On September 4, while sifting through 21 years of stuff and memories in our recently sold Seattle home—finally packing for our official move to Harrisburg—I passed my one-year anniversary as Chancellor of the State System. And, what a year it’s been.
Here are a few reflections and a request for you to consider:
The transformative powers of public higher education are real, they are potent, and they are alive and well in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.
They are fully on display in the students and alumni of our 14 universities. During this past year, I have met with so many of you on campus, in the capitol building, via the Internet, and in too many random occurrences to mention (passing the TGI Fridays restaurant in Pittsburgh Airport – what!!?). Your experiences are as different as you would expect from those who come from so diverse a system. And yet you share some things in common by my observation: a profound appreciation for the transformative role your alma mater played, launching you onto a career; finding a life-long partner; engaging with and finding genuine appreciation for people from different backgrounds; developing a talent you did not know you had for a subject, a sport, an instrument, a language; engaging critically with complex ideas; learning countless life lessons and resilience from the many trials, errors, and successes associated with your experiences as a student.
Our challenges are real—some of them severe. But while they may be a catalyst for our transformation, they are not its raison d’être.
That is what we find in our shared sense of mission and purpose. I have met with many of our faculty and staff, learned your personal stories, shared mine (am humbled, even blessed, by the vulnerability and openness you’ve extended to me). And I have learned we are bound together by a passion for, commitment to, and a genuine and continuing excitement about our mission—improving the lives of our students, and through them, strengthening our communities, this Commonwealth, and our nation. That is why you show up every day. It is the source of the creative and caring energy you bring to your work and to your commitment to this mission. It is as inspiring as it is infectious, and it will serve us well in the months and years ahead as we change in order to meet the rapidly changing needs of our students, the employers, and the communities we serve.
Our universities are “legacy centric” for good reason—to preserve the quality, integrity, and value of our students’ experiences. But let’s not bury the lead here; we can also be agile:
• I have seen how we adapt to new and emerging practices that contribute demonstrably to our students’ success. Where to begin? With the tremendous growth of our online offerings? First year experiences fundamentally re-tooled to improve student engagement and retention? Efforts to integrate holistic approaches to student supports and advising? Animated, practice-sharing intended to improve performance that takes place amongst faculty, university police, facilities managers, RAs, counsellors, coaches, librarians, instructional designers, career services staff, and others?
• I have seen how we have evolved credentialing programs to meet rapidly changing needs of our students and our employers. Did you know we have introduced 160 new programs since 2014, most of them in high-demand, workforce-aligned STEM, business, and health care fields?
• I have seen how our universities are improving the effectiveness of operations in a range of functions from enrollment management to accounts payable and back again, with results showing up in real cost reduction or quality improvement.
• I have seen tangible evidence of the agility of our faculty and staff every time we have the honor of engaging directly with each other, whether during a campus visit or with one of the many systemwide groups that gather to pursue a common interest, advance System Redesign, or engage in an essential leadership role for our universities, our system, and our bargaining units. So many discussions in these interactions focus on faculty and staff work as professionals, as dedicated employees of our State System—on improving our practice, expanding positive impacts on the functioning of our enterprise, on responding creatively to changing circumstances in which we find ourselves.
After a year in this seat, I come away appreciating how agile we are. And I have a deeper understanding of how hard-won that agility is, how it requires as much art and instinct as it does science, how it reflects your outstanding professionalism and integrity, and how—for so many of you it is a source of tremendous joy and fulfillment—a means through which you engage in and derive tangible meaning from your sense of our shared public purpose.
Progress along our transformational journey will require us to pay attention to our culture and to one another.
I have spoken on and thought about this topic a great deal and am struck by a contradiction. At an individual level, virtually everyone I’ve met and spoken with over the past year shows a genuine and profound engagement with our mission. Additionally, those interactions corroborate the results of the Ready, Willing, and Able survey we conducted last spring during my university visits. Those results show that at an individual level the great majority of us are ready, willing, and able to change in pursuit of our mission. And yet, there are fault lines that show up routinely:
• in distrust that too often characterizes relations, e.g., between universities and the system office, management and unions, council of trustees and board, and between employee groups.
• in a tendency to “demonize” the other rather than to understand and to treat one another as members of our extended family.
• in skepticism about our ability as an organization to innovate and/or effect the changes that we all know we need to make in pursuit of our mission.
We will not effectively address our many challenges—realize our many opportunities—until we deliberately address these cultural issues.
In the past year we have made a small beginning:
• given voice to our cultural issues that we know we need to address.
• given priority at the system office to engaging in partnership with our university and union leadership to guide this great enterprise.
• embraced and acted upon the spirit of transparency in everything that we do, from the information that we collect and share—both good and bad—to the progress of our System Redesign.
This week—on September 17—we will take an important next step by fielding an employee survey that seeks to identify both the strengths and the weaknesses of our organizational culture. The survey will be completely confidential. No one within the System (including at the System office) will have access to anything but the aggregated results, and that aggregated data will be made available to our broader community. Discussion of those results will help us to discover, define, and create a language to talk about and resolve the cultural challenges that we face. They will also provide baseline data that will help us in the years to come to understand where we are making progress and where we need to continue—or double down on—our efforts.
My ask of you
To faculty and staff, I know the survey will land at a busy time of year, but it is vitally important that you take the time—perhaps as much as 20-30 minutes—to fill it out. Your voice is critically important. It needs be listened to. It needs to be heard. You deserve this much and so much more.
To students, alumni, donors, supporters, and everyone following our System Redesign efforts, please stay engaged as we work to transform the System and public higher education.
An African proverb reminds us: To go fast, go alone. To go far, go together. Let’s continue to go together.