Lessons Learned for Boards from PASSHE’s Path toward Integration

By Christine Smith, Baker Tilly May 27, 2021 June 1st, 2021 Blog Post

Opinions expressed in AGB blogs are those of the authors and not necessarily those of the institutions that employ them or of AGB.

Higher education is the last, most reliable engine of economic development and social mobility, yet even before COVID-19, the industry was grappling with serious obstacles that were then amplified by the pandemic. Declining affordability and decreasing enrollment have created fiscal challenges for many institutions, including the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education (PASSHE), within an economic context where students most need the benefits of a degree. The session we presented with PASSHE Chancellor and CEO, Daniel Greenstein, and PASSHE Board of Governors Chair, Cynthia Shapira, at the AGB 2021 National Conference on Trusteeship explored the role that board members play in making big, bold and transformative changes to institutional programs and operations to ultimately achieve fiscal resiliency, while also enhancing students’ access and success.

Effective governance to drive transformative change

Integration success is only possible through effective governance and should:

  • Put students first, emphasizing their success above all else
  • Drive action through an analytical, goal-oriented approach using comparable measures
  • Embrace radical transparency
  • Adopt inclusive and consultative processes that respect traditions of shared governance
  • Ground the integration in defined and agreed-to core principles

The board should effectively play the dual role of advocate and objective assessor. Support leadership in thinking outside the box, yet ensure that recommendations are based on data and facts and align with the institution’s mission. Ask the tough questions and insist on candid answers. Once convinced, commit to unwavering support of, and advocacy for, the integration.

Keys to collaboratively “figuring it out”

The board and leadership must be on the same page relative to achieving what “the future” looks like. Be specific about what the “it” you are driving towards is. Cost efficiency in a vacuum is not a driver of productive change, therefore the bigger picture must be clear – how specifically is this better for students? The board is the first stop for considering and clearly articulating options and potential impacts.

Board and key leader partnership for assessing and mitigating risk

Given the highly regulated and requirement-driven nature of higher education (especially in the public sector), the decision-making and approval process for any integration must be viewed with patience. A carefully crafted plan for each step of the approval process (e.g., faculty, Council of Trustees, Board of Governors, union, accreditors, state/federal departments of education) and iterative consultation and communication plans are key.

Lessons for boards and governing bodies from the PASSHE process

To summarize, we recommend the following leading practices for institutions considering a strategic integration.

  • Think broadly and boldly about the possible
  • Take courageous action
  • Emphasize a data-driven approach
  • Move quickly and call for action over a reasonable, yet compressed period
  • Expect a planning/exploration process with extensive stakeholder involvement
  • Align innovation to market demand and student needs
  • Consider the identity of local communities
  • Undertake an iterative process
  • Focus on measurements
  • Highlight benefits around transformation
  • Communicate, communicate, communicate

Christine Smith is Managing Director at Baker Tilly.

With Thanks to AGB Sustaining Sponsor: Baker Tilly

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Christine Smith
Managing Director
Baker Tilly