Blogging has been on my mind for months, only the signal wasn’t getting to my fingers. Recent events transpired to change that. Perhaps it is the appearance of Sirius in the Canis Major constellation and the resulting onset of the dog days of summer. Perhaps it was the recent vote by the Board of Governors freezing tuition for an unprecedented fifth year in a row. Whatever, Clio is mercurial.
At last, though, two topics: the first looks back on the year past with heartfelt gratitude, the second forward.
The state budget passed by the House and Senate includes a 6% increase in PASSHE’s general fund appropriation, and the governor has indicated his intention to sign the bill. The investment enables the Board to freeze tuition, and it includes targeted support that will help to alleviate PennWest University’s legacy debt – a burden that produces a structural deficit beyond the university’s means to manage without risking service to its students and to students elsewhere across the commonwealth.
We are grateful to the governor and the General Assembly, including legislative and committee leadership, as well as the House PASSHE Caucus. We are grateful to the elected officials who serve on PASSHE’s Board of Governors, representing their respective legislative caucuses. All were willing to roll up their sleeves and problem-solve with us about how best to ensure that affordable higher education pathways persist across the commonwealth’s state-owned universities. Their work and bipartisan commitment was critically important and reflects the power and continuing promise of our democratic form of government.
There is no “I” in advocacy – it is a team sport. Accordingly, I was honored with colleagues at the Chancellor’s Office to support a team that included only the most exceptional “athletes” – our colleagues from APSCUF and AFSCME, our university presidents, and with and through them many of our trustees, a group of campus-based public relations professionals and, of course, our Board of Governors.
Working closely together, we achieved clearly articulated, shared objectives. Forgive a “Dannerism,” but our advocacy efforts this year and last represent the very best of “systemness.” They utilized distinctive strengths distributed across our great System to achieve effects beyond the means of any one of our universities or constituencies to achieve on its own.
Hold that thought while I address another topic, also in the vein of looking back and giving heartfelt thanks.
From time to time, our Board of Governors hosts workshops exploring opportunities and challenges confronting our universities, faculty and students, and industry. Last week, we heard a presentation about work underway at PennWest, which is building one of only two universities created in Pennsylvania in the 21st century. (The other, you won’t be surprised, to learn, is our very own Commonwealth University.) Viewed through any perspective lens, PennWest is an inspiring turnaround story about grit and determination, a people’s commitment to mission, compassionate and focused leadership at every level across the organization, shared governance, identity, and re-imagining what a 21st-century university can and ought to be for its students, employees, and region. Interim President Bernotsky – who was joined by Edinboro’s APSCUF chapter president Dr. Sam Claster – told the story to the Board. It is not a new story to members of the PennWest community, who have lived it and shared in its making. But it was new to the Board and other workshop invitees, including university trustees and leaders of our collective bargaining units. Beyond the tremendous progress that is evident and the optimism and confidence it inspired about PennWest’s future, we learned a great deal about what it takes from all concerned to build a new university while operating an existing one, to fashion new identities – even cultures – while honoring inherited ones, to overcome tremendous obstacles, many of them structural, others unwittingly self-imposed, to work together toward the greater good of our students.
I have worked in and around higher education for my entire professional life – nearly 40 years. I have never encountered such a selfless, intensely collaborative approach to problem-solving at enterprise – actually, existential – scale. Nor have I been as moved as much as I have been by colleagues at PennWest – by their tales from the front line about renaissance and re-invigoration, and about the most profound kinds of fatigue. I have visited PennWest multiple times, spent countless hours with community members in conference rooms, on Zoom and on phone calls. I am routinely humbled by my colleagues’ tenacity, compassion, and commitment. They all are writing a story that deserves to be told over and over again.
While the good people of California, Clarion, and Edinboro are squarely at the center of this story, others featured in it and they also deserve and have my thanks. Staff who are on loan from West Chester University and the Chancellor’s Office have extensively supported PennWest’s tremendous advancement. And PennWest is supported generally by its sister PASSHE universities. They threw themselves behind an advocacy effort that put PennWest’s needs – notably for debt assumption – above their own and invested in real, measurable, and tangible ways in PennWest’s success. Both are tremendous acts of “systemness.”
You don’t see that kind of thing very often in our industry. Collaboration is rife across higher education, but it typically engages individuals and groups who work together in areas where they are already aligned – evaluating new approaches to student success, sharing existing online courses, bringing like minds together to advance the benefits of the general education curriculum, working together in procurement to achieve better pricing.
At PASSHE, we are experiencing what I will call “deep resource sharing” – where partners work together, committed to the success of the whole, sometimes foregoing their own needs in support of the common good. Throughout the entire campaign – and yes, it was a campaign – we saw the System come together like never before. Sure, there was a voice or two grousing – as there always are – from the parochial and predictable dark corners that refuse to come into the light and see that we are one system – with one bank account – and that helping stabilize one university now means helping everyone in the long-run. I was overwhelmed by the support and concern that the vast majority in our System has shown and its willingness to wrap arms around and stand shoulder to shoulder with PennWest, ensuring affordable, public higher education options exist for all.
In looking forward, I’m conscious of completing my first tour of duty for the State System in the coming weeks and embarking on my second. I am grateful to and humbled by the Board for the confidence it has demonstrated in me by renewing my appointment. Upon reflection, a couple of themes spring to mind and are worth sharing. The first – and this should in no way minimize my gratitude to the governor and General Assembly for their support of their state-owned universities – a 6% increase in our state appropriation is fantastic. When coupled with a tuition freeze, though, it nets a 2% increase in our total revenues in a year when cost increases still exceed 3%. Put another way, to keep pace with inflation we require $64M in additional resources over and above what we had budgeted for last fall. We have netted $33M. To wit, in 2023-24 we are $31M short of anticipated cost increases not including increased labor costs (estimated last fall at 2%).
What does that mean? To me, it means two things. First, we will need to continue making difficult trade-off decisions. Such decisions are ultimately in the hands of university leadership working to accomplish their goals within the policy environment and operational parameters established by the Board of Governors. I expect those difficult decisions will be taken after consultation with key stakeholders and communicated effectively in a timely manner. I do not expect that difficult decisions will be the product of or reflect consensus. It’s great where that happens, but by their very nature, such decisions are rarely reached in a consensual manner.
Second, it means that we need to double down on growth. I’ve written about this extensively over the past several years, in part because growth is the long-term goal of our System Redesign. (The short-term one is financial stabilization across the System – something that we are closer to today than at any time in the recent past.) Growth is critical. The state requires us to grow. Today, 60% of all jobs in Pennsylvania require someone with some postsecondary education – credentials that only 51% of Pennsylvanians have. And the greatest demand is for people with B.A. and M.A. degrees in areas where we are strongest: business, healthcare, STEM, education, and public services. If you look at the number of credentials we’ve produced in those areas, we have been stable, maybe even grown a tad since 2010, when overall enrollments declined by nearly a third. Additionally, Pennsylvanians need us to grow. Postsecondary education is still the most reliable pathway into and beyond the middle class. Indeed, postsecondary attainment levels track directly with higher incomes and less exposure to unemployment as well as a variety of desirable health and other outcomes.
There are two ways to grow. Enroll more students and grow the proportion of enrolled students who complete. We need to do both. As I keep saying any chance I get, where else will Pennsylvania get its nurses, its teachers, its business leaders, its science and public service professionals? How else does Pennsylvania fuel its Main Street economies?
Growth is also imperative to address our financial challenges in a lasting way. As a wise and close-in advisor once told me, “Austerity is not a strategy.” Yes, of course, we should advocate for increased support from our owners. We have, we do, we shall. And we are making progress – so much so that we have held tuition flat for six years while at the same time more than doubling the amount universities make available to their students in the form of institutional aid. Our general fund appropriation has increased by 25% since 2018-19, and the level of state funding per student FTE is currently $7,674, which in inflation-adjusted dollars, is equivalent to per student funding reached in 2003-04. Great.
But we must also be more aggressive in growing enrollment. So, I can’t help wondering what we could accomplish in enrollments if we work together there as effectively as we have worked these past few years in advocacy and supporting PennWest? What does working together mean in this new context? To me, it means vesting in our collective success at the university level first and foremost, because that is where students are – that is where they go. And yes, of course, there are System roles, and we should explore those, too.
In my first weeks here almost five years ago, I had three conversations – two in person, one by email – that frankly surprised me. All offered explanations for the System’s already protracted experience of declining enrollments. One proffered that we’d have better retention and graduation rates if the administration enrolled better students (and there was I naively thinking we were privileged to work as public universities helping Pennsylvanians of all backgrounds realize their fullest potential). Another laid blame upon faculty for not engaging as effectively as they might with students we enrolled. (Call me old-fashioned, but I never believed that asking folks to just “do better” was an effective approach to continuous professional development or organizational performance improvement.) A third extolled the value of gateway courses, because they weeded out students who didn’t “belong” in college. (Silly me, I guess I believe in the profoundly democratic impulses of public regional universities and the thrust of the completion movement that swept over them two decades ago.)
I’ve heard these memes before. It’s not as if they are unknown or unspoken in our industry and our sector. So rather than responding (not a strength – sitting on my hands), I focused my attention on other more pervasive (thank goodness) and more inspiring conversations that are truer reflections of our character and culture. Thus, as examples I remember and remember being profoundly proud of:
- A conversation at Slippery Rock with a group of faculty and staff who informed me with heads nodding all ‘round that enrollment management gets prospective students onto campus where “faculty close the deal.”
- A tour of West Chester’s Moon Shot for Equity Initiative, which represents a coordinated, analytically driven, all-hands approach to improving outcomes for academically at-risk students.
- A deep dive into how science students’ faculty-led research experiences at Lock Haven parlay faculty passions for both discipline and students into a profoundly effective tool for improving student engagement and success.
- A morning with Mansfield’s Public Safety Training Institute, where faculty and administration work closely with regional employers and others to design and deliver scarce safety and emergency response certifications. The institute is at once addressing employer and regional needs, creating robust pathways into meaningful careers while contributing significantly to enrollment.
- Our journey with Cheyney, which has demonstrated that you can “shrink to grow.”
And then, of course, there’s PennWest, where the all-hands approach to enrollment management this past year is, touch wood, delivering far better than expected outcomes with new and returning students for Fall 2023.
More demonstrable evidence that yes, we can – when we turn our minds to it. To that end, on the eve of my second tour of duty, I invite a conversation about what more we can do together to meet the state’s pressing workforce development needs, to serve our regions and employers even better, and – yes – to grow. Let’s begin with aspiration, if we can, not with constraint. I’m happy to discuss constraints, of course. It’s just that after five years, I’ve not encountered one constraint that was materially beyond our ability to relax if we chose. At least in my experience, our most oft-cited constraints are also of our own constructs.
Let’s have a discussion about university and system approaches, and let’s be ambitious in our aspirations and reach. How do we work together to achieve growth? Can we offer material incentives or rewards to individuals or groups? Are there process changes or approaches we should consider that create safe places to try and sometimes fail? What can we do to increase the clock speed of our efforts (because with speculative ventures, it is better to know sooner rather than later, when we have expended fewer rather than more resources, about the likelihood of success)? How do we fund the journey? Do we hold out and wait for new money, risking being left behind by other universities and colleges that are also thinking as hard as we are about how to grow, or do we factor innovation for growth into already complex trade-off discussions? How do we articulate to prospective students the value proposition of attending a State System university? A recently published report shows we are known for being relatively affordable – indeed, that affordability is our most vital “selling point” to prospective students. Are there other selling points into which we ought to be leaning harder? What more can we do to raise our retention and graduation rates, engage our students, and make their experiences “stickier”? Presently, our student retention and graduation rates are average when compared to our like universities nationally. Call me biased, but in my view, we are anything but average. We are nothing short of extraordinary.