Friday, July 22, 2022

The Opportunities Ahead

Saturday, July 9, 2022, was a day I won’t soon forget – filled with gratitude, steeped in humility. Melissa and I were at the Kutztown Festival, a celebration of Pennsylvania Dutch culture that dates back decades. The sky was clear, the temperature forgiving, the mood particularly high because this year, unlike the past two, the festival was unimpeded by pandemic accommodation. If you haven’t been to the festival, you should go.

My mood was additionally brightened, because the day before the General Assembly had passed and the governor had signed the state budget, approving a historically unprecedented 16% increase in the System’s appropriation (from $477.5 million to $552 million) and $125 million in one-time funding.

I am tremendously grateful to Governor Wolf and the General Assembly for their belief in the power and promise of public higher education that is our System. Recovering the confidence and investment of our owners – the state – has been a long road – at least a decade long, but I’m sure those with greater lived experience of our System’s recent history would be justified in pushing its start back even further. And it has been a hard road to travel. Gratitude again. This time to our faculty, staff, trustees, and alumni who are on this journey together. For your effort, commitment, compassion, collective creativity, resilience, and intelligence.

Our future lies ahead, and I urge all of us to look forward, together. There will be challenges. But the opportunities are even greater, and I am confident that we can choose to take full advantage of and go after them. As a collective (but only as a collective) we are that good, that talented, that capable.

This week, I reviewed those opportunities for the Board. They are the rationale of our System’s redesign; they comprise the promise we made to the state in return for its re-investment. In those opportunities lie our future success. They have been regularly featured in this blog, so I will treat them briefly here.

Our opportunities are grounded in the state’s needs – particularly its needs for an adequately educated workforce. We are the state’s owned universities. It makes sense for us to align our priorities with its needs. And they are urgent.

Sixty percent of today’s jobs require someone in them with some higher education that has been attained by only 51 percent of Pennsylvanian adults. The need is particularly great among adults with B.A.s and M.A.s, but there is also significant demand for so-called non-degree “industry recognized” credentials (typically resulting from short and very focused courses of study).

We cannot fill that gap by relying solely on our traditional source of students – those attending college soon after graduating high school (although we can increase the share of them that attend a State System university). There simply aren’t enough of them, and their number is projected to decline significantly from 2026.

There are opportunities nonetheless – big ones.

  • Improving graduation rates of the students we do enroll.
  • Enrolling traditional aged students who are “college ready” but not college bound, or in regions or communities that are generally underserved.
  • Enrolling adults who are looking to complete a degree they began but interrupted years ago.

Taking advantage of these opportunities requires that we continue to work with our owners – the state – and with new partners, like employers who turn to internships and tuition assistance programs in order to build the talented workforce they need and struggle to maintain, to lower our net average price. The greatest opportunities we have are with people who can least afford attending a State System university – and we are the most affordable option in the state.

Taking advantage of these opportunities entails continuous evolution of our academic programs – doubling down on degrees and non-degree credentials in areas that lead to careers in occupations that are particularly starved for talent, such as healthcare, IT, financial services, and education, to name only a few; expanding hybrid and fully online options for people who are unable or choose not to participate in a face-to-face experience; developing more pathways that connect directly with the workforce and assist students along through in-service learning options.

Taking advantage of these opportunities requires that we strengthen the capabilities that have made us so successful, for so long, with so many traditional students. Turns out, education is not a water hose – turn it on the next person, they get just as wet as the last. You know this. Education is highly personalized. Effectively engaging a working adult with a family and a job is wholly different than engaging a student-athlete who attends one of our universities directly after graduating high school. And there are as many other fine distinctions of student need and mindset.

Taking advantage of these opportunities, in other words, means that we invest in ourselves, in our faculty and staff – in further developing already strong skills and abilities, so that we may be equipped to go forward. The investment we sought from the state, was made with these goals directly in view. We have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to equip ourselves so that we may not only survive but thrive into the 21st century.

The priorities that I presented to the Board at its meeting this week – each associated with a set of measurable goals – provide a framework within which I have cast my own goals as chancellor (goals that are posted annually to the web), and within which I expect our university leadership to operate, focusing their attention and effort. Working within their own shared governance structures, presidents will determine how and where to direct their efforts and associated resources, all of which are distributed to them for their use. I would expect them, as in all things, to direct their efforts differently in ways that reflect local circumstances, opportunities, and strategic priorities. (System Redesign has as a design principle, giving universities a higher degree of responsibility for determining their strategic direction in return for a higher level of accountability to the Board.) And I look forward in reporting back in these pages, and elsewhere, on our collective progress.

Gratitude to be sure. And yes, at long last a sense of excitement at the prospect of re-invigoration, reinvestment, and growth.

And that feeling of gratitude brings me to humility and back to our visit to the Kutztown Festival, and the people we met on July 9, the passions they showed for our System, its mission, our students; the quality of their work; the brilliance of their insights. One was a trustee of Kutztown University. He grew up in the community, understands its history through generations of lived experience, is the perfect advocate for Kutztown and our System – admiring of its role and its work, ready and willing to give up precious spare time and deliberate attention to ensure continuous improvement.

Two others work at Kutztown. One is an anthropologist who began his work on a Polynesian island (as anthropologists do). His interest in the Pennsylvania Dutch grew naturally from his location at KU. His facility traveling across the cultures he knew and had researched in order to illustrate insights about how culture in general evolves and changes, was nothing short of inspiring. One spent a lifetime researching and writing about the Pennsylvania Dutch from a KU center, ensconced recently in new digs and hosting a collection of over 20,000 items. Both live and breathe the Pennsylvania Dutch – its folklore and folklife (yes, there is a distinction between more literary and more material aspects of a culture). They are also amazing teachers. Experts in the craft of meaningfully guiding the rankest of novices through information and toward insights – even wisdom – that drive a deeper understanding of the unmodern world. I know because I was enthralled by the richly discursive tour we enjoyed that morning. I know because I couldn’t extract myself from the “seminar” tent that afternoon where any number of topics were presented and discussed. The festival is undoubtedly a centerpiece for both colleagues and has been for years. I’m guessing they are spending long hours throughout the 10-day duration and multiples of that again in prep. We were there on the ninth day. If they were tired and worn out, it was not obvious. Quite the contrary. Their energy and enthusiasm were positively infectious.

So, here’s the thing … Melissa and I have both brushed up against the analytical underpinnings upon which our colleagues had built their professional careers. Melissa is an art historian, curator, and critic for whom artistic expression is a window onto cultural flows and how they stack up at once to shape and reflect specific moments in time. I am and always will be a one-time historian who got swept up in the early 1980s by the use of artifact as evidence. Elizabeth Johns and Henry Glassie were two of my academic heroes back in the day. You can imagine the conversation with colleagues once we discovered how and where our worlds collided. It didn’t take long to find the touch points in our respective academic lineages or to connect on issues where we found a common source of interest – the transmission of minority languages and prospects for revitalizing them, for example.

As chancellor, I get to interact so often with so many of our faculty, staff, and students. But I rarely have an opportunity to engage so directly with people around the academic and educational aspects at the center of our work. On July 9, I did. And I was deeply humbled by the experience.  I have always been tremendously proud to be affiliated with this great organization, but never more so than on that day.

The Kutztown Festival – at least put it on your to-do list. It is an effective entrée into a distinctive American heritage that combines engagement with material and performance cultures, arts, crafts, and yes, academic research, with a modest and wholly entertaining dose of commercialism.

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