By Kaylee Lindenmuth
At 11 a.m. on Thursday, Nov. 1, the chancellor of the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education visited KU beginning the day with a question and answer session with the campus and regional community in the McFarland Student Union’s Alumni Auditorium.
A self-proclaimed irrepressible optimist, Dr. Daniel Greenstein, who became chancellor earlier this year, spoke of his outlook on where the system currently stands and how he believes it can improve in years to come. He noted the issues the state system faces, saying that even though the business models designed decades ago have been useful, they have seen their effectiveness wane. He also noted that the system in place relies on the pool of high school graduates in the Commonwealth, which he adds is projected to drop in 2025.
“In my view, these are all technical issues. We have the creativity and the talent and the technical capabilities and the models in higher education to address each one of these issues,” said Greenstein. “How to solve these problems is not our biggest challenge.”
“Our challenge is our culture,” Greenstein continued. “From my early observation, our culture is defined by distrust, from union and management. Between universities and the system. Between trustees and board members. Sometimes between universities and their communities… It appears to me to involve positioning from trenches which have been deeply dug over decades around issues that are critical, and around issues that are trivial.”
Greenstein said that such a culture is what lies between where the state system is and where it needs to be.
“If we want to address those technical challenges and get to a better place for our students and our university and our state, then we’re going to have to stand up together as one body, lock arms, suspend our disbelief in one another and, as one body, say ‘enough,’” said Greenstein. “We cannot control the demographic and the political and the economic trends that are hammering away at this and virtually every other university, but we can control how we behave and interact with one another. We can transform our culture. When it comes to our culture, we run this place.”
Greenstein predicted such a culture change would open the door for “inclusive, courageous discussions” to “chart a course for this university.” He said the keys to such a change include showing respect, offering trust and listening.
“These are things we’re taught as children. These are things we teach our children,” said Greenstein.
Greenstein suggested using the opportunity at a system redesign as an opportunity for such a culture change. He added that he believes the system will face all its challenges successfully “by mobilizing our collective talent, tapping into the passions that we share and releasing our entrepreneurial spirit.”
He added, “I can’t promise you that you will like every decision that I make, but I can, and I do, promise the following: that I will work tirelessly for all our students, regardless of their zip code, regardless of their background, because all of us have an opportunity to succeed; that I will strive for greater equity and social justice because it’s the right thing to do and because it’s also a deeply held personal commitment that I made to my parents and that I made to my kids.”
Greenstein then opened to questions from the audience.
An audience member in the front row asked about the misrepresentation of funds and specifically a report compiled by Howard Bunsis on the financial health of KU and PASSHE.
“These reports said that this university and this system as a whole is actually doing extremely well, and we’re constantly misrepresenting our funds and we should have lower tuition,” said the audience member. “So why is the board of governors increasing tuition when we’re in financial revenue?”
“We cannot survive by increasing tuition,” responded Greenstein. “If you look at the enrollment declines by income quintile, it is very clear that our tuition increases are driving our students away… There is a hazard in our turning away from students we have historically served.”
“I would push back on the financial health of the university. Our university is incredibly fragile,” said Greenstein, adding that he intends to be transparent with financial data.
Greenstein was then asked about where he sees the state system down the road and emphasized system unity and shared resources.
“I see a university system where presidents, leaders, universities are leveraging resources across the system in very specific ways,” said Greenstein. “I spoke to a student yesterday who had to go to Spain to do her minor in Spanish because she could not get access to those courses on her campus. I’m thinking to myself ‘do you mean there is no other Spanish taught anywhere else across the system?’”
Greenstein added that, while universities share “back-end” resources, he’s observed a demand for “front-end” resource sharing.
Following the Q&A session, Greenstein toured the Pennsylvania German Cultural Heritage Center.