Dear Left Confused

Dear Ms. Scholar, I watched the report from the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems (NCHEMS) and was left confused. There were good ideas, although these ideas were often so vague that, as I read the media and listened to friends, I was pretty confused. Any thoughts on the report?

writing

Ms. Scholar at work.

Dear Left Confused, Ms. Scholar had a similar response. On the one hand, the recommendations that I’d feared NCHEMS would make weren’t on their list, but the more I read, the more I was, like you, unclear about what exactly had been recommended. (Click the green button here for NCHEMS’s PowerPoint, and here for video of their presentation, starting at 3:00.)

Importantly, Dennis Jones looked around the room and suggested that all of us had dug the hole leading to PASSHE’s current problems – the legislature, the Chancellor, the Board of Governors, management, faculty, and the union – and that we needed to work together to resolve these problems (Slide 5). Jones sounded like the wise grandparent, admonishing the foolish children listening to his message (and there were a surprising number of us listening). Ms. Scholar watched the Board of Governors fidget in response to his words. They weren’t the only ones.

One of Ms. Scholar’s insightful colleagues summed up Jones’s message as: communicate, collaborate, be transparent, build trust, and support one other (e.g., Slide 37). These words rang true for many of us, who have increasingly felt as though the various parties comprising the System were in a rush to spitefully cut off their own noses. Effective communication, collaboration, transparency, trust, and support have been in short supply in recent years, a real change from even a decade earlier.

Many of us were elated to learn that NCHEMS adamantly recommended that no university should be closed, no universities merged, and none separated from the rest of the System (Slide 35). Gardner’s (2017) recent report in the Chronicle of Higher Education argued that Georgia’s mergers – in a very different system – experienced minimal savings, but significant disruptions. Given this, Jones’s recommendations were not surprising. Meshing different universities, each with its own culture, rules, organization, and identity, is neither simple nor painless.

A Rorschach

Despite our initial elation, the NCHEMS report was vague and a bit of a Rorschach, with different parties projecting onto the report their own hopes and fears. For example, while most faculty initially felt affirmed by the report, some of us were surprised by comments such as this one from Jones, that apparently took place outside of the official airing:

“[Some universities have] got more staff than they can sustain, but you still want to provide service to the regions they serve, and the way you do that is to provide student services at those institutions and programs from somewhere else.”  (Snyder, 2017a, para. 14-15)

Screen Shot 2017-07-13 at 9.01.17 PM

Slide 48 from NCHEMS PowerPoint.

What is Jones suggesting? Is he saying that some university services can be cut or is he suggesting that courses can be imported from elsewhere? Part of why we are confused is that Jones seems to be using the terms “staff” and “student services” differently than faculty do.

We now believe Jones is talking about cutting faculty and importing classes. Slide 48 seems to suggest greater reliance on a consortium model with schools working collaboratively to provide needed services, programs, and classes. This was also Joni Finney’s conclusion. She concluded that the NCHEMS “consultants effectively recommended mergers without calling them that, referring to the recommendation on consolidation” (Snyder, 2017b, para. 7). Finney is director of the Institute for Research on Higher Education at the University of Pennsylvania.

Students First

Jones observed that the System and its parts have primarily focused on maintaining and growing that system, following a typical business model. Jones made an impassioned plea that we put our students, not profitability, first. He noted, for example, that closing schools in the west would hurt students from Forest County, where families earn 1/3 of those in Chester County ($25,000 vs. $75,000). Students from the wealthiest families are becoming more common on our campuses, while students from poorer families are becoming less common (Slide 18). NCHEMS’s first and perhaps strongest recommendation was that we “retain and ensure sustainability of the State System’s capacity in every region to carry out its mission to serve students and communities with high-quality, affordable postsecondary opportunities for working-class families” (Slide 41, italics added). This is a an important goal that Ms. Scholar endorses, but NCHEMS does not yet offer a road map for getting there.

What did Jones mean when he asked us to put our students first? This was unclear, but Ms. Scholar suspects that Jones is suggesting that we remember our mission, that we look for ways to open vistas for our students (rather than mostly focusing on what is most profitable). As many others also suggest, he believes PASSHE should expand its use of services designed to foster student success (Slide 47).

However, while Ms. Scholar can envision forms of academic collaboration that would support our students well, she can also imagine disaster. Yet, Jones seemed to be indicating that the smaller, less financially-viable schools should increasingly import online courses from other schools (Slide 48). Ms. Scholar believes that there is a time and place for online education, but that our undergraduates also need the kinds of mentoring that often comes best from personal interactions between faculty and students, and from student to student. If we are really putting students first, as we strive to provide them with high-quality, affordable education, we need to be thoughtful and strategic about the nature of our collaborations.

“Students first” is a lovely catchphrase. However, Ms. Scholar expects that most people in the room during Mr. Jones’s presentation believed that they already do put students first. Let’s talk about what putting students first means and make this more than a catchphrase: let’s make it a central aspect of our mission and our actions.

The devil is in the details.

References

Gardner, L. (2017). Georgia’s mergers offer lessons, and cautions, to other states. Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved from http://www.chronicle.com/article/Georgia-s-Mergers-Offer/240390

Snyder, S.  (2017a). No closures, mergers recommended for Pa. state colleges. The Inquirer, Retrieved from http://www.philly.com/philly/education/no-closures-mergers-recommended-for-pa-state-colleges-20170712.html

Snyder, S.  (2017b). School report draws criticism, praise. The Inquirer, Retrieved from http://www.philly.com/philly/education/school-report-draws-criticism-praise-20170714.html


If you have questions regarding teaching, student/faculty issues, or other comments/suggestions, please write to: Ms. Scholar c/o MsScholarCU@gmail.com

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