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Class discussion
Context for Planning: Challenging Times for Higher Education

These are challenging times for higher education across the nation, and Penn State is no exception. Nearly every aspect of higher education is being impacted as we face global, national, and state economic recession. In many ways, the current recession has brought into sharper focus the myriad of challenges facing the University. Shifting demographics, rising costs of operation, a changing competitive landscape, reductions in state appropriations, pressures for accountability, and widespread economic downturn characterize the environment in which Penn State currently operates. These pressures will clearly necessitate changes, and require the University to find new ways to improve teaching and learning, advance discovery and creativity, and serve our many constituents—while becoming a more efficient and effective institution.

Despite the obvious challenges, these are also times of opportunity in which we must move forward strategically, recognizing that we always have finite resources. We must innovate. We must prioritize. We must continue to think boldly. Penn State can do more than withstand the current challenges; it can emerge as an even stronger institution that is highly competitive among its peers. A key to emerging a stronger university will be creating a sustainable university, not just in conventional environmental terms, but sustainable in a wide array of resource dimensions, including fiscal sustainability.

Penn State, with its roots in the modest Farmers’ High School, has grown into a large and tremendously diverse university. It is today among the most complex universities in the nation, with a broad array of responsibilities, physical locations, and stakeholders. Penn State has blossomed, especially in recent decades,and is ranked among the top tier of universities in the world.

Penn State is a research university of great accomplishment, by any measure nationally and globally, with a faculty of great distinction that contributes enormously to the body of knowledge and creativity for social and economic betterment. Penn State exists fundamentally to educate and serve our students—a commitment we must always remember—but what makes us different from most of the other 4,000 higher-education institutions in the nation is our quest for discovery of the knowledge and creativity that we disseminate to our students and, in many cases, they help us to accomplish. This quest for discovery reaches across every campus of the University, and our standing as a major research institution is a critically important reason that students, both graduate and undergraduate, choose to study at Penn State. The translation of research and knowledge to the public is the basis for most of the outreach services the University provides.

The University will clearly rise and thrive on the ingenuity and commitment of all of its stakeholders, as it always has. Yet goodwill, commitment, and hard work are not enough. If there is a single linchpin in our consideration of what Penn State must do in the coming years, it is that priorities must be set in the ongoing pursuit of excellence. Penn State is already a very efficient institution that has accomplished great things with limited resources, but the University needs to think very deliberately now about the choices that it makes—including, perhaps, to shrink, consolidate, or eliminate some programs and activities—in order to build on areas of existing strength and invest in promising new ideas.

Penn State has relied on ongoing, University-wide, participative strategic planning for twenty-five years. This process can continue to help us establish priorities, make choices, and enhance excellence amidst changes that are bringing both increased challenges and greater opportunities.

Looking ahead to the next five years and beyond, University faculty members, trustees, students, staff, and administrators have engaged in a planning process through which they have deliberated about both short- and long-term issues and choices. They have drawn extensively on the various strategic plans that have been created by each of Penn State’s major administrative and academic units, and have also brought their experiences and expertise to bear upon information about the external environment for higher education and a wealth of data and reports based on the University’s internal analyses and metrics.

Looking forward at both challenges and opportunities, we highlight serious and difficult questions:

  • What does academic excellence require, how is that changing, and how can Penn State continue on the path toward excellence?
  • What are the keys to attracting and supporting top graduate and undergraduate students, and achieving greater student-centeredness, enhancing teaching and learning, and promoting interdisciplinarity?
  • How can the University prepare for substantial demographic shifts as the traditional pool of four-year college-bound 18 to 21 year olds in the United States and Pennsylvania shrinks, immigrant and minority populations grow, the population ages, and labor force expectations and demands change?
  • In a highly competitive national and international market, how can the University continue and extend its ability to hire and retain outstanding faculty and staff while balancing resources among multiple demands and responsibilities?
  • How can the University continue to grow its global presence, and work toward meaningful and important objectives with international partners?
  • How can strategic planning and decision making best contribute to the University’s ability to enhance diversity?
  • For many years, the Commonwealth has lagged behind other states in indicators relevant to higher education, as in its rank near the bottom in per-capita appropriation of state tax funds to higher education. In a time of reduced flexibility for federal and state support for higher education, how can the University cope with such funding realities while protecting quality, access, and affordability?
  • How will Penn State cover its essential expenses, with rapidly increasing costs for energy, health care, technology, facilities, and more, particularly in the face of an economic downturn?
  • What does it mean to be a land-grant university in the twenty-first century? In all that we do—including outreach, extension, and service—how can Penn State maintain the fundamental connection to its academic core and to academic excellence?

Research universities possess enormous strengths, including the ability to solve problems, address societal needs, provide a hotbed for technological advances, sustain the nation’s inventive capacity, promote creativity and artistic accomplishment, contribute to economic development, and educate the workforce of the future. Penn State certainly fits this set of attributes. Nonetheless, potential undergraduate and graduate students may choose from a vast array of colleges, universities, and delivery modes. Top faculty members have many options about where to work. Funding agencies, foundations, and donors have many choices about where to direct grants, contracts, and charitable contributions. Our goal in the planning process is to help the University address such challenges and to make Penn State ever stronger, more responsive, and more relevant to state, national, and international needs.

In this strategic plan, the dominant theme is finding ways to enable the University to continue on its trajectory of excellence. Some strategies that have been identified are cost saving in nature, and will serve to make resources available for other uses, including reductions in the rate of tuition growth. Some strategies are cost neutral and mainly require shifting emphasis or changing the ways in which we go about doing our work. But it must also be understood that many strategies for excellence require new sources of funding, and that funding obviously will be in short supply during the next few years. Many of the more costly strategies will not be possible to effectuate in the near term, but will nonetheless retain a high priority for investment as economic conditions improve. The resources to fund other high-priority strategies must be made available by doing less of something else, or doing it more efficiently and effectively, and we must always be ready to seize opportunities to leverage University resources during what will likely be a period of substantial federal and state stimulus programs during the next few years. We must balance current fiscal realities with continued optimism and our vision for the future, all with an eye toward sustainability.

By setting priorities wisely and making smart choices, Penn State can continue to accomplish great things.