business and community leaders that counties and towns across the state need. This is particularly true for universities in our more rural communities. Those communities tend to grow the talent they need and for that talent they rely upon our universities. Our universities change lives. They also bolster communities. Those two roles go hand in hand and require us to do all that we can to ensure vibrancy at all 14 of our campuses.

Second, as a system, we are a single public corporation. We have a single governance structure, policy environment, and, in effect, a single bank account. Within that structure, the health and well-being of any one of our universities is contingent on the health and well-being of all. Whatever we think about that structure, it imposes upon us the obligation of putting our shoulders to the common wheel, to ensuring that vibrant educational, student and university life continues across our 14 institutions in a manner that is at once affordable for our students and financially sustainable for all. That is the rationale underpinning the integration plans.

Third, in developing integration plans, the faculty, staff, students, and trustees engaged in the process took the opportunity to rethink a university’s functions—from enrollment management to athletics, from student financial aid packaging to health and wellness counselling, from general to graduate education across all learning modalities. How should those functions be performed in order to deliver the best possible and most affordable outcomes for our students? Are there changes we ought to make and if so how can we make them through the integration process? The result is apparent all over the plans and aligns with ambitious goals that get at student access, affordability, and outcomes. In conducting that rethink, planning groups listened to our students through consultation and it is apparent in survey and other data that we have. They also reviewed practices across our system and across higher education nationally, locating those that have demonstrable (evidence-based) positive impact on student outcomes, asking how, whether, and to what extent those practices may be introduced here so that Pennsylvania students may benefit. In this regard, the plans contain a great deal of information that may help inform the innovative work that is happening across our system to improve student affordability, access, and outcomes, and to ensure our campuses become more diverse, equitable and inclusive environments.

In closing, I encourage you to do two things:

First, read the plans. They are long, and you may find parts of them to be a little dull. But it would sadden me and dishonor our 1,000 colleagues should anyone react without engaging the content. Yes, I appreciate that this is a prominent feature of our nation’s popular discourse. It has infected social and news media all along the political spectrum and fueled what may be a uniquely American phenomenon in which facts no longer matter because each is entitled to their own reality (if you have space in your summer reading schedules I encourage you to look at Kurt Anderson’s Fantasyland). But ours are institutions of higher learning. Our mission includes defending and advancing the cause and the practice of reason and of science in pursuit of something that is as elusive as it is vital to the well-being of our nation—truth. I look forward to the vigorous debate and discussion that ought now to ensue and hope and pray it will be conducted within these values and with integrity. 

Second, be good to one another. Remember that you are part of a family. As in any family, we members will have different views about different topics. That’s not a bad thing. On the contrary. It’s a good one. Diversity of perspective enriches dialog, breeds deeper understanding of issues and of people, and in an educational setting it models for our students exactly the kinds of skills and abilities we want them to take forward with them into the world after they leave us. But it will only accomplish these higher objectives if family members engage one another with compassion and humility, even in the most heated and consequential of debates; if they allow one another to speak up if they wish, and to feel safe in doing so. How we proceed will demonstrate very publicly—because all eyes in higher education are on Pennsylvania—who we are. It will show to our communities, our students, their families our competitors, our peers, how we are a community devoted to higher learning, able to practice what we teach, and to work within our values. Our interactions with one another will reflect our respect for one another and for safeguarding civil and reasoned discourse—lessons we learned as children, that we teach our children, that we expect of ourselves, our neighbors, and of one another.

Monday, April 26, 2021

Real people. Real voices.

In reflecting on the academic year that is now winding down, perhaps foremost in my thoughts is the privilege I’ve had of engaging with so many of you through 28 university town halls with faculty, staff and others, 28 student focus groups, 28 meetings with councils of trustees—all of them focused on System Redesign, including our efforts around diversity, equity, and inclusion, and regarding university integrations. In addition, I’ve met with probably half of the elected members of the General Assembly multiple times this year—many members even more—to advocate for our System. If we throw in the normal engagements with our board members, trustees, student government leaders, union leaders, members of our various advisory structures, and the countless bespoke community town halls and other meetings, the amount of conversation taking place regarding the future of the State System is remarkable.

These conversations with real people have been robust, rich, and wide ranging, and the following five observations have risen to the top:

  1. The promise of higher education is real and it is powerful: We see it in the eyes of our students. In some of my meetings I’ve used a focus group protocol that involves polling the audience around questions drawn from national surveys about why students choose to attend college. The overwhelming majority say they chose to pursue a degree because they know it can be a bridge to opportunity for themselves and their families. We are that bridge.
  2. Higher education is at an inflection point: It needs to fundamentally retool itself in order to serve students today and in future. We hear it in the voices of our students—including Brandon and Zuri—who want to feel more welcomed, more included by the university community they chose to be part of and in which they invest their hard-earned dollars. We hear it in the voice of Emma who shared about the tremendous anxiety and other challenges she is negotiating and for which she needs more supports than are available as she travels courageously along our bridge to opportunity. We hear it in the voice of Wilhem who began his educational journey at a community college before enrolling in one of our universities, which he did despite the obstacles in the way of transfer students. And we hear it from Christine, an adult student, who is determined to obtain the degree she believes will accelerate her progress in life but requires more flexibility than is available in an environment geared towards residential students. The voices of these and countless other students have informed our work on System Redesign, on the diversity, equity and inclusion, and on the university integration plans that will come to the Board soon.
  3. We have tremendously talented, mission driven people in our faculty and staff: I heard that in conversations with Jill and Darrel, who are thinking hard about how best to engage colleagues in their disciplines at other State System universities so they can offer their students a broader and richer set of educational opportunities. I heard it from Jamie, who is inspired by the opportunity to improve student success by diversifying the curriculum. I heard it from Kenny, Santiago, and Gwen, who are sharing with and learning from colleagues across the State System about how to make all of our students feel welcomed and secure in increasingly diverse campus communities.
  4. Our engagement with elected leaders matters. Our elected representatives in the General Assembly are developing a clear and practical picture of the critical role the state-owned universities of the State System play as engines of economic development and social mobility for this commonwealth. They are also seeing very clearly the challenges we face. I am even hopeful that we may see some movement towards resolution of policy differences that have stifled meaningful state action with respect to its higher education system; inaction that has contributed to our challenges. I speak here of the differences between two very credible policy positions that are not mutually exclusive: one insisting the future of public higher education requires its fundamental restructuring, and the other that it requires significant additional state investment. In our countless, radically transparent conversations around System Redesign and university integrations, I detect some migration towards the more nuanced view that both policy positions are correct, but neither is sufficient by itself to secure our future. The future of public higher education and the promise we hold out to Zuri and Brandon and Wilhem and Christine and the countless thousands who will follow require a partnership between universities and the state—a combination of our fundamental transformation and additional public investment.
  5. Change is really hard. It is hard strategically, technically, and at a deeply personal level, it is hard emotionally. And because our communities are made of people, the impacts of those hardships show up in different ways. Change inspires a sense of opportunity and growth—something that fuels our planning processes with tremendous aspiration. Change provokes healthy skepticism—something that strengthens our thinking by subjecting it to critical review. And change provokes fear, a sense of loss, grieving, and even denial—something that shows up in accusations leveled against processes and people in efforts to deny our challenges exist despite the fact that they are very well known, very well documented, and are neither new nor news. 

Each one of these responses is real. Each one requires our compassion and support. And because I am an irrepressible, possibly romantic optimist, I believe each one is grounded in the passion we share for our mission and our students. Each reflects our good intent.

And that, above all else, inspires me to believe that we are on the cusp in Pennsylvania of something quite profound and maybe even historic—on the cusp of not just re-imagining, but actively reshaping public higher education as it can and ought to be for the 21st century.   

This level of inclusion and transparency is foundational to our System Redesign. We have and must continue to set a high bar on communication and consultation, but it is a bar worth clearing.

Thursday, February 18, 2021

Facts are Stubborn Things

Let me open with some observations—five sets of facts—each verifiable with data because facts still matter.

1. Affordable, career-relevant, postsecondary education is an engine of social mobility and economic development, and it is essential to the future of this Commonwealth.

2. To meet its workforce needs, Pennsylvania must increase from nearly 50% to nearly 60% the number of adults with some postsecondary education. Right now, PA higher education is shrinking in the number of newly credentialed people it produces annually.

3. We cannot achieve the level of necessary economic growth without doing better on behalf of those who have been underserved historically—low-income and rural students, students of color, adults looking to reskill and upskill to remain relevant in the job market.

4. Our State System universities are central to the Commonwealth’s future:

a. They are still the most affordable postsecondary option in the state and offer a high-touch experience for students to engage with great faculty.
b. Our students graduate at rates that beat our national comparator groups from degree programs that align directly with workforce needs, and the vast majority get good jobs in-state.
c. Our universities are the cultural and economic lifeblood of the communities and regions in which they are located.

5. The State System is challenged—some of its universities deeply so:

a. Over the past decade, we have lost 21% of our enrollments, and—because we have not yet adjusted cost structures, and because the state is 47th in the nation in terms of public expenditure on higher ed—we are severely challenged financially.
b. As schools shrink, some struggle to offer the full range of programs required by their students and their regions and are exhausting scarce financial reserves to balance budgets rather than strategically investing to expand opportunity.
c. We’ve done well historically with respect to student access and outcomes, topping universities in our comparator groups. But our edge has slipped as our peer institutions— many not better served financially than we are—show greater agility strengthening supports they offer their students, strengthening connections with schools and community colleges, and tapping into new student markets.

Our System Redesign—begun nearly four years ago—addresses these challenges directly and comprehensively and positions our universities for the growth the Commonwealth requires. System Redesign recognizes the path we were on is unsustainable; that the students and communities we serve demand and deserve that we evolve, as we have done for well over a century, to remain as relevant to the students of tomorrow as we have been to those of the past. System Redesign draws upon our collective creativity and is showing signs of promise and progress even in the wake of this pandemic, and these are worth keeping front and center as we approach what will arguably be the hardest parts of our work. Together these signs show that, well, despite our doubts and fears and the countless alternate reality narratives that swirl about in our hyper-connected and polarized political culture, we can rise above, remember our better angels, and work together to create a brighter future.

With that as a backdrop, here are a few additional observations:

Responding as a System

I was profoundly saddened recently to read that higher education nationally has lost about 13% of its employees since February 2020 (from The Great Contraction ( The impacts are more or less the same in the public and private sectors and appear to be most severe at institutions that were financially weak (as we were) entering the pandemic. We are no more in a protective bubble or immune from challenges sweeping the nation than any other institution. And yes, we too will suffer losses. 

But, because we started several years ago charting our path back to financial sustainability as a prelude to growth, we are looking at around 11% in reductions over three years, not 13% over one year. We also have tools that other institutions may not. Given the runway we created and the demographic profile of our employees, we are using retirement incentives to cushion the blow. Additionally, we have an opportunity to work as a system, finding roles for employees who are displaced. In short, we have a chance of weathering this storm like few others—aligning our costs with our revenues so we can put our precious few investment dollars to work in innovation, not in just making payroll while fending off insolvency.

Advancing Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion

As part of System Redesign, the Board of Governors emphasized its commitment to the success of ALL students and, thus, to an agenda driving diversity, equity, and inclusion. It did this in deeds as well as in words and to that end set out some five or six years ago to hire people committed to these ends. While the Board’s reach in this regard extends only to the Chancellor and presidents, its influence goes far beyond. The strategy and budget planning process and related accountability framework the Board established were built to drive performance improvement in these areas, much as its appointments were made to engender leadership commitment to them.

University leaders, meantime, built their own teams pursuing personal commitment and passion, while responding and in turn driving the Board’s directives. Today, each university and the System office include specific voices at the leadership table advocating for student success and for diversity, equity, and inclusion. And yes, through countless department-based, university-based, and even multi-campus efforts—Frederick Douglass Institutes as an example—leadership’s emphasis resonates productively with organically grown staff and faculty-led efforts.

As a result, we are seeing progress in an area that is arguably the hardest to impact. And while I am humbled at the size of the mountain we have yet to climb, I am confident in our potential to reach the summit.
  • Enrollment of under-represented minority (URM) students has grown from 12.5% to 20% in the last decade. We currently enroll proportionately more under-represented minorities than are present in the Commonwealth. East Stroudsburg University, reflecting its region and mission, has nearly doubled URM enrollments to 44%.
  • We are improving URM student success and closing attainment gaps. Fall 2020 saw nearly 5% improvement in URM student persistence—double the improvement for all students. For Shippensburg University, it marked the fourth successive year of improvement.
  • Our progress diversifying our employee base is too slow, but there are still points of light. Universities’ administrative leadership (think “deans and above”) are 20% non-white, which is equal to the proportion of under-represented minorities in our student body and the state. What’s more, West Chester University has nearly doubled the proportion of non-white faculty to 26%.
  • Cheyney University—the nation’s first (and thus oldest) historically black university—is getting back on track. In the last couple of years, it added 50% to its enrollments, doubled its student retention, and increased the six-year graduation rate by 10%. It also cleared its debt to the System, got on a path to balanced budgeting, and secured its accreditation. That’s a lot to say grace over. And it has pursued a partnership model that will provide students with an expansive array of opportunities, far larger than one would expect of a university with fewer than 1,000 enrollments. Just the other day, I received pictures of Cheyney students working in Wistar lab, courtesy of one such innovative partnership.

To be sure, there is more to this story about
  • burgeoning effectiveness of student multi-cultural and LGBTQ centers and mentoring programs;
  • the free speech project at IUP, which fosters courageous conversations;
  • diversity training that is now mandatory for all our students, faculty, and staff across the System; and
  • a systemwide incident reporting mechanism and response teams available to students and employees who might experience racist and other hate-based remarks and actions.

None of this happened overnight. None of this results from diffidence or dumb luck. None of this is the responsibility of any one or even several people. This kind of progress requires an intentional, all-hands approach amongst students, faculty, staff, trustees, and board members who are sleeves-rolled-up, deeply engaged in this work. To so many of you, I offer a huge thanks. Your efforts are not as fully acknowledged as they ought to be. With enormous humility, I admire your passion, your commitment, your work, and your successes. During my time overseeing philanthropic investments in equity-oriented initiatives in U.S. higher education, it was not uncommon to see numbers turn ever so slightly upward—we called it a “hockey stick effect” in the data. And like a hockey stick, the shape continued to curve ever more sharply upwards at institutions that demonstrated the grit, determination, and tenacity necessary to integrate student-oriented innovation into the fabric of their practice. May the trends we are seeing now represent yet another hockey stick effect...this one in Pennsylvania.

Institutional Integrations and Beyond

We’ve heard a great deal about institutional integrations these past several weeks in response to a progress report presented to our Board of Governors and the General Assembly. The report reflects creative and courageous work of around a thousand students, faculty, and staff at six universities who are working together to plan a future for our students and their communities in the western and northeastern parts of the state. It’s heady and exciting stuff that promises to preserve identity (in name, traditions, sports teams, etc.) while portending transformation in order to aggressively expand opportunities—to offer all students a greater range of educational programs, to double down on affordability, improve student outcomes, reduce attainment gaps, expand partnerships with regional employers and communities, and reach students who need our help.

Because the integrations work tends to grab the headlines, we have heard less about other equally courageous efforts at universities that are not considering integration. That work is just as important in positioning institutions to not just sustain in the aftermath of this pandemic, but to flourish and to grow. IUP’s Next Gen strategy is gaining attention nationally, and it deserves to. Cheyney is capturing attention because of the progress it is making in a turnaround that can only be deemed remarkable. There are notable and equally compelling efforts at East Stroudsburg, Kutztown, Millersville, Shippensburg, Slippery Rock, and West Chester—confronting tough issues of student affordability, retention, and graduation—branching out in new program areas, serving new students who need our help.

I encountered a narrative recently suggesting that there really isn’t anything new here in our System Redesign—either in the plans coming out of the universities considering integration, or even those that are aggressively pursuing growth opportunities on their own. I couldn’t help but smile. Because it’s true in a way. The solution set we’re exploring is hardly new—in fact its components are well known, tried and tested, and in 2021 rest on evidence testifying to their success. The solution set includes:
  • shared services and staffing positions that drive down costs and improve quality;
  • shared courses and programs that expand student opportunities;
  • guaranteed community college transfer pathways that are simple and clear and supported by both sending and receiving institutions;
  • concierge-style advising approaches that provide students with navigational aids to a comprehensive suite of supports, and that focus on specific populations with targeted interventions that demonstrably lift retention and graduation rates;
  • financial aid packaging and emergency aid strategies that are focused as much on retention as on admission;
  • robust dual enrollment strategies that strengthen high school pipelines while strengthening the academic preparedness of incoming students and improving their chance of completion;
  • strategies for providing targeted supplemental instruction to students who require it without impeding progress towards their degree;
  • fully online undergraduate degree and degree completion options for students whose life circumstances don’t permit a residential program;
  • non-degree programs that support adults looking to reskill and upskill in the job market; and
  • a commitment in deeds—not just words—to creating diverse, equitable, and inclusive communities.
The alternative narrative says we are already doing all of these things. And yes, there are definitely points of light and innovation across our System too numerous to list. Frankly, it is those points of light that have fueled my optimism about our future because they demonstrate that yes, we can...if and where we wish to.

But here’s the thing—we are operating in high impact areas as if we were a cottage industry. The State System today has only about 850 dual enrollment students, though there are 231,138 high school juniors and seniors with proximity to a State System university. We transfer in only 2,500 community college students annually—that’s about 15% of total community college graduates. The rest find alternatives that meet their needs in ways we do not—alternatives suiting their budgets, their work and/or domestic circumstances, and their tolerance for overly complicated transfer protocols that result in credit loss and additional cost. Practitioners understand and actively talk about the benefits of holistic advising and perhaps partially implement it in some places, though attempts to scale widely get mired and lost. Our adult student population hasn’t grown a smidge in more than a decade, and while we have fully online undergraduate programs on offer, we enroll fewer than 2,200 students in them. That’s maybe a few (thinking single digit numbers less than 5) percent of the total student demand in PA alone.

What is new about our System Redesign—including our integrations planning—is that it seeks to significantly refresh our version and our vision of public higher education; to reintroduce currency; to integrate demonstrably impactful student-centered practices at the scale required for their impacts to show up in growth; to transform such that those student-centered organizational structures and practices are at the center—not at the periphery—of everything we do.

We will grow our way into the future. The Commonwealth needs us to now more than ever given the economic displacement resulting from the pandemic. Perhaps as important, we need us to. The recession management we’ve been practicing for more than a dozen years sucks (that’s a technical term). It does not create an environment where each of us can do our best work. At the same time, our growth will not come easily. It requires that we replace a strategy of hope (for a good budget or enrollment year) with one tightly focused on our students and our Commonwealth. It requires our collective talent, grit, and determination, and—perhaps hardest of all—that we forego the comfort afforded by the rearview mirror and instead look toward the changing landscape of higher education, and our students’ and Commonwealth’s needs. I will be the first to admit that the forward look is unsettling, but also that it is ours to shape provided we have the courage to try.

The title of this blog borrows words from one president (John Adams), so I will close with the words of another (Lyndon B. Johnson): “Yesterday is not ours to recover, but tomorrow is ours to win or lose.”

Wednesday, January 13, 2021

Hope lives on

New Year’s blogs convey messages of hope and optimism. That’s what the genre demands. This one is a little late and, well, you can imagine why. Given the turmoil on the national stage, my typically inexhaustible stores of hope and optimism have been in somewhat shorter supply. 

Like most of you, I’ve been reeling from a few realizations: 

  • Our democracy is fragile and requires constant tending in order to survive, much less thrive.
  • Fringe paramilitary, nativist, white nationalist, anarchist, and other groups—long a part of our national fabric and its political discourse—are active amongst us. They are better organized than they have been in quite some time due in part to economic dislocation, the hollowing out of the political center, and the intentional pandering of more extreme factions - left and right - interest in advancing their own position, market share, or both.
  • Our nation, which has mobilized and channeled its vast intellectual, scientific, and financial resources so effectively and so heroically to deal with national emergencies in our past, is caught flat-footed, inept, and divided by a global pandemic that is taking a terrible toll measured in human life while exposing and exacerbating gross inequities that exist in our society.

Issues of a more local nature factor into the mix: 

  • The pandemic is straining the comity that binds us with one another and with the communities in which our universities are located. What’s more, the experience of university life during a global pandemic is vastly altered in ways that stretch our students’ reserves of resilience, good humor, and understanding.
  • Changes being made at all of our universities—while essential to secure the continued presence of quality, affordable postsecondary options for all Pennsylvanians—involve gut-wrenchingly difficult decisions that have real impacts on real people within our State System family.

So where to find the optimism and hope required for a New Year’s blog? Here are a few sources:

  • The fabric of our republic has been tested—hard. As a political historian by training, I have watched these events unfold in part through that lens. Needless to say, I am profoundly concerned about our nation’s future. But I am also amazed by the resilience of our Constitution and the organs of our civil and political societies that breathe life into its ever-evolving use and interpretation. I emerge convinced that with proper attention, care, and feeding, our republic will survive and may once more emerge as a beacon on the hill demonstrating the power and advantages of democracy for people and nations worldwide.
  • There are early signs suggesting that vaccines—in combination with ever better coordination at state and federal levels—will enable us to get our arms around and ultimately contain this scourge of a pandemic. We cannot lose focus on managing university operations in ways that mitigate the risks from COVID. But at last, we can also turn our attention to how the vaccine is distributed to members of our communities. 

Closer to home:

  • Our universities navigated the pandemic effectively through the fall semester, ensuring students’ continued progress towards their degrees while mitigating health risks to all members of their communities. Universities adopted different approaches reflecting considerable variation in their circumstances, but together they demonstrated the starker choices once considered (e.g., between entirely remote and entirely in-person modalities) to be in fact false choices—just as it has proven false to assume a choice between mitigating pandemic risk and economic vitality.
  • We are publicly and very visibly and directly addressing the challenges involved in ensuring our universities are inclusive communities—communities that are equally welcoming of all their members— including eliminating attainment gaps and ensuring the complexion of our employee and student bodies reflects that of Pennsylvania. There is a lot to do and the urgency of our doing it has only grown as evidence mounts about the gross inequality, race hatred, discrimination, and other forms of injustice that persist in our country. We embrace the extent of the challenges we face. We acknowledge the wrongs that have been done and that need righting. We expect the work will be excruciatingly hard, contentious, painful, and likely even slow in some regards. But let us never undervalue the seriousness of our commitment or the progress we are making (see more on this in an upcoming bulletin by my colleague, Vice Chancellor Denise Pearson).
  • The work our universities are doing to ensure that affordable, quality, public higher education remains accessible in this state is hard but also inspiring for two reasons: (1) It is driven by the creativity and talent, grit and determination of our people and our collective commitment to mission; and (2) while it is hard and will impact real people with real lives, we have opportunities that may be rare across US higher education, even though our circumstances are not. To the circumstances, first: The challenges that drive us are not unique. Higher education is contracting; the demands of those it serves are changing; its business model is broken. No news here. Nor should anyone be surprised that the contractions that are happening across the country are also appearing here in Pennsylvania where public support for higher education ranks 47th nationally in terms of state funding per student. So where is the opportunity? Maybe here. Our faculty and staff are loyal and dedicated. They are also—and in part as consequence—considerably older on average than employees at peer institutions. (Ten years older on average in some employee groups.) This creates opportunities that other universities may not have and that we have been pursuing for some time through various retirement incentive programs.  If we get it right, we could significantly  reduce our reliance on furloughs/retrenchment and reduce the detrimental impact on members of our State System family—living into our new enrollment realities in a way that is respectful of our people, honors their service, and at the same time recognizes financial realities. 

These efforts—however incremental, however challenging—restore faith in our ability to transform ourselves for the future. What replenishes my sense of optimism and hope are the many recent Zoom and email engagements I have had with university trustees and alumni—conversations that bear witness to the importance of our cause. The engagements I’m writing about arise directly out of work at all of our universities, including those pursuing far reaching and fundamental changes that will enable them to pursue their historic mission into the 21st century. These include universities that are considering integration: Bloomsburg, Lock Haven, and Mansfield in the north east, and California, Clarion, and Edinboro in the west – as well as others that are not – IUP, for example, and Cheyney.

The input has been welcomed. It has been actively sought. It has been rich, informative, influential. Most understand and support the logic of integration. Some get swept up with enthusiasm for it—particularly for thinking about designing a university around our students now and into the future. Virtually all tell a story about how one of our universities shaped and, in many cases, “saved” their lives. I’m not just writing about alumni who are looking back thinking fondly about youthful endeavors and accomplishments. I’m writing as well about those who graduated in the past five or so years. I am writing about people who have told me—sometimes through their tears—about how one of our universities lifted them and their family out of poverty or hopelessness or both. I am writing about people for whom a university experience set them on a path to economic or civic success, or towards tolerance and compassion for those with wholly different backgrounds. 

Our graduates are our greatest advocates. They know first-hand the power and promise of affordable public higher education. Their experience testifies to the importance of our work, to what we can do. The trajectory of their lives acts as a vivid reminder—in case we should need one—about why we must and will find a path to expanding opportunity and to enhancing our historic role as engines of economic development and social mobility. These conversations scream out not only that we can, but also that we must succeed in our cause. 

Okay. Deep breath. All in. 2021 here we come.

Final Thoughts

I am horrified, sickened by what happened last week in the nation’s capital. Ashamed of it. Trying to process images of fellow Americans desecrating all we hold dear: violently assaulting our house, our legislature; displaying at the seat of our democratic form of government overt symbols of racist oppression and systematic genocide; demonstrating that the greatest threat we face as a nation does not come from foreign actors but from within, from amongst our own.

I have always been profoundly grateful to work with you—to work in higher education. The experience of the past several weeks has deepened that gratitude. We have a profoundly important role to play helping our country sort through, make sense of, and tidy up from the intellectual and moral debris that resulted from last week’s failed coup in Washington, D.C.  I hope and pray that the lessons derived from our national experience will be actively discussed and debated for years to come in our classrooms (both physical and virtual) and in the countless co-curricular activities that enrich the university experiences we offer. I hope and pray that as educators emphasizing criticality, compassion, and compromise we will help to strengthen our civil society and restore civility and respect in our national political discourse. 

This task is a central part of our role as universities. It has taken on a sense of urgency, and frankly must breathe renewed energy into the journey we have been on for some years—future-proofing affordable access to postsecondary education for all Pennsylvanians through our System’s redesign. Succeeding in this quest we will: 

  • build a lasting bulwark of our fragile democracy.
  • assure that all Pennsylvanians have the opportunity our alumni enjoyed—through their education—to sustain themselves and their families, participate in the 21st century economy, and contribute to their communities.
  • strengthen our civil and political societies, enlightening a people, engendering tolerance and fostering critical, compassionate, and respectful discourse even in profound disagreement.

“The mind once enlightened,” Thomas Paine wrote, “cannot become dark.”

 “The philosophy of the school room in one generation will,” for Abraham Lincoln, “become the philosophy of government in the next.”

Fiat Lux. Happy New Year, and thank you for all that you do.

Friday, October 23, 2020

Changing more than hearts and minds

I am reflecting on a powerful moment from a meeting this week during which Sen. Art Haywood shined a bright light on the persisting issues of racism, inequity, and intolerance that continue to plague society and persist within institutions of higher education. The Senator and I have spoken since then, and I expressed my appreciation for his leadership and for his commitment in our shared interest to give voice and agency to those who are marginalized. 

The stories he shared from students and others at our universities are real and they are painful to hear. I know this because I have heard them too while meeting with our students, as I do quite frequently. And those stories must be heard and honored if real change is to occur. 

Racism is systemic and has been on this continent for more than 400 years. Its impacts ebb and flow, but are always present in our society. It shows up everywhere, including in the universities and colleges across this nation – including in the universities here at home.

But the universities of this State System—our faculty, staff, students, Board of Governors, trustees, and presidents—do not and will not accept this status quo. All of our universities are applying themselves diligently to the task and making strides to close opportunity gaps that persist between Black, Brown, and White students. They are also building culturally inclusive and tolerant communities while diversifying our employee base and student bodies, ensuring they reflect the composition of the people of this Commonwealth. 

Do we have work to do? Yes we do. And we are on it. I am proud of the accomplishments that we have made and of the commitment that we collectively bring to addressing egregious injustices, which have persisted too long in our country. On this issue we shall not rest.

The Senator’s good point that these issues must be fully enmeshed within our System Redesign efforts is the exact reason we hired a Chief Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Officer—understanding that while such a herculean task cannot be the sole responsibility of one person (we ALL share this responsibility), I am convinced that having a point-person to drive these efforts is critically important. Each of our universities has gone down this path; they all have Chief Diversity Officers acting at-point for university-based efforts that are well underway and in many cases have been for some years. 

Indeed, while I am moved by the stories we’ve heard, I am also encouraged by the efforts our universities are making to address the underlying issues and the real progress they are showing in student persistence, for example, and in educating students about issues and impacts having to with race, hate, and forms of hurtful speech. 

Working together, not only can we change hearts and minds, but we can change laws and institutions to eradicate any remaining vestiges of systemic racism and inequity that may still persist. 

Thursday, October 15, 2020

Lessons from the (virtual) road

Nearly 80% through my semesterly visits to our universities (55 hours in Zoom, and not a single mile by car or bike), I am as inspired now as I was when I first arrived two years ago—inspired by the power and promise of public higher education in this Commonwealth. Here are few key take-away observations:

Our students are remarkable

Higher education in this time of pandemic has presented a unique set of challenges to students— challenges having to do with health risks, of course, but also with navigating through, extracting value from, and breathing life into wholly altered curricular and co-curricular experiences. This is a story I’ve become familiar with at home through my sophomore daughter, Anna, and my understanding of and appreciation for the experiences of today’s students is only deepened by my virtual tour of our own universities. I so admire the resilience, grit, and determination our students show for continuing their educational journeys; the creative ways they have developed to engage with one another, with faculty, with staff and to preserve the strong and distinctive spirit and culture that defines each of our universities. 

Our people are tremendously dedicated to our mission 

Look what we have accomplished by working tirelessly together for months to ensure our students continue their educational journeys uninterrupted. We have changed how we do pretty much everything to achieve this objective. Think about it. The experiences higher education institutions provide to most students have been honed over centuries to specifically and purposely bring people together—in close proximity—so they may learn, grow, engage, mature, and evolve. Now, those same experiences are a potential breeding ground for contagious disease. So, in a matter of weeks last March, we fundamentally re-engineered the educational and institutional supports our students need in response to the pandemic, and over the summer we continued to apply ourselves to making those efforts more durable in light of the pandemic’s nagging persistence. That is inspiring. 

And to those who look upon higher education as a change-defiant backwater teeming only with the agents of can’t and won’t who are focused intently on the rearview mirror, to you I say your credibility is blown. Look and think again.  

Our future is bright

There is a great deal going on across our System aside from the pandemic, and it’s my honor to directly engage with students, faculty, and staff to discuss. The feedback you provide, the questions you ask, and the challenges you pose are all incredibly valuable—a gift to any leader—and I am humbled by your willingness to share. Along the way, I have encountered a few myths about our future that are worth addressing. 

Myth #1: The future of some of our universities is in doubt 

Quite the contrary, we are working assiduously to secure the future of our universities and, more importantly, the future of the students and communities they serve. Yes, we face challenges that are common across all of U.S. public higher education—challenges having to do with funding and demographic trends, with student affordability, and with the changing demands that students and employers are making of us. Perhaps less common in higher education is the willingness and ability demonstrated by our universities to take on these challenges directly so they may continue to drive economic development and social mobility by providing affordable, relevant, postsecondary education for students irrespective of their zip code. Here are a few examples of that work, which is beginning to show results and demonstrates there is nothing we cannot accomplish together: 

  • For the first time in a decade nearly half of our universities saw enrollment gains.
  • Fall 2020 student retention rates improved at most universities, not yet reclaiming levels existing a decade ago but we are on our way.
  • The net average price a student pays to attend a university in 2020/21 is largely unchanged from last year thanks to two years of tuition freezes and thanks to growth in institutional aid.
  • We are making progress in working together to contain costs, grow revenues, and support universities experiencing the greatest challenges.
  • The nation’s oldest HBCU is no longer under imminent threat of losing its accreditation.

Kudos to all. These are hard-won gains of which we should all be tremendously proud. And they add to a growing track record of our universities’ success – one that is amply documented in last year’s appropriations request and accountability dashboard. So, for any who doubt our institutions are here to stay, I urge you to take another look. They are leading the way, nationally, in transforming and securing the future of public higher education—not only in our words but in our deeds, and increasingly in documentable results. In short, we’ve got this.

Myth #2: The institutional integrations effort is just a “pre-baked” plan that is all about cost cutting

This myth couldn’t be further from reality.  We are exploring institutional integrations for two reasons: 1) to ensure that all of our institutions are able to provide the high-quality, affordable educational opportunities that their students and communities both demand and deserve; and 2) to expand educational opportunities for all Pennsylvanians. Just for a moment, consider the opportunities that exist for those institutions that might combine forces. In my conversations with students, faculty, and staff at each, there is understandable concern and uncertainty, but there is also excitement—and there should be—around the opportunity to think big, and fresh, and new about what we could accomplish.

To understand that this effort is also about growing, we recognize the number of students seeking traditional residentially-based degrees at comprehensive universities has been declining for at least a decade while the number of people needing affordable postsecondary education is growing. We have an obligation as Pennsylvania’s public universities to serve them. We are the people’s universities. By combining forces, we have opportunities to serve those students (and to grow our enrollments) by means that simply aren’t as available to us operating independently and at smaller scale. Preliminary thinking at universities considering integration is looking at several opportunities, and the thinking has only just begun around:

  • Improving retention and completion rates of existing students.
  • Creating more affordable degree pathways by reducing the net average price that students pay to get a degree.
  • Providing lower-cost in-state options for undergraduates seeking fully online degrees or degree completion programs.
  • Investing in new, non-degree short-course credentialing programs, especially for working adults who are looking to reskill or upskill in high-demand fields.

And for those who say we already have a “pre-baked” plan in place, trust me, there are days when I wish that were true. Alas. Not so. Up to this point we have been exploring; next comes the planning using a transparent, consultative process that will be richly informed by creative and talented students, faculty, and staff at our universities. While we know what an integration might entail (e.g., a single accreditation, a single president and leadership team, a single program array and faculty), understanding how it works, well, that remains to be determined. Your help will be wanted and needed in an effort that seeks nothing less than to design and then build the 21st century public university. 

Myth #3: Cutting personnel is irresponsible, and it is concentrated on specific employee groups

This is a hard subject to address—perhaps the hardest one—but, yes, this too is a myth. 

Students and their families pay 75% of our total educational and general expenditures, while taxpayers provide the rest. Resizing the employee base so it reflects the realities of enrollment levels honors our students, their families, and the taxpayer. It assures them that we are responsible, effective stewards of every dollar we spend, and as such, we deserve their trust and continuing support.

To help, some cost savings can be earned by our universities working together, as a system. For example, this year alone we will save more than $50 million by refinancing system bonds, leveraging our buying power, and moving to sell the property that houses the Chancellor’s Office. Other savings are achieved by universities seeking new and more efficient ways to conduct their normal operations and by curtailing expenditure on underutilized and non-viable activities and facilities. 

Sadly, though, our greatest expense is also our most precious gift: our people—their salary and benefits—comprising 75% of our total annual expenditures. Think about this: between 2010 and 2019, our revenues grew by only 6% while employee costs grew by more than double that rate. And while it would be convenient to blame one or another group of employees, the facts tell us we cannot. The proportional cost of salary and benefits paid to our different collective bargaining units and to our non-represented staff hasn’t budged—not in a decade. There is no bogey here. No evil or malign actor to blame. 

So what to do? How to honor our students, their families, and the taxpayers by demonstrating we are responsible stewards of their hard-earned dollars while at the same time honoring our most precious resource—our employees? There are a number of options and we need to pursue all of them. Several spring from our being a system which, given its scale, has more options than may be available to a single university. For example, as universities across the System seek to fill critically needed roles, we can and should do everything possible to utilize talented employees whose positions may be under threat elsewhere in the System. Whether job openings are created due to growth in certain areas or because of the departure of faculty and staff who took advantage of our retirement incentive, retaining talented individuals in whom we have already invested is simply the right thing to do because, ultimately, we must and we will grow. Serving both our traditional and non-traditional students better and more affordably will lead to growth potential. Such growth doesn’t only create new jobs, it creates advancement opportunities for current employees. 

Myth #4: Reductions in the size of our faculty as part of a general effort to align costs with revenues will harm our students

Not just a myth, this kind of inaccuracy has the potential for undermining the public’s trust, underselling the enormous value our universities offer to our students, and further exacerbating our challenges. While I recognize how in the national political discourse facts unfortunately matter less today than they did perhaps a decade ago, they still matter to me. And, at least from my perspective, ought to matter to educators, devoted as we are to empiricism in the interest of knowledge creation and transmission. Here are a few facts that we need to consider.

Here is a fact: in the interest of acting effectively as stewards of student tuition and taxpayer dollars, we are requiring all our universities to achieve the student-to-faculty ratios that existed in 2010/11—levels that are normal for our universities and levels that persisted for years. What is abnormal are the far lower student-to-faculty ratios we’ve seen in recent years at some of our universities—those where enrollment declines have been steepest, where decision-makers have been slowest in adjusting to them, or where financial sustainability is most at risk. In returning to normal student-to-faculty ratios:

  • Students’ progress towards their degrees will NOT impeded. If anything, student progress was marginally better a decade ago than it is today.
  • Class sizes will NOT balloon out of control. In a well-managed university, there are on average 20-25 students per section; and that is an average, not a benchmark threshold for all sections in all subjects.
  • Universities will NOT be over-staffed by employees who, while not faculty, still conduct essential work for our students. When compared to industry averages, our universities have historically employed relatively more faculty than non-faculty and they will continue do so.

Final thought

Our universities are important because they prepare students for personal success and help instill a desire to help others succeed; to contribute to their communities; to improve society; to pay it forward. Those are not my words. That is what you told me two years ago on my first round of campus visits. Our importance shows up, too, in the data that show how our state-owned universities drive economic development and enable social mobility for all Pennsylvanians. Frankly, I cannot imagine—or at least I don’t want to—the bleak future of any state that does not maintain a public, affordable, high-quality option in postsecondary education.

That is why our future is a partnership between the System and its universities on the one hand, and the leaders of this Commonwealth on the other. The role of the Governor and General Assembly is to provide the support we need to serve the people of this Commonwealth. Incremental growth in state funding over the past six years, the nearly unanimous passage of Act 50 giving us an opportunity to build a new future, and holding our funding steady in FY 2020/21—one of the worst budget years in the state’s history—are demonstrations of their commitment to that partnership. Commitment to our part of the partnership is evident in the work we are doing and the results we are achieving to better serve our current students, to reach new student groups who need our help, and to act responsibly as stewards of the public’s trust and treasure. 

Both parties to this partnership have a great deal more to do, and I want to acknowledge that in our case, the work is getting hard. As far back as my February 2019 blog, I wrote how the transformative work we are undertaking requires the grit and determination of a century (100-mile) bike ride, and that there would be bumps and hard choices to be made along the way. We have hit those bumps and the hard choices, but have not lost our resolve. The payoff of our work is measured in terms of the students and the communities we serve, the lives we lift up and even save, the opportunity to not only survive but to thrive and to grow as the great public system of this Commonwealth. 

That objective is worth striving for—long and hard—through these most difficult miles.

As ever, I invite your comments and questions. Meantime, look after yourselves, look after one another. Stay well and safe.

Thursday, August 27, 2020

The Role of Responsibility

By any measure, this is will be an extraordinary academic year—a potentially game-changing one—in the history of our state, our nation, and in the fabric and inter-workings of the global community of which we are a part.

As we enter into it, I want to reflect with you on something I’ve been thinking about a great deal lately – responsibility.

Our universities have gone to extraordinary lengths over the past several months to pursue their mission responsibly—to ensure all students are able to make progress towards their degree through engaging and meaningful experiences, while at the same time mitigating the health and safety risks associated with the COVID-19 pandemic. They have adopted different approaches—each uniquely suited to their circumstances—all adhering to advice and guidance from federal and state authorities, all capable of pivoting in an instant should circumstances change, as we have seen with the recent decision making in Bloomsburg. Efforts have been intense to the point of exhaustion, constantly evolving to reflect rapid development in the scientific understanding about the virus’s impacts and how to mitigate them, and always and forever focused on serving our students, our employees, our communities. 

As a direct result of these efforts, across the State System more than 90,000 students begin or continue on their path—in one form or another—towards a college credential and the tremendous benefits it bestows, for our graduates to be sure, but also for our society as a whole. 

For most, that journey looks and feels a lot different this year than it has in the past. Some students are connecting remotely while others are engaged in limited in-person instruction or a hybrid experience combining both. And every face-to-face experience is governed by a wholly new set of behaviors (wearing masks, social distancing, paying extraordinary attention to hygiene) and conditions  (plexiglass barriers, grab-and-go meals, routine temperature checks, regulated flow of foot-traffic, prohibition on larger gatherings). 

Yet another foray into responsibility

Mitigating health and safety risks requires a great deal more than simply having our universities fundamentally redesign the experiences they offer. It requires a kind of social compact—an agreement between all members of the university community to be responsible for themselves and for one another; to follow the rules of engagement that are grounded in science and that are demonstrably shown to mitigate the virus’s transmission. Participating in this social compact—following its rules of engagement—is not a partisan political issue, not a statement about loyalty to one or other tribe or faction. It is a simple act of humanity, compassion, charity. Responsibly following these rules of engagement says something very important about each and every one of us. It says: “I care about myself, I care about you, I care about my friends and my family, I care about our community.”

Indeed, responsibility to each other matters.

This summer we have been reminded how much further we have to go as a society to ensure that we are all equally afforded respect and civility and opportunity, irrespective of our race, creed, gender, income, zip code. We have been reminded how fragile our society is, how deep the divisions between us have become, how vicious we can be to one another. We have sacrificed even in polite discourse (and certainly in political discourse) basic norms of civility and human decency. As our world becomes more uncertain and unstable, we seem to have determined that the best course of action is to work apart from one another rather than together; to vilify and demonize rather than learn from those who have different points of view; to heap hate upon those whose experiences and world views are not akin to ours. We have determined that our greatest national assets—the diversity of our people, our democratic Constitution and the tolerance upon which it relies—are now threats that need to be dealt with, purified, cleansed. 

At the same time, we know that universities are cauldrons of our nation’s diversity, petri dishes of its democracy. They undoubtedly reflect and likely amplify the deep-seated divisions that are afoot more broadly in our society. It stands to reason. It was our students who were protesting this summer because black lives matter, because law and order matters, because the right to bear arms is inalienable and guaranteed, because open borders and immigration are either anathema or essential to our way of life. 

As educators, we have a responsibility to engage in—not shirk—the dialogue that will almost inevitably ensue; to treat it as an educational moment; to see whether it is possible through diversity and discord to breed understanding; to try at least to demonstrate that there is a path our society can follow back to civility and comity—that there is hope.

 This is our time in higher education. We are likely the last real melting pot in a nation where people from different backgrounds, adhering to different world views, are racing to surround themselves exclusively with those who are, and think, and look, and act like themselves. We have a responsibility to leverage that fact and to emerge as the proverbial beacon on the hill, illuminating a path to a different, richer, more compassionate, more charitable, more humane, and more civil society.

I feel this responsibility with particular urgency, and that is one reason I engaged Dr. Denise Pearson as Vice Chancellor and Chief Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Officer for our system. Dr Pearson cannot carry this burden alone; it is one we carry together. But she can work with students, faculty, and administrative leaders at our universities to channel their great work in these areas; to focus it impactfully; to demonstrate our commitment as a system of universities—as Pennsylvanians—who believe we have a brighter future in which we can and we will promote a more equitable and just society.

Dr. Pearson is already working with stakeholders across the system and will be presenting her initial thinking about our priorities and strategies in October. While it is early, I am encouraging her to prioritize one issue directly: race. We have a responsibility to ensure all our students, including students of color, feel at home and supported in our university communities. We have a responsibility to ensure that all students have an equal chance not only of being admitted to one of our universities but in completing their degrees. We have a responsibility to expect the complexion of our faculty and staff to reflect that of our students and of our state. These are not issues to be discussed, they are outcomes we must and shall achieve, because that is our responsibility, and it is the right thing to do.

In that vein, we know that affordable higher education for all Pennsylvanians is essential to the future of this Commonwealth for so many reasons, all of them well supported with evidence:

  • Higher education is the best and most reliable pathway into the middle class and beyond.
  • It drives the Commonwealth’s economy.
  • It shores up our civil society.
  • It strengthens our polity.

It is frightening to me, frankly, to think of a society that doesn’t preserve and promote and advance that option. It presages societies in decay and decline.

At the same time, it is well known that many of our State System universities are experiencing profound challenges. Those challenges are not unique in higher education, but they are acute here. In the past few years we have taken extraordinary and aggressive steps to address them, and this year we are ramping up those efforts. The need is that great, our mission is that important, the students and the communities we serve rely upon us that much, and so we take our responsibility that seriously. 

The actions we are taking will be difficult and include our doing two things:

The first entails adjusting our operations so they reflect our enrollment levels. Since 2010, enrollments have declined nearly 20% while our employee base has declined by only 6%. With employee costs being the largest share of our budget, overspending in this—and other areas to be sure—has driven up tuition rates to levels that drive away students and further undermine the greatest advantage we’ve had—affordability. To close the budget gaps, some of our universities—too many of them—are funding these recurring costs using scarce one-time reserves, which threatens our system financially. And as part of a single system—a uniform corporate structure—our universities basically share a single bank account and share in each other’s financial strain. Pre-pandemic, these financial challenges were nearing debilitating levels; now the level of uncertainty is staggering. As I have said on countless occasions, “this can has been kicked down the road” for too many years. There is no more road. We must and we will act now because that is how seriously we take our responsibility to the Commonwealth. 

The second action entails positioning ourselves to grow, to evolve to better meet the changing needs of our students, their employers, and the state. Bluntly, we cannot simply cut our way into financial health. At the same time, we cannot ignore the long-term nationwide decline in demand for the traditional, residentially based comprehensive education that we are so good at. Sure, there will always be a need for this kind of education, and I hope and pray our universities will continue to do their part in providing an affordable version of it. But there are other needs that as public universities we have a responsibility to address:

  • Our community college transfer students are underserved, especially those wanting to continue their education online.
  • Online students are underserved generally in this state. Fully 50,000 Pennsylvanians enroll each year in an out-of-state provider—most of whom charge considerably more than our universities.
  • A growing number of adults are looking for opportunities to reskill and to upskill through non-degree short course certificate programs in subjects where we have core competencies—in health care, business, education, and STEM.

We are confronted both with a set of serious financial challenges and with a range of opportunities that would enable us to address them, but we must act.

To this aim, we are now actively exploring the viability of institutional integrations that bring together certain of our universities into single accredited organizational structures that leverage their combined scale but also honor the distinctive identities and on-campus experiences of the individual institutions. What’s more, these integrated institutions would be able to take advantage of their complementary strengths so they may continue their historic mission while at the same time branching into new areas. Scale matters in higher education—as it does in so many other sectors—for efficiency to be sure, but more importantly as a means of delivering a higher quality experience. No doubt, “right-sizing” in response to enrollment decline and integrating universities that each have 120+ years of history and identity are among the most difficult things that can be attempted in higher education. And yet, pursue them we must if we are to sustain our public mission. 

Looking forward into this new academic year, we not only feel the gravity of our situation but also a sense of opportunity to build upon our enormous collective and historic strengths, to vigorously and creatively re-imagine public higher education as it ought to be in the 21st century. I hear the words of our 35th president, John F Kennedy, who reminded us of our responsibility to do things “…not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because [the] goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because [the] challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win…”

Fully believing, let us do all those things we think we cannot do. If we act with responsibility in our daily lives, on our campuses, in our classrooms, we can—and will—triumph over any challenge we may face.