PASSHE Op-Ed: State System strategic review key to Kutztown University’s future

As a member of Pennsylvania’s State System of Higher Education, Kutztown University of Pennsylvania is part of the strategic review being undertaken by the State System—a top-to-bottom examination of the operations of all 14 System universities and the Office of the Chancellor.

What does that mean to an individual university such as Kutztown, which is facing the same challenges that many other institutions within the State System and across the nation are facing?

The intent of the strategic review is to help identify new opportunities that will allow us to continue offering the highest value proposition, which is to best serve students in every region of the Commonwealth through high-quality, affordable educational opportunities for years to come.

The numbers tell the story: Overall enrollment across the System has declined by more than 12 percent—or by nearly 15,000 students—over the last six years. The System is receiving about $60 million less from the state this year than it did in 2008, prior to the start of the recession, and an amount essentially equal to what it received in 1999. That’s $60 million less to support the operations of the universities. The status quo is unsustainable.

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Kutztown University, like all of the institutions that comprise the State System, has been around for more than a century. It was founded in 1866 by residents of upper Berks County as the Keystone Normal School on the site of what is now the university’s Old Main. As the needs of the region grew beyond training teachers, the school expanded its mission and was designated Kutztown State Teachers College in 1928 as it followed the same progression as its sister schools—eventually becoming a state college, and then a university in 1983 in order to provide wider access to higher educational opportunities for the region.

Throughout its history, Kutztown University has evolved to meet the needs of its region and the Commonwealth. Just as time marches forward, so too must our vigilance to ensuring our universities remain relevant and continually change to match the demands of the 21st century and beyond. Kutztown’s Department of Sport Management and Leadership Studies is one of only 24 programs in the United States accredited by the Commission on Sport Management Accreditation. The American Institute of Physics recognizes the physics program for producing the highest average number of undergraduate physics degrees in Pennsylvania among schools where the bachelor’s degree is the highest level offered in the subject.

Kutztown University is taking the appropriate steps to evaluate how it fits in the continuously changing higher education landscape in the region, in the Commonwealth, and in the nation. That System needs that kind of introspection, which is why we have engaged a consultant with expertise in higher education management to assist with the strategic review, and why it is so important that the Kutztown community be actively involved in this process.

The review will be comprehensive and open to all possibilities. There have been rumors and speculation that some of the universities within the System could be merged or even closed as a result of this strategic review. That is not the goal. The review is about finding solutions that are right for Pennsylvania, and ensuring each university is meeting the needs of its students, its region, and the Commonwealth, today and for years to come. What happens as a result of the review—the changes that could be made in future years—must, first and foremost, benefit our students.

We will gain valuable information by looking at the universities individually and collectively. That is one of the advantages of being part of a System—the ability to leverage each institution’s strengths, to share information, to identify what works well and what doesn’t, and to adopt best practices from each other. Every university in the System can learn from each other through this process.

Higher education often is slow to change, but we are working with a sense of urgency. Given the enormous challenges facing virtually every college and university today, change is necessary, and inevitable. We want to be able to guide that change in a positive direction. We approach this challenge with optimism. Kutztown University, like the entire State System, already is seizing the opportunity to change for the better.