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.

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