Friday, August 26, 2022

New beginnings

The start of the academic year always makes me giddy. My visit to Slippery Rock University a few weeks ago was another reminder – thanks, colleagues in Butler County! I had the pleasure of touring SRU’s new engineering labs with their super-cool new scientific equipment and totally remodeled, state-of-the-art visual and performing arts spaces. Students entering any of these programs, you are in for a unique and world-class experience. I am genuinely excited for you.

 And I had the good fortune to meet with faculty and staff who were just bristling with excitement about the start of the semester. Maybe that was because there were still a few weeks left of summer or because it was a beautiful day with a nice lunch.  Or maybe it was because the faculty and staff I met with know just how special SRU really is – special as all our universities are – understand our universities’ capabilities and are poised to turn them into real life-changing gains for real students.

Does the pandemic experience cast a long shadow? Yes, of course it does, here as elsewhere across higher education, and the effects of the pandemic are likely to be felt for years as students who have experienced education loss at any point from kindergarten all the way through the education pipeline. So does the integration of six universities into Commonwealth University and PennWest University and the very difficult decisions that universities had to make across the System in order to regain the confidence of Pennsylvania’s General Assembly, and through it the people of Pennsylvania. These, too, cast a long shadow, and they are likely to for some time to come. 

We have traveled light years together in no time at all. Not always comfortably. But in doing so, we have arrived at a unique, historic opportunity to re-establish the role and value that public higher education plays in this state as an engine of economic development and social mobility. Our audience – the people of this commonwealth – is listening with open ears. Have you been following the news media surrounding the State System and its universities? Have you listened to legislative hearings and read the media reports about them? The narrative is shifting. It’s no longer almost exclusively focused on management, financial, and enrollment challenges, or on the workloads and pay of our employees. 

The resurgence of a positive narrative speaks to the power and promise of the public higher education we uniquely provide in this state. It is grounded in the enormous need that Pennsylvania feels for affordable pathways into sustaining careers, without which our commonwealth cannot address its talent gap. The positive narrative is grounded in appreciative inquiry about what we really can do to improve outcomes for the students we do enroll, while at the same time opening the aperture to opportunities we can provide to others who have hitherto been underserved. With the enactment of the FY 2022-23 state budget, the legislature and the governor have invested in that promise at a level that restores our support to where it was near the high-water mark years of our growth. I am so grateful for their trust and confidence – it is so well deserved! I’m certain will be repaid with dividends in the form of more students served. 

I look forward to visiting campuses. As ever, I want to hear from you about the issues on your mind. I also want to know from you what we need to do to deliver on this next phase of our redesign – the one that grows the number of Pennsylvanians whom we enroll and graduate. 

Shortly after the  legislature and the governor solidified their historic investment in us in July, I presented to my manager, the Board, the System’s goals . They double as my goals and factor into my performance management.   

The goals are clustered in five areas:

1.       Expanding student opportunities and improving student outcomes.

2.       Expanding student affordability and growing.

3.       Operating sustainably.

4.       Enhancing our partnership with the state.

5.       Investing in our people and our infrastructure so we can achieve all of the above.

I look forward to getting input from you on the opportunities you see in any or all of these areas, especially 1, 2, and 5. I’m hoping to do that by engaging with you in the work. I want to see how you are advancing these and other objectives in an educational setting, with student supports, and via other means. I also want to engage with you on what you perceive is the cutting edge of your work and our service to our students and this commonwealth.

By the time we meet, it will have been a while for some of us since we’ve seen each other outside the Hollywood squares that frame our Zoom interactions. Spoiler alert: I’m greyer, probably a little shorter, and maybe moving more stiffly than I once was. But I am still an unabashed optimist. As I wrote in my very first blog on this very point: “I can’t help myself. I see great opportunities for our universities, for our System, and especially for our students. I do not believe we face any obstacle that cannot be overcome with our collective talents and creativity.” Nothing has changed in that regard. Not an iota. Not in four very eventful years. 

And as ever, this blog serves as one of the many ways for us to exchange ideas. I hope you’ll use it to provide feedback, whether in the comments feature below or by mailing me directly at

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