End to ‘Business as Usual’ Seen as Key to Institutional Resurgence

(The following is drawn from remarks by Davie Jane Gilmour, Pennsylvania College of Technology president, during a Jan. 6 all-college meeting to open the Spring 2012 semester.)

Happy New Year!

I trust that your holiday was a restful, fun and productive time. I am ready to start a new year and hope that you will all join me in the opportunities that lie before us.

Today’s meeting will not be your typical all-college meeting.

As in any good classroom, I will review with you what we are to accomplish today. There are four parts to our meeting. First, some thoughts I want to share about the status of Penn College, our upcoming budget-building and our future. Second, some announcements or updates, if you will of important things going on across campus. Third and fourth are presentations short, but important presentations we all need to hear. The presentations are on health insurance and an exciting new direction in sustainability for us, single-stream recycling.

As in all classroom presentations, there will be assessment how we work together to accomplish our goals, face our opportunities and move forward; can we moderate our health-care costs with more healthy living strategies and can we make a difference in our lives by learning a new way to recycle, save money and enhance our environment.

I have heard that some of you in the room think I have lost my way. That budget numbers have become too important over students and learning. I emphatically challenge that rumor; it could not be farther from the truth. The facts are that, if we are to have the talent, the facilities and resources for us to thrive, we need to change the financial balance. There are a number of ways to do that, just like you do at home. Truth: Bring in more money or spend less. I welcome any other ideas on how to make it work. I am not remotely interested in lowering standards; in fact, given what we will hear in a bit about our student success or lack thereof, I suggest we may want to increase them. I don’t want to change our student-centered approach to teaching, learningor hands-on instruction, but we cannot be all things to all people. We will go broke.

I saw the preview to a documentary called “I Am” by Tom Shadyac. It looks fascinating, Tom was the director of “Bruce Almighty,” “Ace Ventura: Pet Detective” and “The Nutty Professor.” I confess, not my type of movies. But his documentary looks intriguing. You see, he had a near-death experience and, following that, traveled the world asking people two questions:

What’s wrong with the world?

What can we do about it?

The trailer tells us that we are all interconnected at a fundamental level, we are because we belong. In his journey to find out what is wrong with the world, he found out what was right with the world.

That idea really caused me to think and consider a new perspective on the challenges and opportunities that face Penn College. Maybe they are not challenges at all, but pure opportunity. Maybe it is time we change, not for change itself, but, through change, growth and assessment, we can stop “business as usual” and transform.

Success requires flexibility and adaptability on each person’s part. Price Pritchett and Ron Pound say, “Don’t brace yourself for change; loosen up and roll with the flow.” When tested, be a role model. They also state, “Attitude is one of the few things totally under your control.”

So as we talk about our opportunities, what can you expect? You can expect the truth. Later today, I will post on the President’s Office portal some budgetary facts that are sobering; they are truthful and they are real. Fact: Our enrollment was far short of what we had planned for in the fall and that must change. I never thought we would offer another retirement incentive and there is certainly no thought that this will become standard. But we did and I am sure some are giving it due consideration. I want you to know we were fair with those who retired in January and they were given the greater amount: 20 percent or 1 percent for each year of service. It was the right and fair thing to do.

I have asked every vice president to evaluate all positions, roles and responsibilities. We need to be working at our peak efficiency and productivity. Open positions are not likely being filled. Yes, I am asking people to stretch your workload, your ideas and your energy. Yes, it is true: I do want to give raises this year to all employees. It is fair and right. You work hard, we have talented employees we don’t want to lose. I am determined to try and make it happen. No area is untouched. For those who don’t think this applies to senior staff, we have eliminated vice president positions, secretarial openings are not being replaced and staffing is being reviewed there as anywhere else.

We will all do more with less. I have asked each cost center administrator to reduce their base budget by 10 percent. I also know that we have it better than most and we can afford to become leaner. As I speak to other presidents where colleges are in far worse financial environments, we are lucky. We, as an organization, are looking for initiative, risk-taking and creativity. You will also find on the President’s Office portal a form to submit budget reduction/cost-savings ideas. Let me tell all of you what I told the cost center administrators: Don’t tell me how another department or area can do better. Stop pointing fingers and look within; this is self-assessment time.

Fact: Enrollment growth is our key, as is retention. Not of academically unsound students, but students who, with a little help, could thrive.

Data tells us when students/parents visit, our likelihood of their enrollment is increases significantly. Ask yourself this: Why does the president have to write a message each fall and spring to get employees to volunteer for Open House? Is your job not worth a few hours on a Saturday or Sunday? Are you not proud enough working at Penn College to volunteer to help make our visitor experience a positive one?

We are a powerful economic engine in our community, we are a leader in hands-on technology education. No one can take that from us, and only we can give it up. Stop taking challenges and constructive criticism as personal attacks. Start exploring new ideas. Try something new and different. We need to be professional, we need to re-examine our core values and remind ourselves of our mission. Taking advantage of all that we have and all that we offer. Let’s take on 2012 as our year of renewal, change and growth as individuals and as an institution. Our future depends upon it.

Now, until Wednesday evening, I would move into the next section at this point. You see, I fulfilled one of my new year’s resolutions and did not procrastinate; I finished the draft of this message on Wednesday afternoon. But then the news came: a budget freeze at the state and we will lose $679,000 this year. We don’t have that money extra in our operating budget. I will ask the board to fund this shortfall from our fund balance or savings, if you will. While that addresses the issue short-term, this is clearly a harbinger of what may come for next year. This simply underscores our need to transform, to assess and to manage our resources as effectively as possible. I cannot change the reality, but we can all work together to change our world. We have to if we want to survive and I don’t like survival. I want us to thrive. As I said a few minutes ago, our future depends upon it.

Before the holidays, we lost a colleague and friend. If you were fortunate enough to know Chet Schuman, you could no doubt share stories about his love of golf, his girls, his grandchildren, his days as a runner. But for today I will share this: Yes, there are camels in Turbotville. In leaving Chet’s visitation, I saw a field and some camels. I was somber and looking off in the distance, so I wondered if I was right. My husband suggested they were llamas, not camels. (He did not see them, but doubted I could have seen a camel in Turbotville.) Well, guess what: There are camels in Turbotville and you will not be surprised to know Chet visited them. Chet was always curious and willing to ask he looked to the future and, therefore, with his grandsons, he simply knocked on the door and asked if he could see them. Once I heard that, I smiled, and realized that was Chet. He touched our lives in many ways and will be missed. Maybe Chet was sending us a message: Be curious, take risks and find new ways to solve the same old problems. Regardless, always remember: Yes, there are camels in Turbotville. To keep Chet’s memory alive, there is a scholarship in his memory. To date, 84 donors have contributed over $8,850.

To the announcements:

These next few months mark the final stretch of our stride toward completion of the self-study in application for reaccreditation with Middle States. I would like to take this opportunity to thank the members of the study groups who thoroughly examined and documented the college’s adherence to the 14 Characteristics of Excellence Middle States standards that institutions must meet for accreditation, the Steering Committee members who translated what the study groups found into the report, and you the college community who provided input, insights and data throughout the process.

The draft of the self-study has been on the portal for the past three months and many of you have made suggestions that have helped to improve it. The study groups will be completing their final vetting of the and, at the end of February, we will send the final report to Middle States and the members of the visiting team.

During March, Steering Committee members will be working to ensure that everything is in place for the visiting team members, whom we will welcome with a dinner on Sunday, April 15. Between that evening and the afternoon of Wednesday, April 18, you may encounter members of the team as they strive to confirm the evidence of our compliance with Middle States standards.

Once again, I am asking for your support of this important undertaking. First, read the final draft after it is posted on the portal. (An AdminWire notice will alert you when this occurs.)

Second, be prepared to provide directions or answer questions posed to you by the visiting team members when they are on campus. Some of you may be asked to meet with team members. We will alert you in advance, as much as we are able, to requests by team members for meetings with various members of the college. But requests typically change, often at the last minute, so keeping your calendars relatively flexible during those few days will be helpful.

Third, on Wednesday, the team will present its findings. Again, the college community will be alerted to the time, once we learn it. You’re encouraged to attend, if it is possible for you to do so.

The reaccreditation process provides us with an opportunity to look at the institution as a whole, to recognize what we are doing well and to consider how we can improve. As you know from the reports from the Steering Committee over the past two years, many changes have already been implemented. The four recommendations included in the report, which were reviewed with you last August, have now been incorporated into the college’s strategic plan and responsibility for implementing those recommendations have been assigned. We have undertaken this important task collectively, and I wish to thank you all again for your thoughtful feedback and your support of the process.

In reading the self-study, I am sure you then know that our internal governance system is key to shared planning and decision-making, and you know the importance of shared governance in reaccreditation.

Upon entering the auditorium this morning, you received a colorful flier listing the open positions for this year’s Governance elections. There are positions for all employees: faculty, APT, classified and service. There is even one position open on Curriculum Committee for deans and assistant deans.

You have two and a half weeks to learn about Governance. Visit the Governance portal and read about the committees and their activities; contact a committee member and ask questions. Think about all of your coworkers and who you believe would make a positive contribution.

Then, beginning Jan. 25, visit the Governance portal and nominate someone. Or nominate yourself. Or both.

Governance is shared planning, decision-making and evaluation. It does not work without your involvement. Don’t be shy. Let your voice be heard, and contribute to the process.

Congratulations! The employee contributions to the Penn College Fund stand at $98,653 as of today. Our goal is clearly in reach: $100,000 by June 30.

Knoebels seems like a good idea to talk about an amusement park during a cold week like this. We are going to change it up a bit. We know folks cannot attend and we have not been blessed with good weather the Sunday after commencement. We are moving our day at Knoebels to the fall and changing what we do. Yes, we are making the offering changes to manage our budgetary resources. We won’t be providing a meal, but drinks, tickets and snacks at a designated pavilion for us all to gather in early September. Details about the date and day will be forthcoming, and I hope we can continue to enjoy a day for family and fun.

The fall semester was yet another busy one for our first-year initiatives. We continued implementation of the Foundations of Excellence Final Report recommendations with the completion of three additional action items, bringing our total to 17 of 37 actions complete. The three completed actions include providing professional development on assessment, making assessment materials on the portal available to all and systematically sharing the learning outcomes of co-curricular activities with the college community.

The fall semester also witnessed implementation of FYE as a required course for all first-year students. This was a significant effort that was the culmination of six years of planning and assessment and involved the time and attention of more than 60 faculty and staff and more than 1,300 students.

Additionally, we introduced the use of MAP-Works, an online retention-management tool to help us identify and intervene with at-risk students earlier in the semester. In just its first semester, 680 referrals were made by concerned faculty and staff on 513 unique students. This is the type of effort we need to ensure that the academic, emotional and social needs of our students are being addressed. This semester, we will offer use of the program to academic advisers to allow them to more effectively anticipate and forestall student issues and assist in academic planning. I encourage you all to take advantage of the professional development opportunities available on MAP-Works.

In relation to academic advising, the fall semester included extensive professional development and numerous improvements to the online academic advising resource manual that was introduced in August. Also announced was the creation of the Excellence in Academic Award to recognize outstanding examples of advising that take place on campus every day. I look forward to presenting this award for the first time when we gather again in May. I will continue to emphasize the critical role that advising plays in the success of our students. If you have not yet taken advantage of the resources to help enhance your advising skills, now is the time to make the time.

Finally, we have made the transition from implementing first-year initiatives to making them a part of our culture by assembling the First Year Advisory Committee. This standing committee will oversee completion of the remaining FoE Final Report recommendations and provide ongoing oversight of first-year efforts and assessment of all first-year programs and initiatives. For more information on our progress with Foundations of Excellence, you can visit the President’s Office portal page and keep an eye out for upcoming College Wire and Admin Wire announcements.

If you are still wondering why we are so focused on first-year students, let me share a few numbers that I hope you will find as startling as I do. When final grades were reviewed at the end of the fall semester, letters were sent to 234 students who had just finished their first semester warning them that their semester GPAs fell within the 1.0 to 1.99 range. All of those students and their parents were invited to attend a workshop Wednesday to learn more about what it means to be on academic probation, and about the available resources to help improve their academic standing. In December, we sent letters to 207 students notifying them of their academic suspension for posting first-semester GPAs under a 1.0. That means that 207 students earned between a 0.0 and .99 first-semester GPA. They will not be on campus this semester, but the 234 will be. You may interact with them in the classroom, in your office or in a residence hall; they need our attention.

And, while we have always purported that the first year is an important one because of its role as the foundation of students’ educational experiences, we have duly acknowledged that the initiatives coming out of FoE will provide additional support to our returning students who also need our attention.

When we begin classes on Monday, there will be nearly 200 returning students at risk because of their academic probation status or multiple unsuccessful attempts at repeating courses.

Knowing who your students are, making the effort to reach out early and often, investing the time in an intervention to connect them with available campus resources is not just a good idea, it is critical to the success of these students, and therefore to our success.

Retention is an issue that every single person here today should be concerned about; therefore “working” to retain students is everyone’s responsibility. We will continue to assess the new initiatives that we have implemented over the last year, but rest assured that our work in this area is not complete. We need to aggressively continue to explore ways to help all our students succeed.

Beginning this month, Penn College Health Services is excited to announce that confidential services for minor illnesses, minor emergency care and health education will be available for all employees.

The clinic’s mission is to provide employees with the finest professional service in a courteous and safe atmosphere with the convenience of on-site health care.

Although College Health Services will not become an employees’ primary-care physician, we believe that easy access to these “walk-in” services will improve employee’s health behaviors and decrease time away from work.

The co-pay for this convenient service is $10. Any fees incurred in Health Services can be offset by using your Flexible Spending Account.

And a reminder that all records at Penn College Health Services are confidential. No one will have access to your medical record without your expressed written consent.

Watch the portal for additional details. We are pleased to bring this new service to all employees, and I thank Health Services for their work to make this a reality.

Have a great day, and may we all have a productive and positive spring semester.

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