Friday, June 4, 2021

Timeless Traditions. Changing Times.

Summertime is here, which means another academic year has come and gone and with it a further cohort of students who have completed their degrees—experiencing for themselves the true promise of a public higher education. To those graduates, let me offer my sincere congratulations. You have accomplished something that would be remarkable in the best of times, but something truly extraordinary in these times of pandemic. I can’t tell you how much I admire your tenacity, grit, and determination and how much I honor the faculty and staff, friends and family who stuck with you and supported you along the way. All our graduates inspire me by what they accomplish, but I believe you inspire me most of all. You have learned and demonstrated tremendous resilience—something I hope will serve you well going forward in your lives. Yours is a special class—a special cohort; each and every one of you a special person. Kudos. 

As this year’s graduates take their leave of our System’s 14 life-changing universities, we gird ourselves to continue the transformative work that will ensure we continue to be here for all of Pennsylvanians now and into the future—meeting our students where they are, supporting their needs and the needs of their communities and future employers. The work focuses intensively on integrations, but there is energy behind transformation all across our universities.

It’s been just more than a month since we released plans to integrate two groups of three universities each (Bloomsburg, Lock Haven, and Mansfield in the northeast and California, Clarion, and Edinboro in the west). The plans result from the work of over 1,000 people—students, faculty, staff, and trustees at the aforementioned institutions and an extensive array of consultations with all stakeholder groups, including alumni, civic leaders, donors, and elected representatives. They are: 

  • amongst the strongest, most creative, most powerfully student-centered, and most deeply analytical I have seen for higher education, and I consider myself to be a lifelong student and fan of the genre;
  • practical—that means implementable;
  • grounded deeply in the history and culture of the six universities involved (seeking deliberately, while building something wholly new, to maintain their distinctive strengths, identities, cultures, and community ties); and
  • developed inclusively and transparently. 

The plans are presently being strengthened by a public review and comment period that is prescribed in Act 50 (the legislation that gives the Board of Governors the limited authorities it needs to consider integrations). The process is a good one. We’ve already learned a great deal from respondents, and I am grateful to all who have taken time to present comments, especially those that make constructive suggestions about how to achieve the goals we are pursuing through integration and system redesign generally. We are also able to clarify issues that are causing confusion (for example, the fact that the staff reductions resulting from our sustainability planning are completely unrelated to integration, reflect protracted and extensive enrollment declines, and will happen even if the Board does not approve integration plans).

Comments are being cataloged as they are received and fielded to the integrations planning team to determine what actions to take in response.  We are creating a record of what we have heard and how we are responding. We will also be itemizing changes to the plans that result from public comment so that they are instantly recognizable in subsequent drafts of the implementation plans. 

Only part of our system is involved directly in these plans, yet it is important that all become familiar with them. (You can view FAQS here.) Here are three reasons why: 

First, we are Pennsylvania’s public higher education system. As such, we share in a mission that extends beyond the walls of the specific university community into which we quite properly focus our work, hearts, souls, allegiances, and passions. That broader mission is to ensure that all Pennsylvanians, irrespective of their zip code and background, have access to postsecondary education—the last most reliable engine of economic development and social mobility, the most durable and direct bridge to opportunity. But it goes deeper still because most of our universities are fundamental to the health and well-being of the regions in which they are located. They create jobs—in most cases are one of their region’s largest employers. As important, they produce the teachers and health care professionals, and business and community leaders that counties and towns across the state need. This is particularly true for universities in our more rural communities. Those communities tend to grow the talent they need and for that talent they rely upon our universities. Our universities change lives. They also bolster communities. Those two roles go hand in hand and require us to do all that we can to ensure vibrancy at all 14 of our campuses.

Second, as a system, we are a single public corporation. We have a single governance structure, policy environment, and, in effect, a single bank account. Within that structure, the health and well-being of any one of our universities is contingent on the health and well-being of all. Whatever we think about that structure, it imposes upon us the obligation of putting our shoulders to the common wheel, to ensuring that vibrant educational, student and university life continues across our 14 institutions in a manner that is at once affordable for our students and financially sustainable for all. That is the rationale underpinning the integration plans.

Third, in developing integration plans, the faculty, staff, students, and trustees engaged in the process took the opportunity to rethink a university’s functions—from enrollment management to athletics, from student financial aid packaging to health and wellness counselling, from general to graduate education across all learning modalities. How should those functions be performed in order to deliver the best possible and most affordable outcomes for our students? Are there changes we ought to make and if so how can we make them through the integration process? The result is apparent all over the plans and aligns with ambitious goals that get at student access, affordability, and outcomes. In conducting that rethink, planning groups listened to our students through consultation and it is apparent in survey and other data that we have. They also reviewed practices across our system and across higher education nationally, locating those that have demonstrable (evidence-based) positive impact on student outcomes, asking how, whether, and to what extent those practices may be introduced here so that Pennsylvania students may benefit. In this regard, the plans contain a great deal of information that may help inform the innovative work that is happening across our system to improve student affordability, access, and outcomes, and to ensure our campuses become more diverse, equitable and inclusive environments.

In closing, I encourage you to do two things:

First, read the plans. They are long, and you may find parts of them to be a little dull. But it would sadden me and dishonor our 1,000 colleagues should anyone react without engaging the content. Yes, I appreciate that this is a prominent feature of our nation’s popular discourse. It has infected social and news media all along the political spectrum and fueled what may be a uniquely American phenomenon in which facts no longer matter because each is entitled to their own reality (if you have space in your summer reading schedules I encourage you to look at Kurt Anderson’s Fantasyland). But ours are institutions of higher learning. Our mission includes defending and advancing the cause and the practice of reason and of science in pursuit of something that is as elusive as it is vital to the well-being of our nation—truth. I look forward to the vigorous debate and discussion that ought now to ensue and hope and pray it will be conducted within these values and with integrity. 

Second, be good to one another. Remember that you are part of a family. As in any family, we members will have different views about different topics. That’s not a bad thing. On the contrary. It’s a good one. Diversity of perspective enriches dialog, breeds deeper understanding of issues and of people, and in an educational setting it models for our students exactly the kinds of skills and abilities we want them to take forward with them into the world after they leave us. But it will only accomplish these higher objectives if family members engage one another with compassion and humility, even in the most heated and consequential of debates; if they allow one another to speak up if they wish, and to feel safe in doing so. How we proceed will demonstrate very publicly—because all eyes in higher education are on Pennsylvania—who we are. It will show to our communities, our students, their families our competitors, our peers, how we are a community devoted to higher learning, able to practice what we teach, and to work within our values. Our interactions with one another will reflect our respect for one another and for safeguarding civil and reasoned discourse—lessons we learned as children, that we teach our children, that we expect of ourselves, our neighbors, and of one another.

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