Commentary: Listening, learning may be key to future PASSHE success

Interim PASSHE Chancellor Karen Whitney said in a press release she wants to “listen and learn” as she travels the state system. She better clear her schedule and book some hotel rooms because there is a lot to listen to and learn about.

The Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education (PASSHE) is probably similar to what the United States looked like under the Articles of Confederation — loosely organized states vying for power and lacking unity and cooperation. 

It starts with the students. They are the customers and the driving force that determines how much funding a university gets. Where there are customers there are businesses (the universities), and where there are businesses there is competition.

In this case, you have 14 businesses trying to convince the same potential customers that their services are the best. For every customer Shippensburg University gets, 13 other universities lose out.

Competition is a good thing because it drives the universities to constantly improve themselves and serve students better. 

But competition is also a bad thing. It creates excessive amounts of services and money is spent on glamorous projects rather than on needed resources. University beautification and advertising expenses are needed to attract new students, but they are not vital to the education of students.

The reality is, any institution that has a consumer-based income will have to spend time and resources on getting more money — not on fulfilling its mission statement. In other words, you have to spend money to make money. 

But when it comes to PASSHE, competition creates a bigger problem. Its 14 universities are not only competing against each other for new students but they also have to compete against every other university in the world. 

The whole point of a state system is to help keep the member universities stay afloat, but when state funding for PASSHE is abysmally low the universities are left to fend for themselves. What happens is that instead of consolidating resources to preserve the system, universities are creating redundancies.

Instead of having multiple universities specialize in theater, art, physics, journalism or other programs, it would be wiser to choose just a couple universities to have those programs. What’s better, five mediocre art programs or two high-quality art programs?

While the answer is simple, reality is not. By definition, universities are supposed to be widely diverse with the programs they offer. 

University presidents do not have unilateral power to make changes and neither does the PASSHE chancellor. Between boards, councils and constituents there are layers of bureaucracy with conflicting interests that often leave administrators with their hands tied. 

That is why it is critical for Whitney to truly listen and learn. She needs to listen to administrators and students, but more importantly she needs to listen to the people entrenched in the educational process — professors.

Hopefully Whitney can use her time as interim chancellor to listen to everyone. 

Then maybe she can learn how PASSHE can be united and function as one institution, not a bunch of competing universities.

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