Tuesday, October 7, 2014

A year on the job: Looking back, looking forward

A year on the job as chancellor of Pennsylvania’s State System of Higher Education has taught me a lot. It also has confirmed some things I already believed when I arrived here from Florida 12 months ago:  the State System’s 14 universities are remarkable institutions—vitally important to their communities and the Commonwealth. At the same time, they were facing some of the same challenges that universities across Pennsylvania and America were facing—and still are.

During my first year, I learned that there are no easy answers here, but to guide us through these challenges we have set a goal of becoming the most flexible, collaborative and student-centered university system in America.

Here’s what I mean.

Our 14 universities are alike in many ways, though each is unique in its own way. While some continue to grow in enrollment, a number of them are seeing flat or declining numbers because of fewer students graduating from Pennsylvania high schools. This kind of fluctuation has happened before in the Commonwealth and, as expected, is affecting public and private universities across the state.

Why does that matter? Because almost 90 percent of our 112,000 students come from Pennsylvania—and the vast majority of those are “traditional” students between the ages of 18 and 22—any fluctuation in that demographic has a significant impact on overall enrollment. How we respond requires flexibility—rethinking the way we recruit students and retain them once they arrive on campus. That is a challenge we are tackling head-on.

At the same time, nontraditional, older students—including veterans and active military—require even more flexibility. That means expanding the number of online offerings and providing flexible learning environments—serving these students where they are, when they are able to learn. That’s not for our benefit; that’s in the best interest of the Commonwealth.

The Board of Governors is also providing the universities with greater flexibility in how they operate—giving the universities and their Councils of Trustees more control over pricing and speeding up the program-approval process that enables the universities to launch new programs.

While these enhancements are important, the issue of funding continues to occupy our attention. After collaboration with the campuses earlier this year, the Board approved a new allocation formula for the distribution of the funds the System receives from the state, all with the goal of providing the universities with greater funding predictability into the future.

Here’s a sobering fact: The current-year allocation from the state is essentially the same as what the State System received in 1997, even though our universities are serving about 18,000 more students than they did back then. Think about that: the System has grown by the equivalent of a large university since 1997 with no additional support from the Commonwealth. That has to change.

Because we are committed to affordability, modest tuition increases over the years haven’t even come close to making up for the loss of state support. In most years, the tuition increase has been deliberately held down to about the rate of inflation, which has required the universities to take significant steps to reduce their costs in order to balance their budgets.

One way we achieve greater efficiency is through sharing services, which is a major benefit of being part of a university system. By pooling resources, the institutions are able to realize significant savings in areas such as payroll management, information systems, legal services, construction support and others. These savings can be reinvested where they matter most, in the classroom.

We have taken a close look at shared services to ensure they deliver a quality product at a good price. Nothing is perfect, but the feedback we have received shows we are quite good at this, and are leading the national trend toward more shared services. We will continue to make improvements and look for additional collaborations that will produce additional cost savings for the universities.

Under the heading of being more student-centered, each decision we make must be driven by how it will affect our students. All of the universities are making critical choices about which degree programs and support services best serve our students’ needs and prepare them for the future.

We have eliminated dozens of low-demand programs while adding others in emerging fields. Contrary to the myth, this kind of program analysis and alignment is not just a response to declining resources; it is an essential action taken to ensure that each university and the entire State System stay current in addressing the needs of students and their role in this great Commonwealth and our global society.

The quality of our academic programming—whatever the mix—is dependent on the efforts of our dedicated faculty. Our shared focus on preparing students for success unites us in the effort to create rich learning environments on-campus, off-campus and online—wherever faculty and students connect.

An anniversary is always a good time to look back, but I prefer to face forward, focused on what’s ahead. If we remain committed to our guiding principles of being more flexible, collaborative and—most important—student-centered, I am convinced the future of the State System will be even brighter than its past.