Wednesday, January 15, 2020

The State of OUR System

Earlier today, I gave my annual State of the System address in Harrisburg, and I wanted to share with you the highlights of my remarks. Let me begin by saying after 500 days in the role of Chancellor, I’m inspired by our mission and optimistic about our future. But today, the state of our system is fluid, and we are at a turning point. This year—with our partners, the General Assembly—we will decide the course of public higher education in this Commonwealth.

This year, we will decide:

  • Whether all Pennsylvanians—regardless of zip code, race, or wealth—will have an affordable pathway into and beyond the middle class in the 21st century economy.
  • Whether millions of adults will have the affordable public re-skilling and upskilling options they need to maintain their relevance and viability in an evolving labor market.
  • Whether the State of the System Address for next year will focus on continuing with our System Redesign or whether that transformation will take an entirely different form.

This decision is not ours alone. It is also squarely in front of our strategic partners, who have an undeniable stake in our success, especially members of the General Assembly. Their constituents’ careers and the communities in their districts rely on affordable, relevant, public higher education.

We are ready for this moment. In less than two years, we have taken the difficult steps needed to transform and redesign this system so that it sustainably continues its historic mission of social mobility and economic development for all Pennsylvanians. We are confronting challenges that have grown to existential proportion, and we have made demonstrable progress in five foundational areas:

  1. Radical transparency – We have achieved that. We opened our books to our employees, the General Assembly, and to members of the public. We did this to show the price of education, the value it returns to our students, the challenges we face, the success we log, and how we allocate scarce resources with what effect.
  2. Real accountability – We have achieved that with those who pay our bills…the Commonwealth and our students. Last year, the Board of Governors required our 14 universities to balance their budgets while continuing to improve student affordability, progression, and success. This year, the Board will use evidence of progress towards those goals to guide decisions about student tuition, the allocation and use of state funds, and to anchor evaluations of executive performance.
  3. Freezing tuition – We did that. The Board of Governors passed a tuition freeze last summer for the first time in 21 years because it was the right thing to do for our students, who have shouldered the burden of rising costs.
  4. Aligning costs with our revenues – We’re achieving that by leveraging operating scale through a variety of shared services to achieve real, meaningful savings. We’ve also worked in partnership with our collective bargaining units to reach fair and responsible contracts.
  5. Address the challenges faced by our low-enrolled universities – We passed foundational policy requiring all universities to be financially sustainable and requiring plans of action to achieve that where necessary. 

While we have delivered on our promises for 2019, let me now make a few for 2020:
Working together, this year we will show how students at one university can access courses and programs elsewhere in the System, allowing all students at all universities—irrespective of their size—to access courses in important traditional subjects like physics and modern languages, as well as in new high demand areas; for example, in geo- and environmental sciences, informatics, health care and education.

  • Working together, this year we will execute budget plans that will ensure all of our universities are financially sustainable within five years. Why five years? Because we need to move at a pace that does not impact the ability of our current students to complete their degrees and achieve their goals. 
  • Working together, this year we will produce initial cost savings that result from our work on System Redesign–leveraging our tremendous operating scale.
  • Working together, this year we will take our accountability and transparency to a whole new level by reporting on our progress toward meeting clearly identified student success and university success goals. 

Our System Redesign is bold; it is transformational. We have delivered on the promises we made for 2019 and we will deliver again in 2020 on the promises made here. But the extent of our success? It is not ours alone to determine. It depends on the committed partnership of others.

Our foundations and donors will be critical because transformation of this kind requires investment in innovation. I am delighted to tell you that our State System Foundation is forging a path by establishing an innovation fund dedicated to implementing practices that will improve students’ success. Also, our partnerships with employers, schools, and community colleges will be critical to building pathways that are relevant for lifelong learning.

Most critical of all, though, is our partnership with the state.

We have listened to and heard the concerns of our elected representatives about our cost, our value, our sustainability. We have demonstrated our seriousness of purpose in responding to them with real and demonstrably impactful actions, and with a detailed roadmap for fundamentally restructuring this system — one with milestones and deliverables to which we expect to be held accountable.

In return, we have requested the investment we need to begin delivering concretely on the promise of this System Redesign: a two percent increase in our yearly appropriation for 2020 and an initial $20 million installment on the $100 million that we will need over five years to become a sharing system that delivers for the people and employers of this state. Let me be clear: this request, this investment, is critical to the success of our efforts and the future of the State System.

The state of our system is fluid. We are at a turning point. This year—with our partners—we will decide the course of public higher education in this Commonwealth.

This year.


  1. Dear Dan,

    Thank you for taking the time to share these reflections. We are somewhat puzzled and are thus wondering if in your reflections on "the state of the system" of higher education, you have also reflected on the state of the larger collapsing systems of ecology, politics and economics in which the higher education system is engaged. We noted no mention in the current reflection; perhaps you have addressed these urgent matters elsewhere. If so, we would be happy to receive an indication of where we might read those reflections and to hear your insights on what higher education can do and should do to address the alarming crises and challenges we now face on a global scale.

    An indication of what is currently happening in that larger system is Australia, a window into the raging-inferno-future for increasing eco-systems of which humans are a part. We might note also that the past ten years are the warmest on record; the past five the warmest on record; 2019 was the warmest year ever recorded for global oceans; permafrost and ice caps are melting at record levels and also threatening the massive release of methane gases that could create truly precipitous destruction related to climate change; and 2019 was the second warmest ever recorded (outside of 2016 where temperatures where inflated by an El Nino).

    As we hope you are aware, the climate change related disasters, i.e. the earth life disaster, intensify each year. 2019 was the worst year for the release of climate change gases. One might wonder how that can be, given the years of evidence that climate change gases must be monumentally reduced if there is any chance of saving the future from wreckage and ruin. It is now guaranteed that the next decade will be worse than the past decade in terms of climate change related disasters.

    Each year more scientists tell us "the point of no return is on the horizon," and too many people in responsible positions, people who could use their voices to advance struggles to address these terrifying crises, remain silent. We wonder why that is and how that can be? Perhaps you can share some insights in your next reflection.

    We are surprised that in the reflections on "systems" and the importance of education there is no mention of what many scientists have been calling for many years now "the most serious crisis humans have ever faced." We understand that one cannot say everything in one brief commentary, but given the urgency it strikes us as rather odd that there is zero mention in any commentaries we have seen on this blog.

    The early warnings started appearing in the late 1980s, increasing ever since, especially in the past ten years for those paying attention.

  2. part 2 OF COMMENTARY...

    It is clear from regular scientific reports that our time to address the root causes of the earth life disaster linked to climate disruption is rapidly running out. In twenty years, in the face of relentless catastrophes wiping out eco-systems and species -- including humans -- at genocidal scales, how will university students respond to our lack of current attention to and actions to address the crises (in the face of overwhelming evidence of a need for urgent actions for systemic transformations, i.e. when future students know that we understood that if we do not act soon it will be too late?) "The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists" now talks of "climate suicide" and tells us to "panic now" because we are in "serious trouble." Should all of us in the system of higher education work to make this clear and work to address the crises while there is still time. An MIT colleague says that "we should make this the central topic of every conversation -- and sooner rather than later, i.e. yesterday." He calls it "a moral and rational obligation to avoid collective suicide." How might we convince people that higher education should not participate in reproducing systems that are leading to "collective suicide?" We hope you might address this pressing question in your next reflection.

    The IPCC suggests we have roughly eight years to make major systemic changes, particularly in the economic system (i.e. away from a profit-driven system and toward a system that is both ecologically rational and human friendly). As you know, we are in the midst of "The Sixth Great Extinction," with some estimates suggesting that the extinction rate will soon be 10,000 times the norm. Is it tolerable for the world of higher education to ignore these matters? When reporting on "the state of our system" why is it that these matters of existential urgency are ignored?

    So, might we humbly suggest that rather than seeing education as a platform to train people to be viable in the labor market, as you suggest, we educate people to create an economic system that is viable in sustaining human life on the planet into the future and one that prevents the massive suffering that will result without the systemic transformations called for by the scientists. And rather than working to create systems of higher education that allow some to "move beyond the middle class," i.e. into the elite class, we create a higher education system dedicated to creating an economic system geared toward not maximizing profits at all costs but a system geared toward satisfying human needs, with a minimum of onerous labor, with democratically organized workplaces and communities, and one dedicated to eliminating the vast misery and inequality we witness all to much in the current system that divides people into a small class of elites, beyond the middle class, while leaving tens of millions, in the U.S. destitute. Is it really acceptable to have a system in which the top 1% of wealth holders have more wealth than the bottom 95% of the population and where 50% of the people live paycheck to paycheck?

    When "real accountability" is mentioned, should we consider "real accountability" for the earth life disaster, the grotesque inequality, the tyrannical systems of domination, violence, war and oppression that render life miserable for billions around the globe, and how higher education could be used to assist people in understanding the root causes of the increasing disasters and crucially in learning and teaching about alternatives that "move beyond" the current systems that are at the core of the approaching cataclysm?

    We know that these topics are increasing at the core of concerns of young students coming into the universities. Are we willing to listen and learn and act?



  3. Yes! Yes. This is the radical transparency humanity as we know and as we will never know it again needs. Thank you.

  4. I am a student at Cal U, and I love it there. The professors, staff and faculty I have met so far are great! We, as students are being prepared for employment. The job of a college is not to fix the world's problems, but to prepare their students to thriving, tax paying, law abiding citizens. Their job is to make sure that I have learned what is necessary for me to be career ready. Of course they care about what is going on in the world, we all do. However, being viable in the workforce is the top priority, that is why we are there. I am not going into debt to hear or learn about one thing. I am going through this so that I can land a job that allows me to stand on my own two feet. Not need medical assistance from the government, or food stamps just to eat. I want to learn how to help others, how to write better papers and speak more professionally. We as college students want to land good jobs in our field. So, any effort that you guys make to help me with that, I am grateful. I would also like to say we do discuss these issues in class, we know taking care of our planet is important.

  5. My initial response to your State of the System address is that it sounded a lot like Mitch Daniels, president of Purdue University and former governor of Indiana. Daniels has been a leader in responding creatively and courageously to the many challenges higher education faces. I look forward to seeing you succeed, a success that depends on a knowledgeable, forward-looking Board of Governors and a likewise forward-looking and courageous Pennsylvania Assembly.