Facing a perfect storm of circumstances, PA leaders take radical approach to higher ed model
In Pennsylvania, like in many other states, a slowdown in the number of high school graduates and rapidly decreasing state funding has led leaders to drastically reconsider the way they approach the model of higher education in the state.
While the Philadelphia and Pittsburgh markets have mostly recovered from the Great Recession, the rest of the state has not fared as well. This led to a particularly aggressive “movement to merge and close,” said Karen Whitney, the interim chancellor for the state higher education system. She added that “one of the stupidest things they could do was talk about that publicly,” because such conversations erode confidence in institutions, compounding enrollment issues, tanking presidential searches and faculty recruitment, and overall hindering operations of the system’s 14 public universities.
“Neoconservatives in the state were very quick to want to look at higher ed like a Walmart,” Whitney said, elaborating that a “Walmart view of higher education” means that in the face of revenue shortages and under enrollment, “we’ll just cut the number of outlets and we can proclaim the problem fixed and you don't have to bother us any more.”
Whitney said “the smartest thing the system ever did was hire [a company] to come in and do a deep, brutally honest unbundling of the system,” which she said has led to “a review, a redesign leading to resilience.”
A lack of system cohesion
But what Whitney and her staff found as they reviewed the commissioned report was that though the state’s 14 public institutions had come together under a system umbrella in 1983, they weren’t operating as a system, but rather as 14 individual universities “who generally liked each other.” There was no collaboration and no resource-sharing between the institutions. And often, there was an arrogance and an elitism that valued some institutions in the system over others and saw more competition than cooperation between the institutions.
“Most of the system tried to ignore” that Cheyney University even existed as part of the system, and conversations about closures were often squarely and primarily centered on the embattled historically black university located roughly 30 miles west of Philadelphia. But the Whitney said this approach failed to hit on the impact that each university in a system has on the others.
“If Cheyney were to close, if Cheyney can't make its bills, then all the bills and the default goes back to the entire system of the other 13 universities and the system itself as an entity,” said Whitney, who emphasized that the viability of all the institutions are intrinsically tied.
“They were really enjoying that they thought if Westchester gets ahead of Cheyney, or gets ahead of Slippery Rock, then that's ok,” said Whitney, who decried that higher ed leaders in the state missed the “corporate connection of a system … as a whole is a function of its parts.”
Whitney, who joked to a D.C. audience gathered for the Council for Higher Education Accreditation’s annual meeting in late January that her interim status gives her leeway to be radical, said she thinks fear of accreditors and the U.S. Department of Education prevents many higher ed leaders from changing their institution's service delivery approach.
Redesigning the framework
In Pennsylvania, the state’s institutions could no longer afford to continue with business as usual, so Whitney began redesigning the system’s framework to align more closely with the priorities of ensuring student success and transforming leadership and governance at the institutions — which had their share of “trustees behaving badly,” compounding existing leadership issues on the campuses.
First, she replaced the "30-person, highly representational [task force] groups with no charge [who] maybe … would produce something in two to three years” with task groups that are smaller, comprised of only five to seven people, and have 90 days to complete a task.
Leaders set out to re-think affordability by re-examining the tuition model. Whitney pointed out that there is a 300% difference between the annual family income in the richest and poorest counties in the state, yet tuition was the same for all institutions. So leaders sought to more equitably distribute resources, charging more tuition in the counties with the higher family incomes to compensate for “the deadbeat dad state government” not ponying up, said Whitney. This approach is expected to provoke individuals of those counties to put more pressure on the state government to foot the bill, but at least in the interim, Whitney believes this model is more equitable than a flat model.
Reducing operational costs
Then they began to think about how to reduce each institution’s operational costs while maintaining the “important role in that community," said Sally Johnstone, president of the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems, which provided the report for the Pennsylvania system.
"Obviously none of this happens over night, but one of our recommendations was to pull these institutions together as a system and allow them to leverage their resources, probably regionally,” Johnstone said. But, she added, continuing to allow each institution to operate with full autonomy was not affordable.
But at the same time, “You have to look at history and culture,” Whitney said. Each institution is “very rich in history and culture, and they're very proud, so a top-down approach is not going to work.”
As a result, Johnstone’s team suggested the Pennsylvania institutions “keep all of those functions that define an institution externally” to preserve what each one means to its local community, but consolidate back office functions.
“All of these institutions are working under their own HR offices, but they're all operating under one contract, because they're unionized, [so they’re dealing with the] same issues,” she said.
Radical academic re-design
The resulting recommendation was to centralize the HR functions and provide campus liaisons who could convey critical information to faculty and staff at each institution.
Not only that, but because the system can’t afford to hire Ph.D.s in every subject area on each campus, why not share programs among the institutions?
“We did not propose one course for the entire system, what we said was get the regions together — two to three universities [per cluster] — and begin sharing the academic and administrative functions through a combination of face-to-face and online delivery models," Johnstone said.
Faculty members from each institutions would be included in the hiring process for all new, shared faculty, but the tenure system, which Whitney believes needs to be re-evaluated, is up for grabs.
Whitney sees cultural benefits, as well as cost-savings benefits, to such a model.
“What about distributing the HBCU experience courses and talent [located at Cheyney University] via the other institutions to build a much more culturally rich experience,” she suggested. “I think what people forget is that the HBCUs have a lot to offer the white students as well, in terms of the academic experience.”
Her overall vision is to create a “back of house marketplace where credits can be bought and exchanged and fit into programs” at other state institutions, creating “a consortium approach in the academic enterprise,” Whitney said.
“If we're in a thing of multiplistic credentialing here, why not crossport a minor or a program from one institution to the other?”
Resistance to change
These proposals have not been met favorably by everyone. For one thing, “[some of] our faculty are so arrogant that they won’t talk to faculty members at another institution, because they think they’re superior,” she said. Not only that, but concern over who gets the credit for which course — even though Whitney is convinced “the student doesn’t care; they want a collection of experiences that enrich what they can do” — is proving another resistance stance.
Johnstone pointed out that faculty discontent “does not usually bode well for an accreditation visit,” but emphasized the importance of “better communication across the board” to ensure that innovation is not hampered by faculty discontent over maintaining the status quo.
“It is very rare that a system says we're going to think very differently about how we distribute our academic resources — and that's what I think is the huge issue here,” said Whitney, who added “this is not rocket science,” but says instead systems have had neither the need nor the political will to enact such changes before now.
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