By any measure, this is will be an extraordinary academic year—a potentially game-changing one—in the history of our state, our nation, and in the fabric and inter-workings of the global community of which we are a part.
As we enter into it, I want to reflect with you on something I’ve been thinking about a great deal lately – responsibility.
Our universities have gone to extraordinary lengths over the past several months to pursue their mission responsibly—to ensure all students are able to make progress towards their degree through engaging and meaningful experiences, while at the same time mitigating the health and safety risks associated with the COVID-19 pandemic. They have adopted different approaches—each uniquely suited to their circumstances—all adhering to advice and guidance from federal and state authorities, all capable of pivoting in an instant should circumstances change, as we have seen with the recent decision making in Bloomsburg. Efforts have been intense to the point of exhaustion, constantly evolving to reflect rapid development in the scientific understanding about the virus’s impacts and how to mitigate them, and always and forever focused on serving our students, our employees, our communities.
As a direct result of these efforts, across the State System more than 90,000 students begin or continue on their path—in one form or another—towards a college credential and the tremendous benefits it bestows, for our graduates to be sure, but also for our society as a whole.
For most, that journey looks and feels a lot different this year than it has in the past. Some students are connecting remotely while others are engaged in limited in-person instruction or a hybrid experience combining both. And every face-to-face experience is governed by a wholly new set of behaviors (wearing masks, social distancing, paying extraordinary attention to hygiene) and conditions (plexiglass barriers, grab-and-go meals, routine temperature checks, regulated flow of foot-traffic, prohibition on larger gatherings).
Yet another foray into responsibility.
Mitigating health and safety risks requires a great deal more than simply having our universities fundamentally redesign the experiences they offer. It requires a kind of social compact—an agreement between all members of the university community to be responsible for themselves and for one another; to follow the rules of engagement that are grounded in science and that are demonstrably shown to mitigate the virus’s transmission. Participating in this social compact—following its rules of engagement—is not a partisan political issue, not a statement about loyalty to one or other tribe or faction. It is a simple act of humanity, compassion, charity. Responsibly following these rules of engagement says something very important about each and every one of us. It says: “I care about myself, I care about you, I care about my friends and my family, I care about our community.”
Indeed, responsibility to each other matters.
This summer we have been reminded how much further we have to go as a society to ensure that we are all equally afforded respect and civility and opportunity, irrespective of our race, creed, gender, income, zip code. We have been reminded how fragile our society is, how deep the divisions between us have become, how vicious we can be to one another. We have sacrificed even in polite discourse (and certainly in political discourse) basic norms of civility and human decency. As our world becomes more uncertain and unstable, we seem to have determined that the best course of action is to work apart from one another rather than together; to vilify and demonize rather than learn from those who have different points of view; to heap hate upon those whose experiences and world views are not akin to ours. We have determined that our greatest national assets—the diversity of our people, our democratic Constitution and the tolerance upon which it relies—are now threats that need to be dealt with, purified, cleansed.
At the same time, we know that universities are cauldrons of our nation’s diversity, petri dishes of its democracy. They undoubtedly reflect and likely amplify the deep-seated divisions that are afoot more broadly in our society. It stands to reason. It was our students who were protesting this summer because black lives matter, because law and order matters, because the right to bear arms is inalienable and guaranteed, because open borders and immigration are either anathema or essential to our way of life.
As educators, we have a responsibility to engage in—not shirk—the dialogue that will almost inevitably ensue; to treat it as an educational moment; to see whether it is possible through diversity and discord to breed understanding; to try at least to demonstrate that there is a path our society can follow back to civility and comity—that there is hope.
I feel this responsibility with
particular urgency, and that is one reason I engaged
Dr. Pearson is already working with stakeholders across the system and will be presenting her initial thinking about our priorities and strategies in October. While it is early, I am encouraging her to prioritize one issue directly: race. We have a responsibility to ensure all our students, including students of color, feel at home and supported in our university communities. We have a responsibility to ensure that all students have an equal chance not only of being admitted to one of our universities but in completing their degrees. We have a responsibility to expect the complexion of our faculty and staff to reflect that of our students and of our state. These are not issues to be discussed, they are outcomes we must and shall achieve, because that is our responsibility, and it is the right thing to do.
In that vein, we know that affordable higher education for all Pennsylvanians is essential to the future of this Commonwealth for so many reasons, all of them well supported with evidence:
- Higher education is the best and most reliable pathway into the middle class and beyond.
- It drives the Commonwealth’s economy.
- It shores up our civil society.
- It strengthens our polity.
It is frightening to me, frankly, to think of a society that doesn’t preserve and promote and advance that option. It presages societies in decay and decline.
At the same time, it is well known that many of our State System universities are experiencing profound challenges. Those challenges are not unique in higher education, but they are acute here. In the past few years we have taken extraordinary and aggressive steps to address them, and this year we are ramping up those efforts. The need is that great, our mission is that important, the students and the communities we serve rely upon us that much, and so we take our responsibility that seriously.
The actions we are taking will be difficult and include our doing two things:
The first entails adjusting our operations so they reflect our enrollment levels. Since 2010, enrollments have declined nearly 20% while our employee base has declined by only 6%. With employee costs being the largest share of our budget, overspending in this—and other areas to be sure—has driven up tuition rates to levels that drive away students and further undermine the greatest advantage we’ve had—affordability. To close the budget gaps, some of our universities—too many of them—are funding these recurring costs using scarce one-time reserves, which threatens our system financially. And as part of a single system—a uniform corporate structure—our universities basically share a single bank account and share in each other’s financial strain. Pre-pandemic, these financial challenges were nearing debilitating levels; now the level of uncertainty is staggering. As I have said on countless occasions, “this can has been kicked down the road” for too many years. There is no more road. We must and we will act now because that is how seriously we take our responsibility to the Commonwealth.
The second action entails positioning ourselves to grow, to evolve to better meet the changing needs of our students, their employers, and the state. Bluntly, we cannot simply cut our way into financial health. At the same time, we cannot ignore the long-term nationwide decline in demand for the traditional, residentially based comprehensive education that we are so good at. Sure, there will always be a need for this kind of education, and I hope and pray our universities will continue to do their part in providing an affordable version of it. But there are other needs that as public universities we have a responsibility to address:
- Our community college transfer students are underserved, especially those wanting to continue their education online.
- Online students are underserved generally in this state. Fully 50,000 Pennsylvanians enroll each year in an out-of-state provider—most of whom charge considerably more than our universities.
- A growing number of adults are looking for opportunities to reskill and to upskill through non-degree short course certificate programs in subjects where we have core competencies—in health care, business, education, and STEM.
We are confronted both with a set of serious financial challenges and with a range of opportunities that would enable us to address them, but we must act.
To this aim, we are now actively exploring the viability ofthat bring together certain of our universities into single accredited organizational structures that leverage their combined scale but also honor the distinctive identities and on-campus experiences of the individual institutions. What’s more, these integrated institutions would be able to take advantage of their complementary strengths so they may continue their historic mission while at the same time branching into new areas. Scale matters in higher education—as it does in so many other sectors—for efficiency to be sure, but more importantly as a means of delivering a higher quality experience. No doubt, “right-sizing” in response to enrollment decline and integrating universities that each have 120+ years of history and identity are among the most difficult things that can be attempted in higher education. And yet, pursue them we must if we are to sustain our public mission.
Looking forward into this new academic year, we not only feel the gravity of our situation but also a sense of opportunity to build upon our enormous collective and historic strengths, to vigorously and creatively re-imagine public higher education as it ought to be in the 21st century. I hear the words of our 35th president, John F Kennedy, who reminded us of our responsibility to do things “…not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because [the] goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because [the] challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win…”
Fully believing, let us do all those things we think we cannot do. If we act with responsibility in our daily lives, on our campuses, in our classrooms, we can—and will—triumph over any challenge we may face.