I came to Pennsylvania four years ago from the philanthropic world, where “institutional transformation ” had been buzzing around for a few years. For me, transformation means fundamental change, reorienting policies, processes, infrastructure, and even mindsets so higher education can continue its historic mission as engine of economic development and social mobility. This means expanding access to and providing specific, appropriate, and personalized supports for historically underserved and under-represented students of color and students from low-income backgrounds, as well as rural and adult students. And it means offering a greater range of affordable, high-quality career-relevant degree and non-degree credentials that are responsive to employer needs.
Today, pursuit of mission requires eliminating race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, and age as predictors of educational opportunity and success. Driving economic development and social mobility requires that more adults have some higher education. That means doing better with more underserved students. It requires that we offer a broader range of credentials that working learners can accumulate or “stack” during their lives as they find themselves moving in and out of higher education, advancing their careers and their family’s upward mobility. It requires nothing short of the fundamental transformation in education, business, and funding models that prevail in today’s higher education.
Entering my new role as chancellor of the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education (PASSHE), I wondered whether transformation would find a receptive audience, and if so, how it would play out in real time. In the four years I’ve been here, my colleagues at PASSHE and I have learned a great deal about what transformation means in policy and practice and we’ve made some strides toward transformation. While we haven’t got all the answers, we have the benefit of insight about critical factors and questions that have guided our particular process. Here I will highlight three in particular:
1. Context matters
It is critical to start from the premise that transformation doesn’t happen in a vacuum, as there are forces already at work (some of them longstanding) that can facilitate or frustrate fundamental change. Specifically, my team and I sought to focus on culture (how things get done) and politics (who gets things done), as well as clarity about goals and their connection to the respective missions of the 14 campuses in the system.
PASSHE’s efforts have played out against the backdrop of declining enrollments and finances; to its credit, the system’s Board of Governors candidly brought these issues to the fore and prioritized addressing them. In coming to terms with these trends, the board also navigated a number of cultural and political realities. These include divided government between a Republican-controlled legislature and a Democratic governor that demands bi-partisan approaches; legitimate concerns about the system’s governance, performance, and cost structures; an absolute aversion to institutional closure; and a yearning among faculty and staff for a past when students and resources were more plentiful combined with suspicion of a future that could bring different types of students, delivery models, and employee expectations.
As a result, the system and its campuses have navigated a careful middle course, one recognizing that maintaining the status quo with minor tweaks would not address the system’s financial realities, deliver on its historic mission, or build the majority in the General Assembly necessary for significant and much needed additional state investment. At the same time, drastic, wholesale reform was not culturally or politically possible. Instead, the prevailing context led to redesign that prioritized clarity about the mission and purpose of the system, financial stabilization, and reorienting existing practices, programs, and infrastructure to serve a broader range of students and economic development needs, all with an eye toward building human and financial resource sustainability. The redesign framework has three pillars:
Student success: Improving affordability and expanding opportunity for student groups referenced above.
University success: Achieving financial sustainability for all system institutions (more on that below).
Transforming governance: Transitioning from a “command and control”/compliance relationship between the system office and the campuses to one where campuses are given a greater degree of autonomy in setting their strategic direction in return for close accountability to the Board of Governors for meeting clearly articulated performance goals.
To be clear, the redesign framework and process has not left every stakeholder happy and has been very consuming and at times disruptive, but it also has attracted the critical mass of support needed to move forward with change conversations (especially strong backing from the Board of Governors).
Insights for practice: Spend the requisite time listening and learning about what has been done, what hasn’t been done, and why. This is especially important in an age where there is more churn at senior leadership levels and many are coming from outside the campus/system/state. Additionally, a willingness to compromise is essential.
2. Understand the mechanics of education transformation
There are many possible levers for effecting transformation, some more important than others. The trick is understanding which are ripe for moving and the likely payoff they will have in advancing change efforts. For example, changing human resource policies and practices may prove essential for longer term sustainability, but significant redesign may be operationally and politically impractical in the near term.
The PASSHE redesign experience thus far has focused primarily on two things: governance and institutional restructuring. In terms of governance, we are tackling tough but fair criticisms about the role of the system office and the relationship with the campuses, refocusing system office priorities on things like data-driven decision-making and delegating some regulatory and programmatic functions to campuses while discontinuing others. Additionally, we are working to build more of a sense of shared ownership of decisions and outcomes by bringing campus leaders more intentionally and systematically into strategic conversations with the Board of Governors and focusing the board’s time less on transactional matters (e.g. moving them to a consent calendar) and more on macro level management issues unearthed by looking at key indicators.
The institutional restructuring piece is a work in progress. It involves universities experiencing the greatest enrollment decline and expending coveted financial reserves to stem resulting financial losses. For those universities, compressing the educational program array makes sense financially, but can also drive enrollments down further in a vicious cycle that can result ultimately in institutional failure. In the context of political realities that prohibit university closure, there are few viable courses of actions. Cheyney and Indiana University have responded with fundamental changes in their size, organizational structure, programmatic, and even student focus.
Elsewhere, we have pursued university integrations – keeping campus facilities and student life at institutions whose educational and business functions as well as faculty, staff, and leadership are combined in a single accredited entity. As a result, six institutions became two: Commonwealth (comprising Bloomsburg, Lock Haven and Mansfield) and PennWest (comprising California, Clarion, and Edinboro). There are many operational details still to be worked out, distinctive cultures to be blended into something new (a very long process), and further financial challenges to be address. Still, the integration became official on July 1 of this year. Students at each of the integrated campuses will have access to a much greater range of degrees, majors, and minors, than campuses could have afforded to operate acting independently.
Insights for practice: Invest the time (and political capital) in identifying the necessary change levers in the near and longer terms and engage key stakeholders (e.g. campus leaders) in that process. Per the comments above about context, be very clear with stakeholders about which issues/areas are in and out of bounds for consideration.
3. Define and develop indicators for financial sustainability
This has perhaps been the hardest nut for us to crack, in part because so much of the focus in recent years has been on financial stabilization (surviving), making it harder to cast and pursue a longer-term vision (thriving). But it is absolutely vital to have a clear-eyed view of what it is going to take for campuses to fulfill their respective missions within likely resources – human as well as financial.
In all honesty, we at PASSHE are still in stabilization mode, with sustainability as the goal. But we are beginning to see how the focus on sustainability is the most powerful tool we have to advance mission. Through the transformation process, we engaged the issue of sustainability by building detailed financial scenarios for all our universities. From these, it was clear that maintaining the status quo was not viable. Few, at least, could stabilize financially let alone sustain without effectively engaging historically underserved students while emphasizing credentials that respond to employer needs. For some universities, sustainability required modest adjustments in what educational programs were delivered how, to what student groups at what price. For others, it required fundamental restructuring, even integration.
Insights for practice: Identify key indicators of financial health and direction, including best/middle/worst case scenarios for the immediate and medium terms. Understand how moving measures requires responsiveness to evolving student and society needs. Give universities responsibility for adjustments that make sense locally, holding them accountable for performance. Engage the board early and often with these indicators in institutional performance management –establishing goals, evaluating progress, and course correcting where necessary. Critically, ensure adequate investment is made in employee professional development ensuring faculty and staff have the capability needed to meet evolving needs.
I’m a historian by training, which has taught me to take the long view and be an optimist. I believe that transformation of our enterprise is possible because it has happened before and in fact is happening now. But we also must learn the lessons of history or suffer the pain of repeating its mistakes, like putting a particular student group (a segment of high school graduates) or a way of delivering education (on-ground, in class, between 10am and 4pm Monday through Friday) above mission (driving economic development and social mobility).
We in Pennsylvania have by no means figured it all out, but we are much clearer today on the work that is to be done and the hard choices and trade-offs that work brings. More importantly, we are eager to share what we learn as we go.
Dan Greenstein is chancellor of the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education (PASSHE). He previously served as director of the Postsecondary Success strategy at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.