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