Provost addresses 2009 Quality Issues Forum

May 04, 2009

Rod Erickson, executive vice president and provost, spoke at Penn State's Quality Issues Forum on Friday, May 1 at the Nittany Lion Inn, addressing quality improvement and strategic planning and their roles in helping the University meet the challenges it faces. Following is the full text of Erickson's remarks.

Good afternoon. I'm delighted to join you on this special occasion to recognize the accomplishments of 59 Continuous Improvement Teams and their Quality Initiatives during this academic year. I commend you for your valuable contributions to the University, and encourage everyone across Penn State to learn from your example.
Classes began at Penn State for the first time 150 years ago, in the spring of 1859.  At that time, according to historians of Penn State, the campus was still mostly cow pasture, and the only building — the original Old Main — was still under construction. There were five faculty members and 69 students, all studying agriculture. It was probably the lowest student-faculty ratio we've ever had! Judging by the photos of that time, these students were not your typical college students going off to study Latin and the classics. It was a working college. The town that would become State College consisted of three buildings and a dirt road. 
I mention this brief history not just because we're proud of the tremendous growth and accomplishments of Penn State over the past 150 years. I'm contrasting Penn State "then" and Penn State "now" in order to point out that all of this change didn't happen smoothly. There wasn't a road map that early University leaders could follow that automatically took us to today's University. There were serious financial obstacles, differences of opinion and lots of hard work by thousands of people. At times, some were convinced that the older ways were best, that Penn State had progressed to the highest plateau possible. The lesson here is that we're still moving forward, that the University isn't going to stay just like it is today. In 10 or 20 years, the physical landscape, academic programs and the way we operate will have changed — and changed some more.    
I'd like to talk briefly today about Penn State's current state and what our strategic planning has set out for the future. Even before the financial crisis hit last year, higher education was struggling with increasing costs for employee health care, rapidly increasing utility rates, deferred maintenance of facilities, as well as the need for more modern classrooms, labs and student housing. There is declining public financial support for higher education these days, and states have competing priorities for funding — for Medicaid, basic and secondary education, prisons and other obligations.  
At the same time that our costs are rising, the demands and expectations for university services are increasing. Student expectations for modern facilities and cutting-edge academic programs are rising. There are increasing expectations for learning outcomes assessment, technology infrastructure and compliance with new government regulations and mandates.

Near the end of 2008, the value of university endowments in the U.S. fell sharply, along with base state funding for public higher education. The financial challenges have forced most colleges and universities to adopt some combination of wage freezes, furloughs, layoffs, travel restrictions and a slowdown in campus construction projects.

At Penn State, family budgets for our students have also been impacted by the decline in financial markets. More students are approaching the Student Aid Office for financial help. We're trying to keep tuition increases as low as possible. You'll recall that Penn State was asked to give back 6 percent of this year's appropriation because of a drop in state revenues, and we're concerned about our state appropriations for the coming years. We're filling fewer open positions, deferring some planned maintenance and conserving wherever we can. Fortunately, Penn State is conservatively managed and is in better fiscal shape than the vast majority of other institutions.

Since last year, a University Strategic Planning Council has been working on Penn State's next Strategic Plan.  After review of all the unit strategic plans, and the work of seven task forces, the Council has created a plan, called "Priorities for Excellence: The Penn State Strategic Plan 2009-10 through 2013-14," which we hope the Board of Trustees will endorse two weeks from today. We believe we can enhance the quality of a Penn State education while being even more efficient in providing that education. The strategic planning process is all about identifying the strategies that will meet the challenges facing the University.      
The Strategic Plan has seven overarching goals. They are to:

  • Enhance student success. This is fundamentally what we are all about and why we exist — for the students.
  • Advance academic excellence and research prominence. This goal reflects the recognition that the education we provide is grounded in the discovery of new knowledge and creative activity; it's what makes a research university like ours different from most of the 4,000 other colleges and universities in the nation.
  • Realize Penn State's potential as a global university. We know that the best universities of the future will be highly integrated with other universities around the globe, and our students must graduate being globally literate citizens and able to function in a global society.
  • Maintain access and affordability and enhance diversity. Penn State was founded as a college with blue collar roots and we have always been mindful of the ways in which education transforms lives and creates opportunities for all.
  • Serve the people of the Commonwealth and beyond. Our role as the Commonwealth's land-grant university creates a special public mission of engagement for us.
  • Use technology to expand access and opportunities. Technology is the backbone of nearly everything we do at the University today, and we must continue to invest in technology so we remain highly effective in teaching, research and service.
  • Control costs and generate additional efficiencies. This will be the grand challenge in the years ahead — how to keep cost increases moderate, tuition affordable and the doors of access open to qualified students.

This last goal is especially relevant to our team recognitions today. Penn State has already recycled $173 million through internal reductions, reallocations and cost savings measures over the past 17 years. One of the key strategies for Goal 7 is to promote CQI and reward innovation. This strategy recognizes the long history of success of CQI at Penn State and its continued potential to produce cost savings, better service, and increased efficiencies.           

The vision of CQI is to create a community where everyone takes ownership for advancing the University, where high value is placed on teamwork, collaboration, communication, and meeting the needs of the people we serve. CQI is about improvement and innovation, improving institutional performance by identifying processes that are central to the mission, identifying stakeholder expectations and using data to improve them. It's all about excellence — in performance, people and processes.

CQI has truly made a difference at Penn State – in better service, better quality, streamlined processes, less redundancy, greater cost savings and fewer "silos." 

Since 1991, more than 850 Continuous Quality Improvement Teams have been created. As I noted earlier, we're honoring 59 teams this year. Their work cuts across Penn State's many services and locations.   

I'd like to cite just a few examples from the teams we're honoring this year.

Arts and Architecture Revenue Generation Team
– Is investigating ways to generate additional revenue for the college and departments, and they are also creating a revenue sharing model that will motivate departments to generate additional revenue. 

University Messaging System Working Group in Finance and Business – Includes members from all IT departments within Finance and Business, working to improve collaboration among all F&B units, as well as identify cost savings.

Direct Loan Implementation Team – A good example of a cross-functional team working within a limited time frame. This was a combined effort of Finance & Business, Information Technology Services, and Undergraduate Education. This group swiftly changed the systems and processes used to process loans so that students could receive loans through the Direct Loan Program of the U.S. Department of Education. It made a significant difference for 40,000 students who needed loans for the 2008-09 year. 

Electronic Student Aid Award Notification – This team in Undergraduate Education is working to notify new students by email that their Student Aid award is ready to view in eLion. Previous notices were sent by U.S. mail to students' permanent addresses. Expect cost savings and faster communication with students. 

Minority Recruitment Team at Penn State Erie – The team is conducting focus groups with students and working on new strategies to increase minority student enrollment. 

Office of Research Protections CQI team – The team developed an Intranet Index that will comprehensively organize information across the human subjects protection program. The system will be readily accessible and user-friendly. 

Digital Collections Review Team in the University Libraries – This team will coordinate several aspects of selecting materials to be digitized from the Libraries collections, seeking to avoid duplication of effort, conferring with subject specialists on the needs of the Penn State community and recommending methods of assessment for digitized collections. 

These are just a few of the success stories that all of you recognized here today have created. 

Students don't apply to Penn State because of the great processes that we've developed or because of the strength and rigor of our strategic plans. But they do come because Penn State "works."  Student applications are handled promptly, housing assignments are made, snow is plowed, classrooms are scheduled and maintained and high quality learning takes place. Our students have a better experience at Penn State because of all of your contributions. Your work leads to greater academic success, quality research, and better word-of-mouth recommendations. When several thousand people are doing their jobs in a better way, it makes a big difference. We thank all of our 59 teams who are being honored today, and celebrate your accomplishments. 
I'd like to ask Louise Sandmeyer to return to the podium now to recognize Gary Schultz. Gary has contributed to the University in an outstanding manner over the past 37 years. In addition to his effective leadership of Finance and Business, Gary has strongly supported quality improvement and has sponsored many CQI teams. Louise will tell you more about Gary's contributions.

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Last Updated September 04, 2020