Wednesday, December 19, 2018

A deep breath before a new beginning

The past four months have been a virtually non-stop whirlwind of activity. They’ve gone by so quickly; and—with them—my first semester as chancellor is over. I’ve already attended my first two commencements—at East Stroudsburg and Millersville—where I was honored to be given the opportunity to serve as keynote speaker. To all of the members of this fall’s graduating class—from all 14 universities—congratulations! (WATCH VIDEO)

I’ve learned so much since arriving on the job in September, and am more excited than ever about the challenges and opportunities facing us as we design for a stronger future for our universities and the entire State System. That’s important to our students and the people of Pennsylvania.

I admit it, I’m looking forward to a short break to relax with my family and to enjoy the rest of the holiday season. I hope all of you can do the same.

But, things will pick right back up in January. Prior to the quarterly Board of Governors meeting, I will be formally sworn-in as the System’s fifth chancellor—an honor for which I am extremely grateful. While an inauguration is a largely ceremonial event, it also will give me the opportunity to lay out a vision for our collective future in my first State of the System address.

That vision will be richly informed by the conversations I had during the 14 university tours I made this fall, by the hundreds of email responses to my earlier blogs, and by the dozens of meetings I’ve had with students, faculty, staff, university leaders, Board and council of trustee members, elected officials, community and business leaders, and yes—believe it or not—still others.

The vision also will be shaped by the excellent and creative work that has been conducted by three task groups whose members have been working assiduously to recommend to the Board answers to questions that we know we must answer in order to chart our future course.

One task group asked: Who are our students? What do we mean by their success? Another asked: What do we expect of our universities? What do we mean by their success? The third asked: What do we expect of our system? How should it perform in the interest of our students’ and our universities’ successes. (You can comment on the recommendations of these task groups when they are posted at the end of the month on the State System website at

And of course (because you know by now I can’t help myself) the vision will be informed by my having plundered our rich and invaluable data stores, reviewed countless trend lines, generated spreadsheets, pressure tested fractions and probably driven our wonderful analytics team to distraction (thanks to the team for such patience and support. I appreciate each and every one of you— and you know who you are).

We’ve worked up narratives from the numbers and tested them on countless people, blending the quantitative with qualitative and experiential in order to gain a deeper understanding of our rich and wonderful history, our many accomplishments, and our ongoing challenges.

These several inputs have informed an emerging, powerful vision for and establishing the foundation on which, together, we will build our future. That vision will be the focus of my inaugural remarks in January. Consideration of concrete next steps in enacting it will occupy the attention of the Board. No doubt, this will be an important—dare I say, pivotal—meeting.

Finally, know that I have been overwhelmed by your gracious hospitality and your willingness to engage so openly with me. I am encouraged by the eagerness with which so many of you are ready to get down to the serious work of redesigning the State System in a way that will best serve students and the Commonwealth. I am impressed by how much you recognize both the sense of urgency and the magnitude of the task ahead of us.

But honestly, what inspires me most is not that we recognize the challenges that we face and are willing to talk openly about them… No, what inspires me most—what fuels my optimism—is our willingness, our passion to transform the System so we may expand opportunity. That is what makes me certain we will succeed.

No, it won’t be easy at any level. But we have the grit, the determination, the talent, and the courage we will need to think ambitiously, act boldly, execute faithfully, and win.

As I have at the conclusion of each of my previous blogs, I encourage you to continue to engage in this process. Specifically, I would ask you to share with me 1) one thing we as a System are doing now that you believe we should continue to do, and 2) one thing we should stop doing. Please share your thoughts by commenting on this blog or emailing me at (You can also follow me on Instagram and on Twitter.)

Of course, take a moment to enjoy the holidays, to rest, and to recharge before the new semester. And maybe have a cookie or two.

Wednesday, November 7, 2018

Changing together

Having completed my initial round of visits to each of our 14 university campuses last week, I’m excited and encouraged by the warm welcome I received as the “new guy” in town; by the passion our students, faculty, and staff so clearly have for their individual institutions; and—especially—by the response to my call for resetting our culture. It’s been an amazing experience, and I so appreciate your gracious hospitality and willingness to share so openly with me.
Those of you who have participated directly in the meetings or who have attended the open forums have embraced my plea for everyone to engage collegially in the courageous conversations we know we need to have so we can identify our goals, focus and chart our path forward to achieve them, and make trade-offs where we need to in the interest of our students and the communities we serve. At least that’s the feeling I’ve gotten from so many of you.
In the days and weeks ahead, I’ll blog about key observations from my university visits. One I already have to offer is our powerful desire to want to hope—to amplify our passion for our students, our universities, our work. So evident to me is a real willingness to suspend our disbelief and put a pause on any vestiges of distrust that have held us back for so long so that we can engage in open, inclusive, honest, and transparent conversations that will allow us to lock arms and move forward together. So evident to me is the yearning that we feel to change our culture; to climb out of trenches that have been dug among different constituent groups around issues both critical and trivial—between universities, between universities and the System office, between faculty and staff, management and unions, trustees, and Board members—so that we may work together in the common interest of our students.
I’m convinced we’re moving in the right direction. And I’m confident we can leverage the next phase of our System Redesign effort to enable and accelerate this culture change. Here’s why.
Our work began in 2016 with the Board’s top-to-bottom review of how and where we needed to change in order to meet the needs of our students and of Pennsylvania as the state’s only public higher education system. Through that effort, the Board identified three strategic priorities that would focus and define our future work:
  •          Ensuring student success;
  •          Leveraging university strengths; and
  •      Transforming leadership and governance structures.
In 2017, the Board launched our System Redesign and deliberately used the first phase to chip away at aspects of culture that are standing in the path of our progress—in particular by focusing on being more transparent and less bureaucratic. Frankly, that work began with the search that resulted in my appointment as chancellor, when Board Chair Cindy Shapira invited a broad range of stakeholders—including students, faculty, and staff—to participate on the search committee.
In this second phase of System Redesign—a phase that runs through the end of 2019—we will move from the conceptual to the concrete in ways that will address issues that you have raised with me these past several weeks during university visits and in the countless, frankly very inspiring emails you have sent me. This second phase will include asking and answering essential questions that have not been resolved and that—through their irresolution—cause frustration and ambiguity about our future and an inability and unwillingness to make the choices necessary to drive toward it effectively. The questions you have raised and want to see answered are fundamental—existential even—and they have to do with:

Our students: Who are our students? Who ought they be? What can they reasonably afford with respect of their higher education? What do we mean by student success and what must we do to help our students succeed to that level?

Our universities: What do we mean by their success? What does that success look like? How will we know when it is achieved? 

Our system: What is the purpose of our System? Is it a regulatory body that ensures a high degree of homogeneity in practice and approach across its 14 universities—each of them expected to be financially self-sustaining—and that resolves conflicts among universities with respect of the academic programs they offer and/or the students they seek to enroll? Or is it something completely different; perhaps an entity that looks for creative ways to enable its 14 very powerful brands—each with the deepest roots in specific communities— to survive and thrive, meeting their communities’ distinctive needs by leveraging our distributed capabilities and expertise?
In this second phase of System Redesign, the answers to those questions will inform: 1) concrete numeric goals the Board will set for the System; 2) goal-aligned and outcomes-oriented strategies and budgets I’ll invite from our universities; and 3) the development of an accountability framework that will drive continuous improvement. Answers to these questions will shape the way the Board allocates public dollars and determines student tuition. They will be foundational—underpinning everything we do.
The work is consequential and, as such, it must be conducted inclusively, transparently, and openly. That will challenge us; it will challenge our culture. Together, we are so many creative, intelligent, and caring people. Together, we have so many passionately held—often competing—ideas about what our future should look like and how we should move toward it. These are enormous strengths. They are key to our future success.
And yet, we know that we cannot move forward in fundamental disagreement about who we are and what we must become. We must choose and we must determine—as a result of those choices—how we will work together. And we must align around those choices even where, individually, we may disagree with some of them. Only then will we be able to confront our many and very significant challenges, serve our students and our state, and ensure that we survive and thrive into the future.
For these reasons, the second phase of System Redesign is a perfect platform on which to transform our culture. Our success requires that we engage courageously in difficult conversations. That in those conversations, we show respect to one another; offer trust to one another; actively listen to one another so that we are able to hear and understand where each of us is coming from, even (perhaps especially) where we disagree; and use our words politely by engaging in constructive discourse.
I am confident we will succeed because after 2,400 miles and many long, productive, and inspiring days at our 14 universities, I know the stuff we’re made of, and I am enormously proud of us.

I am confident that by changing our culture through the ongoing System Redesign we will make this an even greater place to work; find effective ways to unleash the power and creativity of our faculty and staff, who—working together—will ultimately make a difference for our students; and position us to advocate on behalf of the System in a way that restores our proud place in the hearts and the minds of the people and the legislature of Pennsylvania.
I am confident that by working in a more collegial environment, we can better tackle our challenges. Honestly, I believe it’s happening already. For perhaps the first time ever, we invited a broad range of constitute groups to participate in the process of developing our annual appropriations request to the state. We have included students, faculty, and staff on task groups recently created to study and make recommendations on student success, university success, and “systemness.” We are opening up our data sources, reviewing them with multiple stakeholders to identify and iron out fundamental disagreements that exist about what we measure and how we report on our universities’ and our system’s progress and financial conditions. We are consulting with stakeholders regarding how best to make strategic investments in our universities using limited one-time funds we have that can help drive transformation.
And so you know, I expect as much from me and my team as I do from all of us. I’ve set clear expectations among my staff and the university presidents that a culture change is necessary; that we will use this System Redesign to accelerate it; and that I will do everything I can to model it and lead it.
As ever, I want to hear from you and invite you to share your thoughts on the above questions by commenting on this blog or emailing me at

Tuesday, October 9, 2018

Campus visits have been inspiring

Four stops into my tour of our 14 university campuses (plus a quick trip to Bloomsburg for dinner with our student leaders), and I can honestly say I have been inspired by virtually everyone I’ve met – faculty, staff, trustees, community leaders, and, especially, our students.  It’s not just that our students are bright, articulate young men and women—of course they are—it’s also how much they care, not only about their own futures, but about others as well.

It’s clear they chose the university they are attending because they know it will prepare them for future success, in both their careers and their lives. But there’s much more to it than that. They want to change the world. OK, that might sound a bit much; but, clearly, they want to have an impact on society, to give back to their communities, to “pay it forward.” Just listen to these words spoken by a Lock Haven University student during my recent visit there: “We all came here to help people at some point, one way or another. Physician assistants, teachers; they help people. I don’t know how I’m going to do it, but I want to help people too.”

How can that not give us all hope for the future?

And yet still there is more. In virtually every meeting I have had with students, the conversation turned to the students who start but do not finish at one of our universities – the students who have stopped out. There are a quite a number of them – more than two in five students who enter one of our universities as a freshman, do not complete a degree. The phenomenon is well known.  It touches all of our students’ lives, often at a personal level. In our conversations students describe to me the various reasons that so many of their friends and peers are no longer here. We talk about reasons that are:
  • financial (about tuition and fees, but more about room and board, which accounts for more than half the total net average price a student pays towardscollege);
  • academic challenges (they will wonder constructively, skeptically, out loud, whether we are doing everything we can to meet the needs of all of the students we enroll – to make ourselves “student ready universities?”); and
  • socio-culturally (I have had several discussions with students of color who speak movingly about the challenges they face at principally white institutions).

But my interlocutors never spend too long on problem definition. Not our students. They are doers with empathy and drive. They jump quickly to “solutioning.” They speak of:
  • greater student engagement – a means, metaphorically, of wrapping arms around peers who feel lost or alone;
  • what it means to live as minorities and majorities in a multicultural community; about macro and micro aggressions; about equity and inclusion;
  • an institution-wide commitment to supporting all students, to meeting them where they are with our advising and instructional supports – not expecting them to be the students of yesterday year – a time gone by before with Herculean effort and amazing impact we democratized the face of higher education; and of
  • opportunities to turn adversity – for example the appearance on campus of a hate group – into a learning opportunity for the entire community.

This is potent and powerful stuff. It reminds us of our ethical obligation: enrolling a student and taking their hard won tuition dollars entails an ethical responsibility to do everything we can to help them succeed. It provides real and tangible clues about what faculty and staff and our administration can do more and less of to support all of our students, to improve their success. It reminds us that the student voice is well worth listening to as we work together inclusively to chart our future, that there is significant risk in our not listening to and hearing that voice.

Yes, our enrollments are down as the high-school leaving population in the state continues to decline, and yes we do not enjoy the kind of support that is available to higher education in all but three or four states in this great nation. And yes, we face other challenges, as well. But I choose to focus on our students and their future. I won’t let them down. We won’t. I’m optimistic; I can’t help but be with what I’ve seen and heard so far.

In my first message, I invited you to join me in a conversation about the System and its future, either by posting a comment at the end of this blog or by sending me an email with your thoughts. Since then, I’ve received literally hundreds of emails. I’m trying to respond to each one; but, I must admit, I’m falling behind. I will keep at it, though, and hope soon to transition to a social media mechanism that will enable us to have a wholly open discussion with one another, in the light of day. The passion you have for this System, for these universities, for our students – it shines through each and every single one of the many messages I have received from you. It is humbling. Here is one example:

“You are leading a team [speaking about all of us as part of a team] that is truly passionate about providing our students with the most comprehensive, innovative, life-changing experience possible... I can't tell you the number of times I have watched faculty…completely transform their teaching and research methods in dramatic and very labor intensive ways in the constant search for the best way to inspire students. [I see] staff and administrators quietly working so many extra hours to make sure our students are well taken care of….[We] are watching our [students] launch toward the hopes and dreams we have for them, as well as their own.”

Says it all, doesn’t it? Let’s keep working together for our collective future, for our students’ success.

And for all of you I have had the opportunity to meet and speak with – thank you. Thank you for your hospitality, your welcome, your generosity of spirit, and your creative insights.


Tuesday, September 4, 2018

Courageous conversation and courageous action

Today begins my journey as chancellor. I’m thrilled to be here, and I’m laser-focused on helping to ensure that our 14 universities are places that every student can achieve success—an affordable degree that leads to a sustaining career and an opportunity to contribute to their community. And I do mean every student, regardless of where they come from or how improbable their success might have once seemed.

That is my passion, and that is our mission. It’s that mission that brought me here to Pennsylvania to help move the System Redesign forward so that future generations have even more opportunities to thrive and contribute to our economy and to the health and well-being of our commonwealth.

First things first, I want to find out more about ‘us’—about who we are and what we can become. I’ll be visiting all 14 universities this fall to hear from everyone—students, alumni, faculty, staff, and others—to begin a dialogue. I want to hear your stories, listen to your ideas, and understand the challenges and obstacles that we face—that you face. I want to know what makes us good, to know about the issues that keep us from becoming better, and to know how we can address those issues.

Through that conversation, let’s work together to foster a culture in which we are unafraid to engage in courageous conversations—conversations that don’t eschew the difficult questions or the difficult answers. Conversations that draw upon something remarkable about our culture, which I have observed and been inspired by even before my arrival—our desire to respect one another with openness, honesty, a willingness to offer one another trust, and unfailing civility.

As we get to know each other, you may see me as an unabashed optimist. I am. I can’t help myself. I see great opportunities for our universities, for our System, and—especially—for our students. I do not believe we face any obstacle that cannot be overcome with our collective talents and creativity. You’ll also hear me speak about transparency. This is something that truly drives me as a person and as a leader. You’ll know exactly where I’m coming from on every issue; and I want the same from you. This blog will serve as one of the many ways for us to exchange ideas, and I’m hoping you’ll use it to provide feedback.

So, let’s start today. I encourage you to share your thoughts on any issue; no subject is out of bounds. If you need a prompt, then know that top-of-mind topics for me right now are: What do you need most from me as your Chancellor? What topics should I cover when I come to your campus? Is there a specific question we should address? Is there a specific opportunity or challenge we should tackle?

Help me kickstart this grand conversation by posting a comment below or emailing me at