(Susquehanna Valley Center for Public Policy, by David Atkinson) Recent news stories make crystal clear that the fourteen universities constituting the State System of Higher Education are confronting a thicket of tough problems, brought to the fore by a disturbing drop in enrollment at most campuses.
Two studies – one, the RAND Corporation PASSHE Sustainability Study, freshly released – have assessed the situation and provided a series of recommendations, or painful options, for corrective action. Reactions to these provocative points from insiders and outsiders run the spectrum from highly aggressive to deeply defensive.
To deny the need for rethinking and restructuring is myopic, and for a few weaker universities, probably suicidal. On the other hand, to act upon false narratives is equally damaging.
There are at least two troubling storylines being run out by competitors and detractors of the universities. The first depicts the schools as academic dinosaurs, excepted from educational evolution, sort of the Land That Time Forgot. This obscures that several of the campuses are displaying dynamism and transforming their requirements and offerings. To an extent, those schools have until recently found themselves limited by the stifling effect the system bureaucracy has had, and handicapped perceptually by the stale and stodgy ways academia tends to present itself.
Even more alarming is state decisionmakers contending that the paramount problem is the negative influence of the faculty union. Now, it is easy to get upset over union tactics, as when professors deputize or incentivize students to become lobbyists during contract disputes. The union has vigorously disputed the cover stories state officials concoct for why Pennsylvania has lagged badly in its budgetary support for state universities, in contrast to other states, annoying those committed to spending control. This plays into the unhelpful depiction of liberal-dominated institutions pitted in full self-preservation mode versus conservative legislators.
However, to utilize political differences as the basis for major policy decisions affecting thousands of professionals and tens of thousands of students is, to put it kindly, misguided. The landscape looks a lot different when actual instruction is viewed close up. Observe, question, and explore, and the mythology and stereotypes start to fall away. In truth, the qualities and capabilities of the majority of professors are an attracting factor for students, far more powerful than whatever repelling properties anyone imagines about the union and its politics.
Over the past dozen years, I have had numerous chances to see professors in various settings: lecturing in classrooms, working in labs, presenting to advisory boards their priorities and efforts, collaborating with student teams on research projects. What I have witnessed is far removed from the unflattering caricatures that have become commonplace in the ideological arguments over higher education. There is enthusiasm, energy, optimism, and involvement well above what is required. The diversity of experience and outlook new hires are infusing provides renewed optimism.
An illuminating example involves research projects, which have become a staple of instruction. These encourage in-depth inquiry, instill an appreciation for drawing careful conclusions from defensible findings, hone essential writing and presentation skills, and provide a wonderful addition to the portfolio students can show prospective employers. Students regularly convey how accessible, helpful, and invested in their progress the majority of professors are. The hackneyed allegation that too many professors spend insufficient time in the classroom becomes even less valid as the classroom is less of a fixed place.
As a footnote, while I do not doubt that many of the professors are liberal in their personal orientation and worldview, it is hard to detect the intensive student indoctrination that is reputedly taking place.
To truly produce student progress and success, the state universities have to accept some hard truths and deal with emerging difficulties.
College administrators and faculty have come to realize that taking a swim or sink approach to incoming students does not work educationally, and is counterproductive economically when students drop out or are disqualified from returning.
While every institution touts the test scores and credentials of their incoming classes, beneath the gloss is a rather astonishing problem expensive and time consuming to remedy. The heavy reliance on testing, the dependence on technology, and a variety of societal changes have rendered a lot of students unprepared to readily adapt to the college experience. Universities are forced to provide subject remediation, instruct in basic skills such as study and research techniques, and assist in the emotional adjustment to the unstructured environment that puts a premium on personal responsibility and smart choices. The costs for this must be drawn from already stretched budgets, and make the ideal four-year completion of college harder to attain.
For a variety of reasons, universities have had to overhaul curriculum. To accomplish this, it takes considerable consultation with and buy-in from the faculty. Is there some resistance along the way from individuals who prefer the way things have been done? Sure there is. But there is not the speculated widespread resistance to progress that works to the detriment of students and the institution as a whole. These are intelligent and perceptive people, certainly cognizant that the longevity of their jobs depends on the long-term health of the university.
Employer concerns about attracting skilled, dependable workers are commonplace. This has translated into concerted efforts to invest more in technical and technology training programs. However, this only addresses one side of the equation. Most employers are also interested in the reasoning and analytical skills of workers. So those who see liberal arts education as anachronism are making a crucial error. It simply is not an either-or proposition. Many employers are looking for both.
The notion of the public university as an ivory-tower enclave cloistered from community views and real world accountability has become virtually extinct. A modern and competitive university must connect with the community for needs and opportunities – support, equipment, internships, programs, feedback on the successes and deficiencies of graduates.
The extent to which these changes were foreseen or forced can be debated. Years of funding constraints have compelled creativity and resourcefulness. But it is indisputable that substantial changes are taking place and transforming the campus experience for students.
There will always be arguments over rising costs and how resources are allocated. It is impossible to decouple the rise in student debt from the steady decline in the share of the budget that state funding constitutes. It is also impossible to recapture the opportunities lost because of funding limitations. Even so, it should be impossible to deny that students receive value from the education at the universities, but a fair number of people working off agendas seem convinced otherwise.
My appraisal is centered primarily on Shippensburg University, and to a lesser extent on Millersville University. We all know that a sample size of one or two is not scientifically significant. Each university has individual strengths and weaknesses, despite the system efforts to homogenize the schools. A few of them are seriously struggling and perhaps incapable at the moment of the sort of metamorphosis the stronger ones are undergoing. Nevertheless, there is good cause for examining the ways the others have broken the bonds of tradition and changed the definition of the modern university.
If we only look at the critical reports and listen to the dire prognoses delivered by the detractors, it becomes easy to be convinced that the problems facing the universities are serious, structural, and likely terminal.
But to look inside the universities, to see the changes taking place and the realignment of programs taking root, to feel the energy and enthusiasm and determination pulsing through these institutions, gives an entirely different perspective. Well directed and determined leadership on the part of administrators is indispensable to the university team. But as former New York Yankees manager Casey Stengel sagely said about winning ten pennants in twelve years: “I couldna done it without my players.” University faculty are central players in the redirection and revival of these institutions, and are earning recognition for their commitment and contributions to greater student success.