Thursday, October 15, 2020

Lessons from the (virtual) road

Nearly 80% through my semesterly visits to our universities (55 hours in Zoom, and not a single mile by car or bike), I am as inspired now as I was when I first arrived two years ago—inspired by the power and promise of public higher education in this Commonwealth. Here are few key take-away observations:

Our students are remarkable

Higher education in this time of pandemic has presented a unique set of challenges to students— challenges having to do with health risks, of course, but also with navigating through, extracting value from, and breathing life into wholly altered curricular and co-curricular experiences. This is a story I’ve become familiar with at home through my sophomore daughter, Anna, and my understanding of and appreciation for the experiences of today’s students is only deepened by my virtual tour of our own universities. I so admire the resilience, grit, and determination our students show for continuing their educational journeys; the creative ways they have developed to engage with one another, with faculty, with staff and to preserve the strong and distinctive spirit and culture that defines each of our universities. 

Our people are tremendously dedicated to our mission 

Look what we have accomplished by working tirelessly together for months to ensure our students continue their educational journeys uninterrupted. We have changed how we do pretty much everything to achieve this objective. Think about it. The experiences higher education institutions provide to most students have been honed over centuries to specifically and purposely bring people together—in close proximity—so they may learn, grow, engage, mature, and evolve. Now, those same experiences are a potential breeding ground for contagious disease. So, in a matter of weeks last March, we fundamentally re-engineered the educational and institutional supports our students need in response to the pandemic, and over the summer we continued to apply ourselves to making those efforts more durable in light of the pandemic’s nagging persistence. That is inspiring. 

And to those who look upon higher education as a change-defiant backwater teeming only with the agents of can’t and won’t who are focused intently on the rearview mirror, to you I say your credibility is blown. Look and think again.  

Our future is bright

There is a great deal going on across our System aside from the pandemic, and it’s my honor to directly engage with students, faculty, and staff to discuss. The feedback you provide, the questions you ask, and the challenges you pose are all incredibly valuable—a gift to any leader—and I am humbled by your willingness to share. Along the way, I have encountered a few myths about our future that are worth addressing. 

Myth #1: The future of some of our universities is in doubt 

Quite the contrary, we are working assiduously to secure the future of our universities and, more importantly, the future of the students and communities they serve. Yes, we face challenges that are common across all of U.S. public higher education—challenges having to do with funding and demographic trends, with student affordability, and with the changing demands that students and employers are making of us. Perhaps less common in higher education is the willingness and ability demonstrated by our universities to take on these challenges directly so they may continue to drive economic development and social mobility by providing affordable, relevant, postsecondary education for students irrespective of their zip code. Here are a few examples of that work, which is beginning to show results and demonstrates there is nothing we cannot accomplish together: 

  • For the first time in a decade nearly half of our universities saw enrollment gains.
  • Fall 2020 student retention rates improved at most universities, not yet reclaiming levels existing a decade ago but we are on our way.
  • The net average price a student pays to attend a university in 2020/21 is largely unchanged from last year thanks to two years of tuition freezes and thanks to growth in institutional aid.
  • We are making progress in working together to contain costs, grow revenues, and support universities experiencing the greatest challenges.
  • The nation’s oldest HBCU is no longer under imminent threat of losing its accreditation.

Kudos to all. These are hard-won gains of which we should all be tremendously proud. And they add to a growing track record of our universities’ success – one that is amply documented in last year’s appropriations request and accountability dashboard. So, for any who doubt our institutions are here to stay, I urge you to take another look. They are leading the way, nationally, in transforming and securing the future of public higher education—not only in our words but in our deeds, and increasingly in documentable results. In short, we’ve got this.

Myth #2: The institutional integrations effort is just a “pre-baked” plan that is all about cost cutting

This myth couldn’t be further from reality.  We are exploring institutional integrations for two reasons: 1) to ensure that all of our institutions are able to provide the high-quality, affordable educational opportunities that their students and communities both demand and deserve; and 2) to expand educational opportunities for all Pennsylvanians. Just for a moment, consider the opportunities that exist for those institutions that might combine forces. In my conversations with students, faculty, and staff at each, there is understandable concern and uncertainty, but there is also excitement—and there should be—around the opportunity to think big, and fresh, and new about what we could accomplish.

To understand that this effort is also about growing, we recognize the number of students seeking traditional residentially-based degrees at comprehensive universities has been declining for at least a decade while the number of people needing affordable postsecondary education is growing. We have an obligation as Pennsylvania’s public universities to serve them. We are the people’s universities. By combining forces, we have opportunities to serve those students (and to grow our enrollments) by means that simply aren’t as available to us operating independently and at smaller scale. Preliminary thinking at universities considering integration is looking at several opportunities, and the thinking has only just begun around:

  • Improving retention and completion rates of existing students.
  • Creating more affordable degree pathways by reducing the net average price that students pay to get a degree.
  • Providing lower-cost in-state options for undergraduates seeking fully online degrees or degree completion programs.
  • Investing in new, non-degree short-course credentialing programs, especially for working adults who are looking to reskill or upskill in high-demand fields.

And for those who say we already have a “pre-baked” plan in place, trust me, there are days when I wish that were true. Alas. Not so. Up to this point we have been exploring; next comes the planning using a transparent, consultative process that will be richly informed by creative and talented students, faculty, and staff at our universities. While we know what an integration might entail (e.g., a single accreditation, a single president and leadership team, a single program array and faculty), understanding how it works, well, that remains to be determined. Your help will be wanted and needed in an effort that seeks nothing less than to design and then build the 21st century public university. 

Myth #3: Cutting personnel is irresponsible, and it is concentrated on specific employee groups

This is a hard subject to address—perhaps the hardest one—but, yes, this too is a myth. 

Students and their families pay 75% of our total educational and general expenditures, while taxpayers provide the rest. Resizing the employee base so it reflects the realities of enrollment levels honors our students, their families, and the taxpayer. It assures them that we are responsible, effective stewards of every dollar we spend, and as such, we deserve their trust and continuing support.

To help, some cost savings can be earned by our universities working together, as a system. For example, this year alone we will save more than $50 million by refinancing system bonds, leveraging our buying power, and moving to sell the property that houses the Chancellor’s Office. Other savings are achieved by universities seeking new and more efficient ways to conduct their normal operations and by curtailing expenditure on underutilized and non-viable activities and facilities. 

Sadly, though, our greatest expense is also our most precious gift: our people—their salary and benefits—comprising 75% of our total annual expenditures. Think about this: between 2010 and 2019, our revenues grew by only 6% while employee costs grew by more than double that rate. And while it would be convenient to blame one or another group of employees, the facts tell us we cannot. The proportional cost of salary and benefits paid to our different collective bargaining units and to our non-represented staff hasn’t budged—not in a decade. There is no bogey here. No evil or malign actor to blame. 

So what to do? How to honor our students, their families, and the taxpayers by demonstrating we are responsible stewards of their hard-earned dollars while at the same time honoring our most precious resource—our employees? There are a number of options and we need to pursue all of them. Several spring from our being a system which, given its scale, has more options than may be available to a single university. For example, as universities across the System seek to fill critically needed roles, we can and should do everything possible to utilize talented employees whose positions may be under threat elsewhere in the System. Whether job openings are created due to growth in certain areas or because of the departure of faculty and staff who took advantage of our retirement incentive, retaining talented individuals in whom we have already invested is simply the right thing to do because, ultimately, we must and we will grow. Serving both our traditional and non-traditional students better and more affordably will lead to growth potential. Such growth doesn’t only create new jobs, it creates advancement opportunities for current employees. 

Myth #4: Reductions in the size of our faculty as part of a general effort to align costs with revenues will harm our students

Not just a myth, this kind of inaccuracy has the potential for undermining the public’s trust, underselling the enormous value our universities offer to our students, and further exacerbating our challenges. While I recognize how in the national political discourse facts unfortunately matter less today than they did perhaps a decade ago, they still matter to me. And, at least from my perspective, ought to matter to educators, devoted as we are to empiricism in the interest of knowledge creation and transmission. Here are a few facts that we need to consider.

Here is a fact: in the interest of acting effectively as stewards of student tuition and taxpayer dollars, we are requiring all our universities to achieve the student-to-faculty ratios that existed in 2010/11—levels that are normal for our universities and levels that persisted for years. What is abnormal are the far lower student-to-faculty ratios we’ve seen in recent years at some of our universities—those where enrollment declines have been steepest, where decision-makers have been slowest in adjusting to them, or where financial sustainability is most at risk. In returning to normal student-to-faculty ratios:

  • Students’ progress towards their degrees will NOT impeded. If anything, student progress was marginally better a decade ago than it is today.
  • Class sizes will NOT balloon out of control. In a well-managed university, there are on average 20-25 students per section; and that is an average, not a benchmark threshold for all sections in all subjects.
  • Universities will NOT be over-staffed by employees who, while not faculty, still conduct essential work for our students. When compared to industry averages, our universities have historically employed relatively more faculty than non-faculty and they will continue do so.

Final thought

Our universities are important because they prepare students for personal success and help instill a desire to help others succeed; to contribute to their communities; to improve society; to pay it forward. Those are not my words. That is what you told me two years ago on my first round of campus visits. Our importance shows up, too, in the data that show how our state-owned universities drive economic development and enable social mobility for all Pennsylvanians. Frankly, I cannot imagine—or at least I don’t want to—the bleak future of any state that does not maintain a public, affordable, high-quality option in postsecondary education.

That is why our future is a partnership between the System and its universities on the one hand, and the leaders of this Commonwealth on the other. The role of the Governor and General Assembly is to provide the support we need to serve the people of this Commonwealth. Incremental growth in state funding over the past six years, the nearly unanimous passage of Act 50 giving us an opportunity to build a new future, and holding our funding steady in FY 2020/21—one of the worst budget years in the state’s history—are demonstrations of their commitment to that partnership. Commitment to our part of the partnership is evident in the work we are doing and the results we are achieving to better serve our current students, to reach new student groups who need our help, and to act responsibly as stewards of the public’s trust and treasure. 

Both parties to this partnership have a great deal more to do, and I want to acknowledge that in our case, the work is getting hard. As far back as my February 2019 blog, I wrote how the transformative work we are undertaking requires the grit and determination of a century (100-mile) bike ride, and that there would be bumps and hard choices to be made along the way. We have hit those bumps and the hard choices, but have not lost our resolve. The payoff of our work is measured in terms of the students and the communities we serve, the lives we lift up and even save, the opportunity to not only survive but to thrive and to grow as the great public system of this Commonwealth. 

That objective is worth striving for—long and hard—through these most difficult miles.

As ever, I invite your comments and questions. Meantime, look after yourselves, look after one another. Stay well and safe.


  1. Perhaps you could explain why the state system has chosen to employ such an odd method for calculating the student-faculty ratio which artificially lowers the ratio.

  2. With all due respect, Chancellor Greenstein, I have taught between 135-220 students per semester since I started at IUP in 2014. And this was true for the rest of my department as well. Today our department was informed that while we we will continue to exist, some of our faculty we be considered for retrenchment. While not surprising, I’m having trouble with the idea that reducing a department that serves so many students will lead to classes of 20-25 students, even with reduced enrollments.

  3. Today, IUP faculty began to learn some of the hard truths about the potential retrenchment figures that have been circulating, with departments all across campus finally hearing, for the first time, how many faculty have been targeted for retrenchment from individual departments. To say that this is a sad day does not do justice to the fear, the anger, the sadness, and the unease that is left in the wake of such announcements.

    How or why have we reached this point? We have heard for years about declining enrollments, about ballooning costs, and about the decreasing number of regional high-school graduates. Why have corrective measures not been implemented before this precipice? There is no doubt that COVID has worsened PASSHE’s difficulties, but those enrollment and financial data (and forecasts) existed before COVID.

    You mention that decision-makers at some universities were slow to take corrective action. It is their failure to lead responsibly that has brought us to this point. And yet, those same decision-makers will remain in place, while the lives of so many dedicated faculty and staff will be forever impacted. What do you say to those who will now be left behind, through little or no fault of their own? What recourse can you, PASSHE, or their home institutions offer them?