Monday, August 12, 2019

A Time of Transitions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Relationship in Transition

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

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

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

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

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

A System in Transition

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

Here are a few questions to ponder:

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

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

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

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

A Partnership in Transition

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

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

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

Again, the blank page.

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

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

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


  1. I appreciate the honest reflection. I also appreciate that you 'get it' in terms of Pennsylvania, our students, our struggles (particularly competing with out of state and private higher ed). It has been interesting watching the transformative leadership style. Thank you.

  2. Thank you. Great reflection. We are the ones we've been waiting for. Collectively we are the ones capable of changing how we approach cradle through career workforce development in the Commonwealth with the help of visionary, servant leadership. A journey toward something is a journey away from something else. Excited for this journey. Let's go!

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