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Episode 56

transformed: Maintaining Traditions through Disruptive Change

In this episode, Dr. Bashar Hanna – President of Commonwealth University – discusses the importance of maintaining the cultural traditions, mascots and branding of the three institutions that are consolidating to form this new school serving Central Pennsylvania.

References:

Dr. Bashar Hanna, President of Commonwealth University

Commonwealth University of Pennsylvania

Joe Gottlieb:

Welcome to transformed a higher digital podcast focused on the new why’s, the new what’s, and the new how’s in higher ed. In each episode, you’ll experience hosts and guests pulling for the resurgence of higher ed, while identifying and discussing the best practices needed to accomplish that resurgence, culture, strategy and tactics, planning and execution, people, process, and technology. It’s all on the menu because that’s what’s required to truly transform. Hello, welcome and thanks for joining us for this special presidential series edition of transformed. My name is Joe Gottlieb, president and CTO of Higher Digital, and today I am joined by Dr. Bashar Hanna, president of Commonwealth University. Bashar, welcome to transformed.

Bashar Hanna:

Thank you so much, Joe. Happy to be here and look forward to our conversation today.

Joe Gottlieb:

Well, I’m looking forward to it too, because I know you’re right in the middle of what must be a very disruptive change as you bring three institutions across four campuses in central Pennsylvania together to form Commonwealth University and how you are maintaining the important traditions of those institutions while pursuing your North Star for what Commonwealth University is to become. But before we get into that topic, I want you to share for our listeners a little bit about your personal journey so they have a feel where you are coming from as you do your work in higher ed.

Bashar Hanna:

Joe, thank you again for the opportunity. My story is probably not unique, but it is the core of why I do what I do today. My parents, immigrated to the U.S., and brought their seven children with them in 1977. I was, 10 years old entering fifth grade, and I spoke not a single word of English. I won’t belabor you with the, difficulties that a 10 year old has when he goes to a school where no one else speaks Arabic, and I don’t speak English, but I will tell you that my fifth grade teacher, Mrs. Kulick, gave up her lunch period almost every day for the better part of a whole academic year to review flashcards with me and teach me English. That sacrifice that she made, is the burning desire today that I have to focus on not giving up on any student and making sure students are our highest priority.

Bashar Hanna:

Because it’s not just an honor to serve them, it is also our responsibility to serve them. So my story is one of a first generation immigrant. I’m the first in my family to graduate from college so underneath everything I have done or, and will hopefully do in the coming years is that desire of education changes lives. And Mrs. Kulick’s sacrifice during that year of 1977/78 set that burning desire in me, to never allow circumstances, never allow circumstances to dictate your path forward, and allow others to help you. What we are doing at Commonwealth University is, something that has not been tried in Pennsylvania, especially among the state schools within the Pennsylvania state system of higher education. We are taking three historically successful institutions and integrating them into one university.

Bashar Hanna:

Uh, Commonwealth University, uh, is a vision to transform higher education in rural Pennsylvania. Uh, the three institutions that have come together to create Commonwealth U are Bloomsburg, Lockhaven, and Mansfield all reside in a ru in the rural parts of the Commonwealth. Um, one of the things that we looked at very deliberately is to find common nexus spots of Nexus so that we can actually identify where our priorities of continuing to serve our students, um, need to reside. Uh, the, the strategic conversations we had focused on a couple of things that we wanted to make sure were absolutely, um, showstoppers or musts. Um, and one is that the focus is always on the student and their success. And two, to control cost, to make sure that the education is always affordable. Uh, we are privileged by having about 40% of our student body, uh, being Pell eligible, which means they are the most financially needy students of, uh, at, at universities and colleges.

Bashar Hanna:

Uh, and we take that very seriously, and it is a point of pride for us. So our goal was to minimize debt, maximize quality, and make sure that opportunities were extended to students throughout the entire, uh, north central region of Pennsylvania, which is highly rural. Um, you know, one of the things that I think is really fascinating as I learned more and more about the dynamics of the communities that we live in is population densities in rural America, especially rural Pennsylvania, are certainly not on a positive slope or a positive trajectory. Hmm. Um, and as you know, Joe, much of what we do sometimes winds up being counterintuitive. Uh, we often believe the grass is greener elsewhere. So we go out and recruit students to come to our campuses from afar, um, and those students come and they do well and they graduate, but ultimately they almost always leave and go back home or go somewhere else.

Bashar Hanna:

Uh, that was one of the strategic pillars for us at Commonwealth View, was to ensure opportunities for local students to consider us a destination of choice. Uh, because again, the data, uh, confirms that students who go to college within 75 miles of their home, uh, um, are, are almost always more likely to remain in the region where they grew up. Uh, and we saw that as a huge opportunity, um, maybe an opportunity we sort of tripped over, um, and didn’t plan for. But nonetheless, we saw it as an opportunity because if we attract our local students to our campuses, uh, they’re more than likely to stay in the community, become a professional, uh, hopefully buy a home, um, find a partner, become a family, uh, continue to pay local taxes, become a homeowner, uh, and spend money in these small towns that need every citizen to be a critical member of that community.

Bashar Hanna:

So those ancillary musts became really important for us because we wanted to ensure the traditions of each of the campuses that made up, that make up commonwealth view were respected, honored, now, and into the future. So that’s, that was one of the pillars we sort of tripped upon. The second pillar was expanding opportunities. Um, and as, as you can imagine, the smaller the enrollment on a rural campus, the less likely an institution can remain comprehensive and offer the full array of academic programs. But when you bring three institutions together that are within 90 miles of one, one another, and you combine the resources, uh, and the faculty genius of all three campuses, you really are able to expand opportunities for students instead of what normally happens at small rural campuses, which is decreasing opportunities. And if you wanna study X, you have to go three hours away because we no longer offered that degree.

Bashar Hanna:

Uh, and we are absolutely delighted that our Mansfield students, for example, now have access to twice the number of academic programs they had available to them. Pre-integration. Our LOCKHAVEN students have about a third more programs available to ’em than they did before integration. Um, and the Bloomsburg students have access to graduate programs like a physician’s assistant program at Lockhaven that was not available to them pre-integration. So again, keeping that North star alive in that everything we’re doing is about the student and their success, and tangentially keeping the local students on our campuses, uh, allowed us to create a narrative around the positives that could come out of integration. Um, you know, um, culture is amazing things. Uh, it’s an, a culture is an amazing thing because every one of our campuses had its own unique culture, and we wanted to very much embrace those cultures so that the local communities did not feel a sense of alienation and abandonment with the integration into Commonwealth View.

Bashar Hanna:

So we committed to maintaining our athletic programs on each of the campuses. Um, and that, again, is a direct link to keeping the students front and center. Um, our student athletes are critical to our vibrant campus environment on each of the locations. Um, we have created, we have begun to create a sense of real pride in when the those, when the, when the, uh, campuses play each other, uh, in an NCAA sanctioned football game or wrestling match or volleyball match or soccer match, um, so that we’re actually creating new traditions of, you know, which team among the three won the most matches this year, or the most games amongst the other, um, partners of Commonwealth View. And, and those things, um, have really resonated with the local communities, um, to the point where it has become almost visible that we’re seeing more fans at games than we did pre-integration.

Bashar Hanna:

Um, and I think that really speaks to, um, our focus on both the internal community and the external community. Um, you know, uh, the things that happen in small rural communities, all you hear about is migration out. Hmm. Um, and what we are noticing, and, and this is only a year, is that some of our students who graduated from one of the three campuses this past may have really been reluctant to re go home. Um, they’re seeing, uh, a churning of a corner. They’re seeing vibrancy, and they’re also seeing that we are, we’re honoring the things that they cherished when they selected one of our campuses, uh, as, as their destination and home for their college life. Um, but ultimately, as you know, we live in a world of what have you done for me lately? I, my team and I are perfectly comfortable with that cliche.

Bashar Hanna:

Um, and we will continue, uh, to do everything we can to make sure that the local communities of Mansfield, Lockhaven, and Bloomsburg not only continue to embrace us, but to become an integral member of the internal campus fa campus fabric, because we need them and they need us, and we will survive and hopefully thrive together. Uh, it’s a long-winded, that’s a long-winded way of introducing why Commonwealth University has come to into existence. Uh, but I wanted to do a justice because it really has been, uh, an entire village or three villages coming together to nurture this vision together.

Joe Gottlieb:

No, I’m glad you did. It’s, it’s, um, it’s great to hear that sort of background and it really sets the stage, but I wanna just quickly make sure we capture what were the primary drivers for this. I mean, a lot, a lot of this was economics, right?

Bashar Hanna:

Absolutely. Um, you know, much of it is economics, uh, and whether, whether it’s comfortable for us to talk about about it, and sometimes higher ed is not comfortable talking about economics. Uh, a part of the driver was economics. Um, imagine a situation where you have three physics classes running, uh, at Mansfield, Lockhaven, and Bloomsburg, each with 50% of the seats empty. Yeah. But you’re still running three sections. Um, and these three sections are all, uh, teaching comparable material. So there’s, there was a sense of creating efficiencies that could emerge from this, uh, integration, but with efficiencies come opportunities. Um, so realistically, we are investing in student success centers. Uh, we are investing in ways that our students can get additional services, uh, in order to be able to truly, um, not only survive but thrive on the campuses. Um, comprehensive universities, uh, are incredibly, um, important entities and the communities they serve.

Bashar Hanna:

And it was becoming harder and harder for our smaller campuses to remain comprehensive. Um, and when you are no longer offering programs that are attractive to students, what you will see is that your diminishing enrollment diminishes a little more. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>. Um, so we wanted to make sure we were creating a regional comprehensive entity that served all of the local communities within Central and North Central Pennsylvania. Uh, and we didn’t want our students to feel that they have to travel three hours, uh, to go earn a degree of their choice, because there were no choices for them locally. So those were some of the drivers, um, you know, economies of scale. Um, you know, one of the things that our faculty have done, and I applaud them because, again, change is hard for human beings. Uh, our faculty have come together and have created a single general education program for all the students regardless of the site.

Bashar Hanna:

At, of the site that the student enrolls. Uh, we created a single application. So, you know, if, if, if Joe Gottlieb wants to apply to Commonwealth University and Joe doesn’t know which campus, uh, he wants to call home, he can check off all three locations, um, and visit all three, and ultimately decide I want to be at Mansfield. Uh, and then everything flows from there. Uh, we didn’t want students having to, to fill three separate applications. Uh, and I know I’m getting a little bit in the weeds here, but, uh, we listened to our students. Uh, we surveyed current students and prospective students as to how do they perceive an institution of higher learning, meeting their needs and efficient, kept coming back, uh, straightforward, kept, kept coming back as ways, especially this generation of high school students perceive, uh, a responsive university or college. Um, the, we have made the commitment that every general education course will be offered in person on all sites of Commonwealth View.

Bashar Hanna:

The first two years of all programs can, will be offered in person. Some of the upper division electives in our smaller niche programs, um, will, excuse me, will be, will be, um, cycled through all the campuses. So on a given semester, a student may not have the opportunity to take all their courses in person, uh, where one course may need to be, uh, via distance education. Uh, but we felt that by doing this, we could meet the final pillar of the drivers. And it is that is to keep cost down for our students. Uh, and we are so fortunate because, uh, for the last four years, um, we have been able to freeze tuition for our, for our students at, at all three campuses and, and now Commonwealth View. Uh, and hopefully, uh, if the right dominoes fall in place in the next few weeks with our state budget, we’ll be able to announce a fifth year of zero tuition increase.

Bashar Hanna:

Um, and that is really partly that part that that last imperative or that last driver Joe, speaks to exactly why, uh, the Pennsylvania state system of higher education came to existence in 1983, and it was to serve the lower and middle income families of the Commonwealth. And we, we want to not only honor that, uh, premise of our founding, our founding pillars and, and our founding mission, but also make sure that we’re living it every day in every way we can. And ultimately, uh, as I started a little earlier after those drivers, we wanted to make sure our students had the opportunity to earn a degree at home, uh, without needing to leave and go 200, 300, 400 or 500 miles. Um, and, um, 50% of the students that earned their degree almost stay where they earned it. 70 to 80% of the students that go within 75 miles of home return to their home community if they’re able to find gainful employment.

Bashar Hanna:

Uh, we have created, uh, something that I’m very proud of, um, professional u uh, we call it at Commonwealth View, where students actually participate in a real world experience at least once every year for the four years. They’re on campus with a culminating experience of either an internship or an externship during the summer between junior and senior year. And what we’ve learned, uh, is that if the student does well in these internships, and we prepare them that they should do well, uh, many of them get a job offer. Uh, so we have now begun to partner with area businesses and corporations within our local regions, uh, in order to make sure that they now begin to see our students as a priority. Um, local businesses can’t thrive without a great workforce and without thriving communities for people to come live and, and flourish. So it really became a full circle of us investing in our students, the local community partnering with us so that they can invest in our local students. And ultimately, this is, this is a work in progress, Joe. Um, you know, time will tell the next three to five years are gonna be critical to, uh, show, uh, the progress that we’ve begun to sort of feel through the data and see through the data. But as, as you know, this is not a one year experiment. This is a multi-year, if not a multi-decade experiment.

Joe Gottlieb:

Well, it sounds like you’ve already started to accomplish, uh, some of the original objectives, which is super exciting. But again, I wanna go back a little bit and wrestle a little bit with, gosh, there’s so many dimensions of change here, and as we, as we sort of burrow into what can be learned from how you grappled with these different dimensions of change to, to get to a place where a commonwealth view is now starting to yield, uh, the fruits of that labor. I’ll just rattle off a few, right? Lacey, you’ve got campus level versus institution level, and of course you’re, you’re operating within a state, you’ve got, um, you’ve got cultures. So I’m sure we’ll get into some of that, uh, different cultures, but maybe a target culture that you want to have for what common you, commonwealth u is all about. You’ve mentioned the student first obsession, which everyone is increasingly having to step up to, but I can feel it in your voice, right? How that has meant and how that has shaped this. There’s, there’s non-degree versus degree location versus virtual care and stick motivations, lots of different dimensions. So maybe you can take me a few of these, take me through a few of these and, and, and articulate as part of the problem set that you had to stare down when you embarked on this journey.

Bashar Hanna:

Yeah. Uh, thank you. Uh, this is really, um, part of, um, almost a dissertation, a PhD dissertation that somebody might one day look back on. And, and I don’t want to do that once you do it once in a lifetime and once is enough. Right. <laugh>, uh, but, but you’re so right, Joe. Um, one of the things that we grappled with is the local microcultures. And sometimes there are micro microcultures within cultures. Um, we are both privileged and challenged by what we encountered. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>. Um, and I, and I’ll, let me, let me start with the challenge. The challenge that we all encountered is, uh, Bloomsburg is the largest campus of the three. This is gonna be a takeover, not an integration. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>, uh, this is basically a hostile takeover by the 900 pound gorilla. Um, I endeavored with my leadership team to make sure our Bloomsburg colleagues in every task force and committee that they participated in, to know that that notion is out there.

Bashar Hanna:

And we can do one of two things. We can enhance a and advance the notion, or we can nip it in the bud and really make sure we are continuing. Uh, and thank you for saying that. We, you know, you can, you can feel it and hear it in my voice about students first. Uh, I said, I want you to start every meeting with let’s make a commitment that we’re going to do everything we can in our power to keep our students first and end every meeting with asking ourselves a question. Did we do everything we can in this meeting to make sure that our students continue to be our North Star? Um, one of the things, it’s a privilege that we can do that. As I said, uh, it, it’s a challenge because change is hard. Cultures are very difficult to undo. Uh, but we are privileged by the notion that there is no one who goes into higher education, who doesn’t at their core believe we do it in service of our students.

Bashar Hanna:

And I will, uh, be the first to compliment the 500 faculty on all three campuses, um, that were willing to take that leap of faith with us and really, with very few exceptions, um, keep their eye on that north star. And that’s, we are here in service of our students. Um, and I will tell you, sometimes, um, you know, there’s a, there’s a carrot and there’s a stick. And with all due respect, sometimes the stick is as effective. But I am a avid believer of only using it when you absolutely must, must deploy it. Um, when enrollment is dwindling for a decade or more, and you’re seeing very little, uh, progress towards curbing that downward slope, um, there is inherent incentives there that you bring up when you’re talking with people. Let’s try something different. ’cause everything we’ve tried so far really has not stemmed the tide of eroding enrollment.

Bashar Hanna:

Um, and it’s both a carrot and stick, um, because we all go into education because we want to teach students not teach, uh, empty desks in a classroom with just one or two or three or four students that are there, um, eagerly sponging our knowledge. Um, so, so the notion of being able to grow the enrollment so that we can make an impact, uh, the way we used to when the demographics were different, when the enrollments were robust and when the campuses were a buzz, um, was really incredibly important for us. And so we couldn’t get there without having some difficult conversations on the front end. And those physical difficult conversations had to do with budgets that were in the negative structural issues that were leading to one negative year after another negative year, after another negative year. Uh, the cost of higher ed in Pennsylvania is tremendously high compared to the other 50 states.

Bashar Hanna:

Uh, even as a public institution, we tend to still be incredibly more expe, much more expensive than institutions like us in other states. So there were ways that we interjected the things we have control over and the things we don’t have control over. And as the, as the prayer said, you know, knowing the wisdom between the two is really critical. And, and I, and I embarked on conversations with groups, let’s identify the things we can do differently. Let’s identify the things within our control. Let’s identify the things we can do for our students once they arrive. And let’s make sure we not only look at the students that arrive on a particular, um, beautiful August or September morning. Um, let’s look at the students who were freshmen last year, and are we retaining them? Are they progressing towards their degree? The, the, the students who were sophomores last year, they’re gonna be juniors.

Bashar Hanna:

Did we lose any of them? And if we did, why did we lose them? Hmm. Um, so, and I will tell you, there isn’t a faculty that I interacted with in the last two years that had anything negative to say about embracing division of why a regional public needs to be at its core. Students first, um, you know, location. Uh, many of our faculty believe that you really, truly need to have a vibrant campus in order to be able to, uh, do your good work. And we made a commitment, uh, that our student facing operations, everything from academic advising, to tutoring to the libraries, uh, to the financial aid officers, there would be a presence on the campus. So they’re not having to call a campus that’s an hour away to talk to their academic advisor or to talk to someone in the business office to coordinate paying a bill or to talk to someone in financial aid.

Bashar Hanna:

Um, where we realize efficiencies is in the back office operations. Uh, a student doesn’t care if their bill is generated from, um, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, or New York City or Chicago. Uh, that’s, they’re, they’re gonna get an email that says, your invoice is ready for processing police process it. So we also, at the same time, began to identify the things that didn’t impact the student experience mm-hmm. <affirmative>. And we tackled those things first. Uh, we had three presidents. It started with the leadership team. Um, and the decision was made. We only needed one president. Um, we had three provosts. The decision was made. We needed one provost. By doing that, from the leadership from top down, it sent a message to our colleagues who were at the lower ranks of the organization and less paid members of the organization, that this isn’t really about eliminating those that are serving students on the ground.

Bashar Hanna:

It’s about finding efficiencies together. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>. Um, and we have been very fortunate. Uh, we have not laid off a single person. We had vacancies that we didn’t fill, but we have been very fortunate. Uh, only two faculty members have been impacted. The rest, uh, of the faculty, uh, either, uh, we, we realized the numbers we needed by retirements or buyouts. Um, so when you do that and you do that systemically, and the, the, the term I, I shared with you previously is you can never over communicate here, because the rumors are many. And when there’s a void of real communications every week, maybe even three times a week from the leadership team, the rumors become fact, Joe. Uh, so we made it a point that we put out an update twice a week, uh, every week, uh, to all stakeholders, um, from our trustees all the way down to our commuter students, to our local elected officials.

Bashar Hanna:

And we did that because we realized very quickly that, um, when somebody misinterprets X and they hear y and they share y with their neighbor within five minutes, Y becomes the fact not X. Yeah. Um, and we’re still, we’re still learning more about how to communicate with our stakeholders because no two stakeholders want to be communicated with, uh, the same way. But, but the dimensions we fought through, uh, are those things that we were able to both capitalize on in helping move the, the conversation forward, but also simultaneously realize efficiencies that we are now in a position to start putting, investing back into students and their success.

Joe Gottlieb:

So, okay. So that, I, I love the way you described the, the, some of those dimensions and, and really gave some color to that, um, because it really is a multi-dimensional problem. And, um, and now I want to sort, I want to go into then talk a little bit about some of the, the methods you use to manage this, because that’s at the heart of what you’ve been up to lately. You’ve, you’ve, you’ve alluded to a few of them, but let’s spend a little bit of time on that now. Where, where, I know you’ve talked about some, making some big commitments early on that set the tone for the way you were gonna go about this. And again, we’ve alluded to some of those, but if we could touch on those and then get into some, maybe some examples of the methods used. Yep.

Bashar Hanna:

Um, absolutely. Um, so, so as I mentioned earlier, and I think this is really, um, a perfect, uh, time for us to, um, reemphasize and, and recant those, um, expansion of student opportunities was the number one driver for us. Maintaining affordability was a must for us. Uh, but also recognizing that the demographics of the school districts that surround our three locations are very different financially. Uh, the average household income, uh, in the school districts that surround our campuses is less than $50,000 per year. Hmm. Uh, so we are not only dealing with families that have very small, if any resources, but also families that traditionally don’t have a robust number of members who went to college and appreciate the importance of a college education. Not withstanding the critiques, higher ed continues to suffer through some of it well deserved some of it not so well deserved recently.

Bashar Hanna:

Um, so it was, the commitment we made was to really begin partnering with our local school districts. And we partnered with 60 school districts that our neighboring school districts to each of the campuses of Commonwealth View. And we, we decided to do this, Joe, for two reasons. One, many times the school personnel are the most influential personnel on families and on high schoolers that don’t have people at home who went to college and experienced college life. Uh, and we also made it very clear affordability was going to be our number one priority. Uh, so we created what we call the local scholars Merit Scholarship Programs. So each student in the 60 school districts, based on their, um, academic, uh, abilities, um, received a generous merit scholarship renewable for up to four years to any of the sites of Commonwealth view of their choosing. Um, we brought in the superintendents, the principals of those school districts, um, and we began to do crosswalking of programs.

Bashar Hanna:

Uh, one of the things that I failed to mention earlier, and I’ll mention here because this actually is a huge dimension of what we’re doing. When we agreed, um, and reached the point of integration, the faculty decided that every academic program that was going to be maintained post-integration was going to be reviewed for currency and relevancy. So the 90 academic majors that we offer at Commonwealth U were reviewed by faculty and, and basically rewritten. Uh, so every one of our programs is current relevant and has been reviewed by faculty committees within the last 18 months. That never happens at an institution of higher learning. Typically, you have a five year review, and every five years a fifth of the programs get reviewed. And it’s a, it’s an ongoing cycle. So our programs are all new. So we shared the academic programs with the school districts, um, and we also began to recognize there were students capable of college level work, uh, in high school, but the high schools didn’t have the resources available to offer the repertoire of AP courses that some suburban and urban high schools can do.

Bashar Hanna:

Uh, so we partnered with those high schools to begin allowing juniors and seniors who are ready to take courses either remotely or on our campuses for pennies on the dollar. I think a three credit course costs students $150. Um, and if families weren’t able to afford that, we had scholarship dollars available for students who were worthy but couldn’t afford that. So, to make a long story short, and I don’t wanna be over wind, uh, long-winded with this, we are, we are looking at how can we get our, the students to our campuses, but get them when they arrive, maybe as a second semester freshman. Um, and that way, not only are we giving them a General’s Merit scholarship, we’re also reducing the time to degree attainment by one semester, also reducing the cost by one eighth, because that final semester of their, they don’t need to be in college.

Bashar Hanna:

They don’t need to be enrolled. So the affordability piece was gigantic for us. Um, this is all in addition to four years of frozen tuition. Um, the, the things that we decided were musts for us were the maintenance and honoring of the local campus cultures. Um, our Mansfield campus has 1800 students on it, very different environment than our Bloomsburg campus that has 8,000 students on it. Um, and one of the things we committed to, both, to our students and faculty, is that we’re going to make sure we nurture and honor and advance those microcultures that are created, because a student who chooses to be at an 1800 student campus is a very different learner, and may make, might make that decision consciously and doesn’t wanna be at an 8,000 student campus. Hmm. And vice versa. Um, so those were the kinds of things. As we rolled out Commonwealth View last summer, uh, for the enrollment of this fall’s coming class, we really focused on making sure people realized they were enrolling at a campus of a larger university, but that the campus had its own traditions and its own ways of doing business.

Bashar Hanna:

And that resonated with the student body. Um, and I will share with you, maybe this is premature in our conversation, but I will share with you, um, we are incredibly fortunate, uh, that the incoming class at Commonwealth View is 250 students larger than the incoming class that we realized last fall. Um, so again, one year a day, a trend not make, I, I’m well aware of that, but if the early indicators are that our integration, our plan to honor our local communities and our local campuses is any indication that’s connected to the students that have deposited and have come to new student orientation and will be joining us on August 22nd as first year students, uh, we feel that we’ve begun to turn the corner and that our message is resonating with Pennsylvanians and, um, their, their stu their families, about 50% of the incoming class will be from, within 75 miles from one of our campuses. So again, early, early indication that our, our emphasis on our local community, um, have begun to, uh, yield fruit.

Joe Gottlieb:

So in this last bit, I wanna, I wanna, I wanna pose two questions, which may or may not be related. And that is, how did you, how did you manage trust? How did you, how did you really invest and, and create an atmosphere of trust? And what role, if any, did incentives play in that? Because they, there, there’s a little bit of, there’s a push-pull relationship, um, and they’re, they’re very related in my mind, but I’m wondering how it played out for you. No,

Bashar Hanna:

They’re, they’re absolutely related. Joan, thank you for asking that. Uh, I think, you know, trust is on a trust is something that you, uh, never realize 100%, and you pray you never lose it. 100%. Right. Uh, I think trust is something you build by being, uh, forthcoming, uh, by following up, by being true to your word, by being true to your commitments. And you need to continue to do that because, uh, you can spend 11 months and 29 days building trust, and in one day of the entire 365 day year, you can lose all that trust by one misstep. Hmm. So, so I’ll share with you that the leadership team and I have made a commitment that transparency, no matter sometimes how ugly it is, has to be part of our fabric. Um, even if it’s the worst news, I think our colleagues deserve to hear the truth instead of some, um, lipstick applied narrative, uh, that really is, uh, masking the truth, which is gonna lead us to not a better place, a worse place.

Bashar Hanna:

Yeah. So I think that is number one, being transparent, being honest, and again, being true to your words. So if you say, this is, we’re gonna do it this way, and if you decide you’re not gonna do it this way, go back to the group and say, look, we, we felt we could do it this way. And here’s, we found there’s more data, um, and we are gonna be guided by the data, and here’s where we are. I think showing that kind of vulnerability in that, I don’t have all the answers. None of my VPs have the answers, that more brains sometimes in a room are better than less brains if we’re all rowing in the same direction and keeping our attention on that north star, who’s the student, um, you can, you can solve any problem, um, that, that you’re hit with. So, so trust is an ongoing a experiment.

Bashar Hanna:

Um, and I’m, I’m honored, I’m delighted. I’m fortunate, uh, that I think you turn a corner at some point, I don’t know when we turn a corner, but the conversations with internal stakeholders are now about how do we become, um, the destination of choice for students who actually want to come and change their lives both socially and economically. Hmm. That’s all you can ask for. Yeah. You know, I’m a, I’m an example of, I’m a living example of what a college education can do for a family. Um, my family, as you heard, came here with nothing. Uh, my children are benefiting from their grandparents’ hard work to put their dad through college, and they’re not struggling with the same things I struggled with. And so, so those from the heart stories, Joe matter. Yeah. I think my colleagues, uh, I, I don’t hide who I am.

Bashar Hanna:

I don’t hide the fact that my father had to work two jobs and my mother had to work a job in order to keep food on the table. And sometimes every other third Thursday would be breakfast for dinner, because that’s all that was left in the cupboard before the paychecks came home. Uh, for me, that isn’t, and, and, and I haven’t owned that ev every step of my life. As you get older, you become wiser and you realize, uh, these are, these are things that created who you are, and you need to embrace your roots and be proud of your roots. Um, so those things matter when you’re talking to your colleagues, when you’re talking to parents. Um, you know, most, most parents have this vision of a university president that his father was a PhD, his mother was a PhD, or they were, they were higher ed leaders, or, and, and that’s not who I am.

Bashar Hanna:

So that’s the trust piece. I think the incentive piece is really, uh, uh, one of those very delicate things that you have to, um, navigate very carefully because it, it’s a balancing act that can go awry. Uh, and it can also be a balancing act that could really create haves and have nots. Hmm. Um, so we, we are intentionally taking, uh, a step back and looking at our, um, enrollment figures by department, um, retention figures by department completion rates by department, uh, every key performance indicator that we can come up with. And looking back three years and looking ahead two years and really creating a base, a baseline for every academic department. That’s fair. That’s, um, grounded in data. And for two years, no one will see any quote unquote, God willing, any punishment or punitive measures in their budgets. But as we move forward, slowly, part of a department’s budget is going to be based on, um, how are you maintaining the class size?

Bashar Hanna:

You’re recruiting for the fall in partnership with the admissions team. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>, are you improving your retention from year two to year three, year three to year four? And are your graduation rates better than the university average in four or five and six years? And, and the reason we’re doing it this way is when, one, we don’t want to create chaos, shock the system, but we also can’t continue to basically say, here’s the peanut butter. We’re gonna spread it evenly across all departments regardless of how well, or something else they did their job. Because that is really a disincentive for those that are busting their humps and working themselves to the bone to live the mission and the vision of Commonwealth View. So that’s the balancing act. Um, and it’s a work in progress. And again, the experiment is two years in and we’ll know in two years whether, uh, it we’re we, we hit the nail on the head, or we need to tweak and, and pivot.

Joe Gottlieb:

Well, it sounds like a solid foundation, uh, and something to build on. And, um, I’m sure you’ll, you, you’ll evolve it as needed. Alright, so let’s bring this to a close. What, let’s, can you articulate, I don’t know, three takeaways that we should offer our listeners on this topic of, of maintaining a North star and treasuring, uh, the things that you want to preserve while managing this kind of disruptive change, uh, across these dimensions, which we’ve been talking about today. So what are some of the takeaways?

Bashar Hanna:

Yeah. Well, first, uh, Joe, thank you for the opportunity. Uh, this has been a delightful time to spend a few minutes with you. Uh, I, you know, I think, and again, I, I believe I embody this and it really is my, the deepest parts of my core. Always remember your mission and who you’re called to serve. Uh, because if your internal drivers and the mission and who you’re called to serve are not in alignment, you’re not authentic. Um, change is inevitable. I mean, look at, look at what’s happening in our country in higher ed alone. Um, and if you don’t embrace it, um, I, you know, my word to my colleagues is if we don’t embrace it, be careful of what comes next because it’s gonna be a tsunami of the, which we may never, may have never experienced, um, on a campus. Um, and I think ultimately, and this goes back to the program, uh, array that was reviewed by our faculty, uh, innovate to stand out.

Bashar Hanna:

Uh, I think the days of being everything to everyone may be behind us just given the demographic shifts we’re seeing in our, our country. Uh, you don’t wanna be in an ocean of the same fish because ultimately you will not have any niche or any brand equity that you can stand on and continue to do the good work we were called upon to do. And I think ultimately, um, we must always embrace and champion and be proud of who we are. Uh, we are a regional public university. Uh, there is absolutely nothing wrong with, um, high caliber, uh, low acceptance rate institutions. They have their place in society. I respect them and honor them. But we too have our place in society and we were called upon to meet the needs of the low and middle income families of the Commonwealth. And that’s what we’re doing.

Bashar Hanna:

But I wanna do it and do it in a way that I’m proud of it, not whispering it down the lane, uh, economies of scale are critical. Uh, and if we don’t confront, confront them and solve them early on, Joe, uh, they will become that drain that you can, or that hole in the boat that you can never plug. Um, and finally, I can’t, I can’t not end this way. Um, the student is our North star. Um, and without them we don’t exist. And I think that’s probably the best place for me to finish this. And to thank you for the time and this delightful conversation.

Joe Gottlieb:

Well, it’s a, it’s, I can feel the power you get from that North Star, even when you mentioned how you begin and end meetings. You know, how are we gonna shape this meeting to serve? And did we do that, uh, Stu serving the student as our North Star. Such a great summary. Um, Bashar, uh, thank you so much for joining me today.

Bashar Hanna:

Thank you for the opportunity. Enjoyed it very much. Have a wonderful rest of your day.

Joe Gottlieb:

And thanks to our guests for joining us as well. I hope you have a great day and we’ll look forward to hosting you on the next episode of transformed.


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About The Host

 

As president of Higher Digital, Joe supports customers with strategy development, change management, and strategic operations. He is energized by the complex challenges and profound opportunities facing higher education and is motivated to have and share discussions around these topics.

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