Thursday, July 16, 2020

Giving new meaning to sharing

Today, we recognize a pivotal moment in our State System’s history. It is a day filled with promise and hope for our students, our universities, and our Commonwealth.

From today, we turn our attention—through our ongoing System Redesign—to building an even brighter future.

From today, we see a path towards that future:

  • one in which every Pennsylvanian can depend on access to an affordable, quality higher education, and the social mobility and economic development that education provides;
  • one in which employers in all of Pennsylvania’s regions have access to highly qualified new employees who bring relevant competencies and skillsets, and to educational partners who can assist them in reskilling and upskilling existing employees;
  • one in which communities across all of Pennsylvania can confidently rely upon the economic, cultural, and other benefits that thriving campus communities support; and
  • one in which we continue to honor the legacy, identity, and mission of our wonderful historic universities through productive engagement with all of their constituencies—students, faculty, staff, trustees, legislators, alumni, and supporters. 

Today, using new tools authorized by the Commonwealth, the State System’s Board of Governors instructed me—as part of our System Redesign—to take the first step in a process that may result in bringing some of our existing universities together—integrating them—to leverage their combined strength and talent and educational programs, to build this brighter sustaining future.
We are looking initially at three university pairs: California and Clarion, Lock Haven and Mansfield, and Edinboro and Slippery Rock, because they show enormous potential sustainably to serve more students, expand educational opportunity for their regions, and leverage their universities’ proximity to one another.

I need to emphasize something here:  This is the beginning of a journey, not the end of one. The planning process we are embarked on will take at least a year to complete.  While it is premature to know where it will end, we are on this journey to determine our future, not to validate one that has already been decided.

Still, it is important at this early stage to speak specifically to constituencies of these six universities.

Students who are enrolled at these institutions today and those who are considering attending them in future – your prospects have never been brighter. Should these universities come together, you will be afforded even greater opportunity educationally because you will have access to a broader range of programs. And yes, of course, you will expect to find at the university campus you attend the usual range of student activities and the vigorous school spirit for which it is known.

  • Faculty and staff, we have been afforded an opportunity to shape our future in service to our students and the Commonwealth. In meeting this challenge, we will marshal our resources and our talent in wholly new ways so we may reconceive, rebuild, refresh and expand the opportunities we offer to all our students.
  • Employers, you will continue to find great partners in these institutions. If they should end up working together, they will become even more responsive to your ever-changing needs.
  • And for residents of the surrounding communities, countless alumni, and cherished supporters, we have an opportunity to ensure the continued vibrancy of institutions that we need and that we all hold so dear.

Yes, I will admit it that this level of innovation involves discomfort and hard work. It fundamentally challenges the status quo, involves our thinking in new and different ways about how to sustain our core historic mission—affordable, quality higher education for all Pennsylvanians. But sustain that mission we must—and we shall—for the future of our students and the future of this Commonwealth. In the meantime, we have important work to do, serving today’s students, in today’s university structures—continuing, even as we plan our future, to provide those students the exceptional, life-changing experiences that all our universities are so well and so deservedly known for.

Such institutional integrations can appear frightening or threatening. They needn’t be. They shouldn’t be. If we work together and keep our eyes on the goals specified above, we will build a brighter future.

Imagine what we can accomplish.

The economics of public higher education are challenging, but not complicated. Public universities offer the programs they can afford based on state funding and enrollment-driven revenues. As revenues decline, so does program breadth, which in turn places greater downward pressure on enrollments and thus on revenues. A vicious cycle—one that is difficult if not impossible to break out of.

Think what it would mean for students and communities served by one of our universities should they fall into that cycle. Would it mean that students who want to attend those universities may go elsewhere if they cannot find the programs they wish to pursue, or worse, simply forego college and its benefits altogether as many will? Does it mean that communities and employers who rely upon those universities’ graduates to fill essential professional, business, and civic roles should now look elsewhere to import the talent they need or simply go without, threatening to cause their own atrophy?

No. That does need to happen here. Here, we can imagine a different future for universities whose viability is at risk if they continue attempting to support themselves independently.

Here we can bring universities together, so that acting as one they can sustain—even grow—and breathe new life into their programs so they meet the ever-evolving needs of our students, their employers, our communities.

Here we can work together as a “sharing system” of 14 institutions to ensure all will succeed. The integrations do not only involve those combinations of universities that are brought together. All of our institutions have a role to play in supporting this effort: working as part of a sharing system to expand educational opportunities, rationalize educational programs and program planning, and drive down operating costs.

A process that formally explores the potential for integrating combinations of universities in this broader system context is not only about ensuring the viability of affordable quality education for all Pennsylvanians:

  • it is about the future of higher education in rural America, and of low-enrolled institutions;
  • it is about ensuring all Americans have affordable pathways into the middle class irrespective of their zip code; and
  • it is about addressing financial and other challenges that are well known across U.S. higher education. 
And, yes, the nation is watching us.

The process for integrating State System universities is defined by law in Act 50. It is transparent, consultative, analytical and intended to seek solutions, not implement solutions that have been predetermined.

The process is conducted in partnership with the General Assembly through quarterly check-ins with House and Senate Education and Appropriations Committees. It consists of four phases, progress between which requires affirmation by the Board of Governors. The phases, and the most expeditious path for their completion is outlined below.

  • Phase 1 involves a review of the financial impacts of a potential integration. That review was launched today. It could be completed by October 2020.
  • Phase 2 involves the development of a detailed plan (or plans) to integrate selected institutions; it could be completed in April 2021, with a mid-phase checkpoint in January.
  • Phase 3 involves a public comment period and could be completed by July 2021.
  • Phase 4 involves implementing the plan and could be completed for the start of fall term 2022.  

The legislation creating this opportunity received overwhelming support in the General Assembly. Along its journey to the Governor’s desk, it benefited from the input of countless constituencies whose attention and care made it stronger.

Today, and with humility, we begin the journey outlined in the Act to ensure that all Pennsylvanians continue to benefit from affordable, quality, relevant, public higher education, and that all our institutions continue as vibrant members of their communities.

Yes, today we pause to recognize a pivotal moment in our State System’s history. Tomorrow we get to work.

Wednesday, June 3, 2020

Open and honest dialogue

The tragic event of George Floyd’s murder and the emotions expressed as a result have reinforced how critically important it is for our nation to confront the persistent racism that has been present in our society for 400 years. If we ever hope to overcome the injustices faced by so many of our fellow Americans, we must engage with a renewed sense of purpose and commitment in an open and honest dialogue.

The moment is here. It is now.

Universities and colleges, including our 14 institutions, have a vital role to play here. Across our campuses and in our classrooms, people from every walk of life can come together and learn by listening to and engaging with one another, no matter their different perspectives, backgrounds, and opinions. People debate – sometimes uncomfortably – their very different ideas and world views. And through that debate, they manage more often than not to achieve new levels of understanding and to foster acceptance, tolerance, and compassion. Our universities are one of the few places left in our society that can foster this kind of engagement as a matter of mission and to do so in the interest of training the next generation of leaders, building a better future for our Commonwealth and our country.

However difficult this course, our universities remain committed to it. I am committed to it. I invite all of you to make that commitment, too.

During the past several days, I will admit to you that my irrepressible optimism has been tested. All of us have experienced so many emotions – anger, fear, worry, hope – as troubling events across the country and in our home towns have unfolded. Let’s choose to be comforted by the work of our universities in addressing these issues head on and constructively. Let’s choose to be comforted by the words of the famous gospel song “We Shall Overcome”. Let’s choose to be comforted by believing we have  to overcome because the world we leave to our children through our failure is not one in which we want them to live. The choice to leave a better, more tolerant world is in front of us, and it can begin at our universities and colleges. I invite you to join me in making that choice.

Monday, May 4, 2020

More questions than answers: Planning for a post-pandemic future

The challenges we have faced in the past seven weeks have been enormous, but we have risen to meet them in ways that are nothing short of inspiring.

We have transitioned—in almost no time—with deliberate focus and determination from organizations built largely around face-to-face (even crowd-based) practices, to ones that operate remotely.

We did this to ensure that our students continue making progress towards their credentials, while at the same time, securing the health and safety of our communities in the midst of an unprecedented global pandemic.

And we have done so much more in assisting our communities and our Commonwealth in countless ways—whether through the production and donation of personal protective equipment (PPE), the establishment of surge-hospital space within our facilities, or the provision of broadband wi-fi to local residents who need it, and so much more.

We have a great deal of which to be proud, a great deal to celebrate. So let’s take a moment to:

  • Acknowledge what we have accomplished—what we can accomplish when we work together.
  • Honor and say thank you to the countless and otherwise ordinary people across this great nation who, day after day, become heroes “through extraordinary and selfless actions to help their neighbors” (Sylvia Mathews Burwell).
  • Pray for those who are sick and the families of those who have passed, often alone and apart from their loved ones.
  • Breathe, draw courage, and master our resolve so that we may look forward together and confront our future.

As we do these things and reflect on the changing landscape of higher education, I offer the following observations that may inform our thinking:

Affordable, career-relevant higher education is probably more important now than ever before in the history of this country. 

It continues as an engine of economic development—ensuring employers have access to the skilled workforce they need—and a driver of social mobility as the most reliable pathway into and beyond the middle class.

Higher education will also, almost certainly, take on new roles such as reskilling and upskilling those who are un- and under-employed for whom we must create educational pathways. From obtaining a degree through combining short bursts of learning punctuated by periods of full-time employment to acting as a training ground—a forcing ground—for the army of professionals who will be required in medical centers, public health organizations, and in virtually every industry sector as they redesign fundamental processes and practice , students will seek to optimize health and safety as well as value in a world where social distancing, and routine testing, and hand washing, and teleworking, and so many other less-familiar practices are routinized.

In these regards and in others, there are enormous opportunities for those of us in higher education who are courageous enough to grab hold of them, and to release our grasp on many past practices as will be required in order to do so.

It is both dangerous and irresponsible for us to assume we will return to pre-pandemic normalcy and operate in ways that are largely unchanged by this event. 

At the present stage—working to flatten the curve—we find ourselves operating remotely with very few students and employees on-site at our universities and at the Office of the Chancellor. The broader circumstances impose unimaginable hardship on our healthcare workers, our emergency services, our small businesses, and on so many families across the state.

Shortly, we will be moving into an altogether different stage—doing our best in advance of having a vaccine that can inoculate us against COVID-19, therapeutics that can heal those who succumb to it, or even an understanding about the pandemic’s likely course. That phase is fraught with uncertainty. We face questions such as:

  • What is the depth, breadth, and duration of the current economic downturn? How will it impact the state and federal funding upon which our students and universities depend? What financial impacts will our students experience? At the onset of the Great Recession, the net average price of attendance at a State System university was nearly half what it is today; how will this event affect students’ willingness and ability to pay the price we charge for the credentials we offer? 
  • What about the credentials we offer? How relevant are they today and tomorrow? I have absolutely no doubt that the traditional, residential, comprehensive college experience will continue to be vitally important. But demand for that kind of education was already declining over the last decade during which we also saw growth in new modalities. Do we expect somehow that those trend lines will reverse course in the aftermath of this pandemic?
  • How will issues of health and safety factor into our operations and our attractiveness to students? Preliminary surveys uncover understandable reticence about residential experiences—it’s hard to socially distance in a dorm room; in a classroom or lab; during office hours; in the dining hall; at band practice; on the football field. So too, employees’ rightful concerns for their own health and that of their loved ones factor into the mix.

Nascent national and statewide recovery plans reflect these uncertainties insofar as they are grounded in what appears to me to be stridently market-based, almost Darwinian, principles that suggest organizations will thrive if they make their “customers” and employees feel safe. They will continue to compete along the usual axes that typically include something about value, but now also include health/ safety.

We see this in early conversations across our industry about what it means to “open” in the fall. And while few institutions have committed publicly to what they intend in that regard, early indicators suggest that many are considering mixed modalities that serve some students on campus, some remotely, and still others in a hybrid fashion.

(WARNING: Tugging on this thread too hard will make your brain hurt…Does a mixed modality approach entail differential pricing? What do mixed-modality models mean for student services, student life, student engagement, campus culture? Which employees will telework? Are academic calendars and the credit-based models they support so rigid as to introduce health risks? Will regulatory agencies that govern accreditation, professional licensure, etc., be willing to relax pre-pandemic standards once we enter that likely long-lasting nether region that is somewhere between emergency response and return to normalcy?)

Does this new and emerging development excite me as an educator? Absolutely. There is an incredible range of opportunities through which we can vastly improve and extend the societal benefits of higher education.

Does this new and emerging development concern me as an educator? Absolutely.

Why should we assume that the colleges and universities enrolling a disproportion of historically underserved students—whether they are low-income, rural, or students of color—will succeed any better in this evolving, survival-of-the-fittest marketplace than they have in the one we are leaving behind?

There is potential here for higher education to reify prevailing socio-economic inequalities. Given that our country can only satisfy its workforce development needs on the backs of these very students, I am as terrified by potential economic impacts as I am by the prospect of even greater inequality.

Eventually, God willing, with vaccines and/or therapeutics in hand, we will transition into a post-pandemic future. At that time, this pandemic will appear in our review mirror. At that time, we will be looking forward—watching, waiting, preparing for the next one. 

So while, of course, we focus intently on immediate issues having to do with what it means to “re-open” in the fall, we have an obligation to address longer-term issues responsibly, realistically, transparently. Our university system was profoundly challenged in advance of this pandemic in ways that I have shared many times before. For the past 18-months, we have been advancing an aggressive plan with which to deal challenges in a financially sustaining way through a full-scale System Redesign that:

  • leverages our scale in order to expand educational opportunities for all students, irrespective of their zip code, while driving operational efficiencies.
  • meets the needs of adults who need to reskill and upskill to remain relevant in rapidly changing labor markets.
  • ensures all students, irrespective of income and background have an opportunity not only to access an affordable higher education but also to complete a credential that enables them to sustain themselves and their families far into the future.

Thank goodness we have that plan in place. We have laid a lot of track in designing it and beginning to implement it. We have made particular progress stabilizing our universities financially and requiring plans for their financial sustainability. As we turn to our future, we are revisiting those plans, testing them against the new and challenging realities I outline here.

I need to be absolutely clear on one point: I neither believe nor expect that we can transition into our post-pandemic future by making only modest adjustments to our enterprise. On the contrary, I expect a fundamental restructuring is necessary. We were headed in that direction anyway through our System Redesign, but now an accelerated transformation is necessary.

The cost of not keeping up is irrelevance; it is the abandonment of our historic purpose; it is the abrogation of the sacred trust we have earned with the communities we serve.

I believe now more than ever in the mission of public higher education, its role as an engine of economic and social mobility, its service to community and nation.

I believe now more than ever that public higher education has an essential role to play, especially for those who would otherwise be threatened with being left behind.

I believe now more than ever that by working together, that by suspending our residual disbelief in or distrust of one another and our parochial self-interests, that by cementing our partnership with the Commonwealth, we will redefine what it means to be a public system of higher education. Together, we will discover how—in new and exciting ways—to leverage the power and promise of our historic institutions in the best interest of our Commonwealth and this nation.

I believe our greatest days lie ahead of us, and for the success of our institutions and our students, it is on them that we must continue to focus our attention.


Thursday, February 13, 2020

Farther, faster

This month we are asking the PA General Assembly to choose―to choose whether or not all Pennsylvanians will have access to affordable career-relevant college education that is critical to the economic health and well-being of this Commonwealth.

The ask is supported with detailed analysis of the contributions that State System universities make today to this Commonwealth, to its employers, and most important of all, to our students. The contributions―revealed in our first ever State System appropriations request and accountability report and dashboard―are strong, and there is so much promise going forward. But our strength, our potential, is also threatened by years of neglect on the part of the Commonwealth, which for too long has chosen to underfund public higher education.

But we too, are party to that neglect―not owing to incompetence or negligence or mal-intent. On the contrary, I am every day impressed by the quality, talent, commitment and good intent of our faculty and staff. Still, for whatever reason, we have been slow to evolve in ways that enable us to meet the dramatically changing needs of our students, their employers, our communities and the state. And we have been slow to address the practical financial challenges that result from long-running structural changes in the demographic and political economy of Pennsylvania higher education.

So we too must choose, and as with the General Assembly, we must choose now. Delay is not an option. Our failure to work together with one another in charting our own path will only result in a future that none of us wants – that none of us would choose.

Some examples of the choices we must make are presented here―enumerated so you can leap to any that capture your attention.
  1. Financial sustainability 
  2. Investing in community college transfer students’ success
  3. Online undergraduate education
  4. Adult education

1. Financial sustainability

Just yesterday, I circulated a memorandum to the presidents instructing the adoption of several immediate actions that will enable us to align our costs with our current and anticipated enrollment, thereby ensuring that we:

  • reduce anticipated debt-levels that, if left unattended, will impact our ability to serve our students;
  • ensure that unrestricted net assets are used to invest in strategic and growth opportunities rather than to balance annual operating budgets;
  • minimize university reliance on furloughs and retrenchment as a means of achieving financial sustainability; and ultimately
  • expand educational opportunities so we continue to meet the rapidly changing needs of our students, their employers, and our communities.

At 30,000 feet, the problem those actions seek to address is not a complicated one. Our student FTE (enrollments) are down by 20% since 2010 and our staff and faculty FTE are down by only 7%. Not a good pattern if it persists for too long in an industry where 75% of all operating costs are tied up in salary and benefits. This pattern became unsustainable years ago, but until now we have not had the courage to address it.

Additionally, we know we can’t credibly ask the General Assembly to subsidize cost imbalances that we are unable or unwilling to address. Nor can we continue to heap the burden of those imbalances onto our students in the form of routine increases in the price of tuition, fees, room and board. Our students are drawn disproportionately from low- and middle-income families. They should be. That’s what public higher education is all about. But enrollment trends tell us what we already know―our low- and middle-income students can’t afford annual increases in net average price of attendance (tuition, fees, room, and board) that travel in multiples of the rate of inflation.

So we choose to act. To align our expenditures with current and anticipated enrollment levels. A lot of my time, personally, is spent here because the opportunity to realize any of our hopes and dreams for the future requires that we navigate through this thorny thicket. It represents our greatest and most immediate challenge. It forces us to:
  • shift our thinking and operations fundamentally;
  • embrace changes in the design and delivery of our educational programming and the student supports that are associated with it;
  • engage a 14-university approach to sustaining low-enrolled universities that are vital to the health and well-being of the Commonwealth, but are challenged at today’s enrollments to offer the breadth of educational programs their students and communities need.
System Redesign and its sharing system vision were designed for specific reasons. They are below.

Realizing the vision for the good of the Commonwealth? That’s a choice.

2. Investing in community college transfer students’ success

I’ve heard a great deal in recent weeks about the Pennsylvania community colleges’ transfer agreement with Southern New Hampshire University.

It’s more noise than signal: sycophantic fawning over disruption (apparently an end itself); further prognostications from higher education death watchers (an emerging cottage industry); countless offers of help and support. But very few facts and no critical analysis. Call me old fashioned, but those things matter to me. And they should matter to us.

The number of community college students who transfer to a PA State System university tracks more or less with community college enrolments. Both are down over 13% since 2013. State System university transfers are down a tad more―around 16%―as a result of a strong economy that is drawing community college graduates into the job market rather than back into the classroom. But the pattern is not uniform. Several State System universities are actually enrolling a higher proportion of transfer students. I’ll return to those in a moment.

The State System has robust transfer articulation agreements in place with community colleges and a System policy that requires universities to adhere to them. As a result, State System universities accept 93% of the credits presented by community college transfer students―that’s a lot. Credits that aren’t accepted are for courses that don’t exist in any way, shape, or form at the host university or for which the transfer student received an unacceptably low grade. That sort of thing doesn’t matter at every university, but it does for ours and it should. Unless you’re a degree mill, quality matters. It should.

Transfer students are good students who are well prepared academically. They graduate at a slightly higher rate than students who begin as freshmen at a State System university.

Could we do more? Yes.

We could (and we should) work even more closely with our community college partners to facilitate students’ progress along the transfer pathways we have already established for them and ensure junior standing for those who have earned an AA or an AS degree in an aligned program, including but not limited to, the statewide 30-credit framework and P2P (Program to Program) agreements.

We could (and we should) be willing to waive on-campus residency requirements when they place obstacles in the path of a transfer student. Yes, there’s a cost. Residential students engage more in the life of the university and have higher retention and graduation rates. But the net price of attendance for a residential student is higher than for a non-residential student, an insurmountable obstacle for many.

We could (and we should) work more closely with our community college colleagues not only to ensure that transfer articulation agreements are robustly maintained, but also that intending transfer students receive the financial aid and academic and other advising supports they need all along the way from college to university.

We could (and we should) do more to act like we care about transfer students (we do care); to make them feel wanted (they are wanted); to help them engage in our communities and ease their progress along a journey that is a difficult one for many.

How do we know what we could (and should) do? Because there’s already a transfer playbook that has been built upon evidence and case study. And because we have numerous examples of what “great” looks like, including at universities in our System―universities that, by the way, implement aspects of the playbook and are enrolling an ever-growing share of community college transfer students.

So… what to do? Well, that’s another choice. Me? I’m for addressing the obvious unmet of these students. Now. You know. Like #PAPreferred.

3. Online undergraduate education

How many Pennsylvanians do you think enroll each year in an online undergraduate program offered by an out-of-state university? Nearly 43,000. Closing in on half of our enrollments. That’s 43,000 Pennsylvanians choosing a big box retail-style education provider rather than a Pennsylvania institution.

My use of “big box,” by the way, isn’t intended as a slight. Big box retail plays an important role in every sector. I get my bike parts almost exclusively from one big box retailer in the consumer space.

And I am absolutely enamored of a rack of lamb available exclusively from another. As with consumer sales, there are a few big box retail-style education providers that have the largest online market share in terms of their enrollments: In alphabetical order, they are Arizona State, Liberty University, Southern New Hampshire University, the University of Phoenix, and Western Governor’s University. Their successes are illuminating, and we can (and we should) learn from them.

We learn that a large and growing number of Pennsylvania undergraduates want an affordable online option. Oh. Did I fail to mention that our on-ground and online tuition is equal to or lower than nearly all the out-of-state providers?

We learn that Pennsylvanians who enroll in online undergraduate education disproportionately enroll in business, nursing, and education. Hmm. Sound familiar? It should. Business, healthcare, and education (along with STEM) are our highest-enrolled programs, accounting for nearly half our students.

Another helpful factoid. Most online students prefer to enroll in programs offered by universities within 100 miles of their home. This makes sense for a number of reasons, including the connectivity to workforce opportunities that are inevitably more available from a community-based institution.

So how many undergraduate programs do we offer fully online in the State System? A bunch. But they are under-leveraged, and except for a handful of programs in business and nursing, not as aligned as they could be to student demand.

Another choice.

4. Adult education

The size of Pennsylvania’s high school-leaving population declined 4.5% between 2012 and 2018. After a period of modest growth, it will go over a cliff in 2025, projected to lose 9% over ten years. In the meantime, there is a rising need for more adult education―not necessarily for degree granting education (Associate’s, Bachelor’s, and Master’s degrees)―although there is need for that too―but for various non-degree credentials in areas of business, healthcare, STEM, and education in which we have real strength. In today’s job market, people need constantly to upskill and re-skill in these areas.

How many non-degree, working-adult-oriented credentialing programs do we offer? Honestly, I can’t tell you. We don’t bother to count them all that well at the System level.

Those days are over. From today forward, we count them.

Growing them? Well. That is yet another choice.

Change is hard.

I understand that.

I understand, too, why change is slow not just in Pennsylvania but in US public higher education generally.

Look, for years―even decades―students showed up every fall and filled our course sections. Public appropriations materialized every summer from the state, and even as per-student public funding declined, the impacts were mitigated initially by enrollment growth (through 2010/11), then through basic recession management techniques. Sure, there were hard times, but we lived on the strategy of hope―hope that next year would bring a bumper crop of student enrollments; a richer state budget.

Operating for decades in these modes bred a sense of entitlement, even hubris. Frankly, it invited the big box retailer-style education providers into our state, offered them an opportunity to eat the lunch we had prepared and then left unattended on the table while we were out by the pool basking in the sun.

Party’s over.

So, together with the General Assembly, we must choose. This year.

You know I am an irrepressible optimist. We can and we will address these changes, and we will do it with creative intelligence, energy, and with empathy and compassion for one another.

We will look forward, not backward. Work together, not alone. Act from trust, not from enmity. In time and through our successes we will learn to let go of the hurt and animosity and blame that continue to show up in some places to negatively influence our culture.

How do I know? Because every day I see us doing exactly that. In ways small and large, but all of them profound, and to me, very moving.

I see it amongst faculty and staff who are brimming with creative ideas about how to share in educational programs, to better support our students, to engage more effectively with employers who want to work more effectively with us.

I see it in thoughtful, constructive, and collegial dialog with leadership of our faculty union, APSCUF, with whom we have a shared understanding of and a profound commitment to the “why” of our change journey. In my personal experience, those discussions touch strategically on the what and where, and tactically on the how.

I see it in our university leadership—in their thoughtful and analytically driven university strategies and budgets; their willingness to roll up sleeves and help one another; their openness to adopting collaborative approaches to individual institutional challenges; their energy for change leadership; their collegiality with one another; and their thought partnership with me.

I see it in the engagement of our Trustees and our Board of Governors—their passion for our purpose, and their stewardship of our universities, our System, their communities. In looking forward to testifying in front of the Appropriations Committees of the General Assembly, I am struck by the nature and extent of our partnership with the Commonwealth.

The State System universities play a critical role as an engine of economic development and social mobility in this state. But to realize the full extent of our promise to Pennsylvania, the General Assembly and the State System must choose—together, in partnership.

The General Assembly’s choice has to do with investment of public funds, ours with fundamental transformation of our education and business models.

Neither choice can be made alone, without the other.

Hold hands. Count to three. And jump together into the future―the future that the citizens of this Commonwealth demand and deserve.

Wednesday, January 15, 2020

The State of OUR System

Earlier today, I gave my annual State of the System address in Harrisburg, and I wanted to share with you the highlights of my remarks. Let me begin by saying after 500 days in the role of Chancellor, I’m inspired by our mission and optimistic about our future. But today, the state of our system is fluid, and we are at a turning point. This year—with our partners, the General Assembly—we will decide the course of public higher education in this Commonwealth.

This year, we will decide:

  • Whether all Pennsylvanians—regardless of zip code, race, or wealth—will have an affordable pathway into and beyond the middle class in the 21st century economy.
  • Whether millions of adults will have the affordable public re-skilling and upskilling options they need to maintain their relevance and viability in an evolving labor market.
  • Whether the State of the System Address for next year will focus on continuing with our System Redesign or whether that transformation will take an entirely different form.

This decision is not ours alone. It is also squarely in front of our strategic partners, who have an undeniable stake in our success, especially members of the General Assembly. Their constituents’ careers and the communities in their districts rely on affordable, relevant, public higher education.

We are ready for this moment. In less than two years, we have taken the difficult steps needed to transform and redesign this system so that it sustainably continues its historic mission of social mobility and economic development for all Pennsylvanians. We are confronting challenges that have grown to existential proportion, and we have made demonstrable progress in five foundational areas:

  1. Radical transparency – We have achieved that. We opened our books to our employees, the General Assembly, and to members of the public. We did this to show the price of education, the value it returns to our students, the challenges we face, the success we log, and how we allocate scarce resources with what effect.
  2. Real accountability – We have achieved that with those who pay our bills…the Commonwealth and our students. Last year, the Board of Governors required our 14 universities to balance their budgets while continuing to improve student affordability, progression, and success. This year, the Board will use evidence of progress towards those goals to guide decisions about student tuition, the allocation and use of state funds, and to anchor evaluations of executive performance.
  3. Freezing tuition – We did that. The Board of Governors passed a tuition freeze last summer for the first time in 21 years because it was the right thing to do for our students, who have shouldered the burden of rising costs.
  4. Aligning costs with our revenues – We’re achieving that by leveraging operating scale through a variety of shared services to achieve real, meaningful savings. We’ve also worked in partnership with our collective bargaining units to reach fair and responsible contracts.
  5. Address the challenges faced by our low-enrolled universities – We passed foundational policy requiring all universities to be financially sustainable and requiring plans of action to achieve that where necessary. 

While we have delivered on our promises for 2019, let me now make a few for 2020:
Working together, this year we will show how students at one university can access courses and programs elsewhere in the System, allowing all students at all universities—irrespective of their size—to access courses in important traditional subjects like physics and modern languages, as well as in new high demand areas; for example, in geo- and environmental sciences, informatics, health care and education.

  • Working together, this year we will execute budget plans that will ensure all of our universities are financially sustainable within five years. Why five years? Because we need to move at a pace that does not impact the ability of our current students to complete their degrees and achieve their goals. 
  • Working together, this year we will produce initial cost savings that result from our work on System Redesign–leveraging our tremendous operating scale.
  • Working together, this year we will take our accountability and transparency to a whole new level by reporting on our progress toward meeting clearly identified student success and university success goals. 

Our System Redesign is bold; it is transformational. We have delivered on the promises we made for 2019 and we will deliver again in 2020 on the promises made here. But the extent of our success? It is not ours alone to determine. It depends on the committed partnership of others.

Our foundations and donors will be critical because transformation of this kind requires investment in innovation. I am delighted to tell you that our State System Foundation is forging a path by establishing an innovation fund dedicated to implementing practices that will improve students’ success. Also, our partnerships with employers, schools, and community colleges will be critical to building pathways that are relevant for lifelong learning.

Most critical of all, though, is our partnership with the state.

We have listened to and heard the concerns of our elected representatives about our cost, our value, our sustainability. We have demonstrated our seriousness of purpose in responding to them with real and demonstrably impactful actions, and with a detailed roadmap for fundamentally restructuring this system — one with milestones and deliverables to which we expect to be held accountable.

In return, we have requested the investment we need to begin delivering concretely on the promise of this System Redesign: a two percent increase in our yearly appropriation for 2020 and an initial $20 million installment on the $100 million that we will need over five years to become a sharing system that delivers for the people and employers of this state. Let me be clear: this request, this investment, is critical to the success of our efforts and the future of the State System.

The state of our system is fluid. We are at a turning point. This year—with our partners—we will decide the course of public higher education in this Commonwealth.

This year.

Thursday, December 12, 2019

‘Tis the season

One of the great awakenings I’ve had since becoming Chancellor (what is it now…15 months?) is learning firsthand how universities are among the few places left in our country where people engage with others who are not like themselves.

I mean, think about it. On balance, people tend to live in neighborhoods with others who share socioeconomic and demographic characteristics, to engage with social media and traditional media with people who think like they do, to develop friends groups whose members have common backgrounds. This “isomorphism” is showing up geospatially and in ways that impact the political process. The number of “safe” congressional districts—now in the majority—has increased dramatically in the last 30 years.

Of course, the pursuit/realization of homogeneity that appears in so many spheres doesn’t mean we have totally written off debate and discussion. It’s just that debate and discussion is made safe by the virtual elimination of challenging topics that come with who people have very different world views, experiences, hopes, and dreams.

So, at the gym or over dinner with friends we’ll debate the strengths and weaknesses of different sports teams, movies, or books and the aesthetic and functional qualities of different clothing lines. At work we’ll negotiate how best to pursue a particular objective and debate what objectives we ought to be pursuing in the first place. Nothing too controversial there.

Even the expected holiday family brawls over our nation’s political circumstances didn’t materialize to meet the media’s expectations. In fact, a study presented recently on NPR reported that only 4% of the extended family gatherings were likely to include people with divergent partisan political opinions. What?!

The fact is that very few of us willingly seek out opportunities in which our beliefs and experiences are challenged by people who have fundamentally different world views, experiences, and belief systems. This is unfortunate at many levels.

By engaging directly with those who are unlike ourselves we grow as individuals in ways that are fundamentally important.
  • We gain a deeper understanding of the human condition and, consequently, of ourselves.
  • We learn to have—not to avoid—difficult, courageous conversations in a respectful and courteous manner.
  • We learn to evaluate information and ideas critically, analytically—often amending our own thinking as a result.
  • We learn that those who we may have viewed as “the enemy” or the “outsider” have interests and hobbies and loves and hopes and dreams—just like we do.
But there is more here. By interacting directly with others who are not like ourselves, we grow in ways that are good for the broader society. We learn to listen so that we may hear and understand, to practice the art of compromise, to be tolerant. We learn to engage with “the other”—not to demonize them. We learn that if our camaraderie and compassion have boundaries, it is because we seek consciously to create and sustain those boundaries.

This is one reason that our universities are such special places. In them students from affluent and less affluent backgrounds share the same classrooms. In them, black, brown, white, rural, and urban students live and learn and eat and play and work together. People of all different religious affiliations, political persuasions, and gender orientations are not only present, they are all welcomed to gather and share experiences that prepare them for careers, indeed for their whole lives.

Our universities wear as a badge of honor the value that all people and perspectives are welcomed to participate in our university communities, to engage within them in the critical exposition and review of ideas, and to develop sensibilities that, I hope, may lead to a more humane and tolerant society.

‘Tis the season of celebration, and with you I celebrate everything that makes our universities such unique places for our students, for our commonwealth, and for our country.

‘Tis the season too when thousands of students will gather together one last time to celebrate what they’ve accomplished, to receive their diplomas, and to begin the next fruitful chapter of their lives.

I look forward to speaking at Lock Haven University’s commencement on December 14 and sharing the experience with so many deserving students. And I want to congratulate everyone who will be with friends and family during the coming weeks, energized and full of boundless possibility, as they begin their post-graduate careers.

There’s no reason why what we learn while attending a university has to be left at the university’s gate when we leave. We can choose to carry tolerance and compassion forward into our lives. We can choose to use the critical thinking and communication skills we have developed to evaluate information and ideas. We can choose to embrace our new abilities to interact with new—perhaps one-time alien—world views and perspectives. We can choose to cordon ourselves off from people who are unlike ourselves or to continue to engage.

These are choices each one of us will make—choices that will have lasting implications for ourselves, our families, and for the world in which we live.

But our universities don’t simply breed tolerance and compassion. They also are fertile ground in which social and economic mobility flourishes. The impacts of a strong public higher education system are measurable for the Commonwealth through the generation of good jobs and the talented individuals to fill them, a growing tax base, and a healthy, happy citizenry. Frankly, it’s impossible to imagine Pennsylvania remaining competitive without this.

That is why we have spent so much time thinking, talking, planning, and advocating for reshaping the State System into a sharing system—one that aims to ensure all Pennsylvanians are able to engage with affordable, relevant, postsecondary education now and into the future.

We can only achieve our goal if we break down traditional barriers, work together, leverage the tremendous collective strength of our faculty and staff, and take advantage of the fact that we are a single corporate entity comprising unique universities that are interdependent with each other. The power and promise resulting from our “systemness”—from this new sharing system—is enormous.
  • Working together, we will expand the courses, degree programs, career advising supports, and library services that are available to students across the System.
  • Working together, we will engage with any number of innovations that promise to improve student outcomes—lifting us into the ranks of industry leaders where our students and the Commonwealth need us to be.
  • Working together—learning from one another—our universities can partner more effectively with the business and community leaders in the regions they serve to lift up whole communities economically as well as culturally.
  • Working together, we will deliver on all of these promises in a less costly manner that will help us remain the most affordable postsecondary option available in this state.
‘Tis the season to celebrate, so let me at least approach a close to this blog by celebrating some of the tremendous successes we’ve had thus far in creating our sharing system—more importantly celebrating many of you—the countless number of people who have given selflessly of their time and intelligence to lead the work.

In the past few short months we have:
  • begun to address our most immediate and urgent challenges—yes, they are financial— with measures that enable us to achieve financial sustainability including a suite of tools that help us identify and act together to address our most pressing needs; holding each other accountable for our progress in doing so
  • developed an implementation plan for shared services that will drive down costs—helping us to be financially sustainable (thus contributing to student affordability) while dramatically expanding our capabilities. In this latter regard, I am particularly excited about the opportunities we are pursuing to enable students cross-university access to courses and programs.
  • engaged the tremendous talent of our employees in recommending improvements in areas that we know will benefit our students—improving how we support students who are academically underprepared when they arrive at our universities; enhancing student advising; effectively addressing the mental health and wellness issues that our students confront; ensuring student affordability; strengthening our efforts to prepare students for and guiding them to sustaining careers. There is also work underway improving the flow of students into our universities and partnering with schools and colleges in order to do so (e.g., with dual enrollment high school programs and through improving community college transfer processes).
  • changed our governance structures and expectations to emphasize inclusive consultation, transparency, and openness, and to ensure there is more effective cross-university and cross-constituency consultation around at the System- and university-level.
  • begun to speak openly about our organizational culture—its strengths and the opportunities—to develop them. That work will pick up significantly early in the new year when we circulate results of our organizational culture and engagement survey and begin formally to review and to respond to it.
  • engaged in a wholly different kind of dialog with our owners—the Commonwealth—through the General Assembly and elected leaders. This dialogue is transparent about our progress as well as our challenges and involves actively listening to the very real concerns of our elected officials and to frame, execute, and report progress with concrete responses to them. In doing so, we seek to inform the policy and budget trade-off decisions that elected officials need to make with hard data about impact and consequence.
All of this work will continue into 2020 when I hope and expect we will begin to see early signs that the sharing system is taking root.

Yes, these are incredibly difficult things to do. They work against organizational cultures, expectations and practices that have been bred over more than a century of our universities operating in isolation—at best alongside one another. They require courageous and often awkward conversations between people from different universities and different constituent groups—people who disagree vigorously/passionately with one another around issues that have existential importance (the type and number of students we enroll, the scope and purpose of the credentials we offer, the expectations of our faculty and staff and leaders). They require us collectively to suspend our disbelief, to agree to look in the rearview mirror only so we may learn from it, to engage in what I heard one of our colleagues refer to as a simultaneous mutual “trust fall.”

Sound familiar? In a real sense, our efforts to create a sharing system require the same willingness to seek out opportunities in which our own views, experiences, and beliefs are challenged. We must be willing to do the very thing we are asking—and equipping—our students to do when they graduate.

I am tremendously optimistic that we will succeed. Why? Because our universities are one of the few places left where people who are very unlike one another can come together and with compassion and integrity engage with and learn from one another. One of the greatest gifts that we give our students is one that engenders tolerance and respect, and that enables difficult and courageous conversations.

During this season, I am asking that we bestow this gift upon ourselves, and to see in it the sources of our enduring strength and boundless opportunities. Building the sharing system is a partnership of mutual respect, which is possible because our universities are places where we come together with people from different backgrounds than our own and then have shared experience.

You should know that I get a constant flow of great input and feedback—emails, conversations, web comments—from people around the System. It fuels me. It inspires me. So, keep it coming. Comment below or share your thoughts on our System Redesign site.

Monday, November 18, 2019

Signs of systemness

After nearly 3,000 miles driven, 125 hours of meetings (including 56 focus groups, 14 open forums, and a spectacular bike ride in Tioga County), my Fall 2019 tour of the State System universities is over. One cannot dive so deeply with so much intensity into our part of public higher education without being inspired by how profoundly we transform lives, drive economies, support communities, and contribute to a healthier, more civil society. 

Oh, the powerful and moving stories. 

The stories told to me by so many of our faculty, staff, and civic leaders about how one or more universities changed their lives. These stories begin in coal mines, steel mills, rural farms, and on the streets of Pittsburgh, Philadelphia and Allentown. They start out in family, in faith, in true grit and determination, but so often with little else. These are stories of social mobility and personal salvation. They result almost unanimously in a passion for public higher education and a burning desire—always acted upon—to pay forward into the broader community what the state had done for them through its investment in public higher education.

Oh, the overwhelming evidence. 

Evidence at each of our universities shows how false, how invidious, how inaccurate, how absurd, how outrightly harmful are the ideologically charged, politicized narratives that question the value, integrity, and responsiveness of public higher education. That evidence shows up across the state at each of our universities in: 
  • partnerships with local employers—healthcare, business, manufacturing, and other sectors—that produce graduates capable of excelling in today’s jobs AND in advancing productive careers over the course of their lives and through an ever-changing economy. 
  • programs that help students, faculty, staff, and members of the local community navigate difficult and contentious issues having to do with intolerance, injustice, inequality.   
  • innovative uses of technologies that connect students across the Commonwealth in “virtual” classrooms where they interact with one another and with faculty, and learn to become, for example, physician assistants without incurring the overhead cost and inconvenience of their co-location.
  • impactful and creative faculty-inspired, student-led research that seeks to reveal the true extent of Lyme-disease-carrying-ticks in urban parks.  
  • initiatives that attack attainment gaps between black, white, and brown; rich and poor – initiatives that are demonstrably improving students’ retention rates.

Oh, the data (in my comfort zone now). 

The data show how valuable our System is. Consider this: 
  • More than 70% of our graduates live and work in the state of Pennsylvania.
  • 38% of our graduates work in high demand STEM, business, and health-related fields. 
  • Our graduates earn, on average, $450,000 to $1,300,000 more over the course of a lifetime (depending on program of study and years to graduate) than people whose education ends after high school, and in terms of their earnings have repaid their investment in public higher education within 9 to 18 years of graduation.
  • Students who graduate with liberal arts degrees do nearly as well with respect of their earnings as those who graduate in business, STEM or health fields.
  • Three of our universities are the number one employer in their county (eight are in the top 10), and annually they return $11 in economic impact for every $1 invested by the state.

(For those who doubt the power and promise of public higher education, I hope you’ll come out for my Spring tour so we can learn together how these engines of social mobility and economic development work and to engage in the facts, real lives, courageous actions, and evolving practices that are today’s public higher education.)

Even more inspiring: during this semester’s tour, I saw brilliant glimpses of “systemness”. “What is that?” you ask. Systemness, to me, is an understanding that our universities will be stronger, better, and offer even greater value to their students and communities by working together. E Pluribus Unum.  

I first encountered systemness (what we call a “sharing system”) when interviewing for the chancellor’s role (a lifetime ago!). During two long, well-caffeinated days, I met with nearly 100 faculty, staff, students, presidents, trustees, board members, and leaders of our bargaining units. I fielded 50 or 60 discrete questions, but underneath all of them was a recognition that the future of each of our universities was somehow tied to the future of all of them. The questions weren’t about whether we are connected, but were about how we are connected. 

I next encountered systemness amongst our faculty. Honestly. When the history of our State System is written, the chapter on systemness will begin with APSCUF. It will focus on APSCUF’s origins as a professional association building a statewide community of practice, on its insistence on the academic quality standards that ultimately transformed our state teacher’s colleges into universities. 

I have witnessed systemness among our professional staff in libraries, career services, student affairs, and among our academic deans—many of whom meet together from time to time on a cross-university or statewide basis to advance their practices and leverage their collective strengths. These professionals think deeply about the students on their campuses and understand those students are far better served if they work together—and so they do.

And during the past several months, I have been encouraged by signs of systemness that are showing up in the work of university leadership—presidents, vice presidents, trustees, and others. For them, systemness is not a new concept. It is defined in Act 188—the state law that defines how we work as a corporate entity. But the systemness of Act 188 is mechanical, legalistic, cumbersome—adopted grudgingly. 

In contrast, the systemness that has emerged among leadership over the past few months is born of empathy, shared commitment to our public mission, and a genuine understanding that we are strongest together, working as a sharing system.

Two issues focus this work: 
  • The first is the real and very genuine efforts I have witnessed at many of our campuses to reinvigorate shared governance; to transparently engage with faculty, staff, and students in the kind of collaborative problem solving and strategy development that will secure our bright future. 
  • The second focal point is in the implementation of a new financial sustainability policy. Approved by the Board of Governors in October 2019, the policy puts in place the means by which we will sustain affordable, relevant educational pathways for all Pennsylvanians. The policy forces long overdue reconsideration of academic programming. What programs does the Commonwealth need? How and by whom should they be offered? The policy forces long-overdue reconsideration of how funding is used and how universities are accountable to one another for their expenditures. The policy addresses much needed consideration about how we can tap into the tremendous talent that exists across our System, focusing it where it is needed anywhere across the state. 

By addressing these complex and difficult issues, our leaders demonstrate they can and do wear two hats simultaneously—one representing university roles and one representing roles of leaders of this great System. They demonstrate capability with courageous conversations that are as intense as they are rewarding. They inspire me with the confidence that we will not only secure our future, but we will reimagine public higher education as it ought to be in the 21st century.

To move the ball forward on all of these efforts, we’ve enhanced our communications regarding System Redesign, and it is starting to pay off. During the Fall tour, we did live audience polls during the open forums, and more than three quarters of the participants said they feel informed or well informed about System Redesign. That’s great, but we know there is more to do. So we are working on:
  • a series of videos for those who want to take a deeper dive into aspects of our work.   
  • greater visibility into our System Redesign teams—who they are, what they do, and the recommendations they make.
  • broader circulation of resources produced for participants in our various System Redesign teams.   
  • encouraging everyone to engage in the conversation by clicking on “Share Your Thoughts” fostering cross-university dialogue within disciplines and functional areas so colleagues across the System can explore what a “sharing system” means to them. (Email if you want more information about that.)

Let me clarify three things: the goal, the approach, and the priorities of System Redesign.

Our goal for System Redesign is to transform our universities’ education and business models so they can sustainably provide affordable, relevant postsecondary education to all Pennsylvanians. 

Our approach to System Redesign is based on a single critical assumption: We will respond more effectively to these changing demands and achieve our goal if we work together—as a sharing system—and leverage the tremendous collective strength of our faculty and staff. 

Our priorities are clear:
  • Put in place the governance and accountable systems that we need to work effectively together.
  • Financially stabilize our operations across the entire System.
  • Apply our collective talents collaboratively in solving the hardest problems we face: retaining our students; effectively engaging with new student groups who need our help; and partnering with employers to develop educational pathways that satisfy both student and economic needs.
  • Reframe the relationship with our owners—the Commonwealth—by working more closely with the General Assembly and our statewide elected officials.

Thus far, I have made three tours of our great System. Each has been successively more inspiring and, at the same time, humbling. With each tour I see in even greater detail how the future of our Commonwealth is integrally tied to the future of its public higher education system. With each tour I come to realize even more how this is the most exciting and energetic time to be part of the State System—what I consider the most innovative place in US public higher education today.   

Be part of the conversation.