Photo of a campus clock tower behind trees with autumnal foliage


Building the 21st-Century Public University

As chancellor of Pennsylvania’s State System of Higher Education, Daniel Greenstein questions decades-old assumptions about higher education to ensure the system works for both Pennsylvania’s students and the state economy

Daniel Greenstein is an expert in large, foundational educational change, along with its accompanying heightened stakes and challenges. Working as a senior administrator for the University of California system and leading higher education strategy at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Greenstein experienced how the most effective changes are the ones in which professors, administrators, and front-line staff are equally invested in a new mission and direction. 

“We’re learning how to craft a 21st-century higher education system so that it can serve a broader population of students and do it effectively,” Greenstein tells The Elective. “It’s a huge project, and a big cultural shift for higher education.” 

Greenstein is taking on that project as chancellor of Pennsylvania’s State System of Higher Education. The Keystone State poses no shortage of challenges, like a shrinking population of traditional-age college students and sharply declining enrollment rates for many of its public colleges. Making the system competitive, accessible, and relevant for Pennsylvanian students means shifting the mission and mindset of public universities. In addition to winning political trust and funding, Greenstein must also challenge faculty and staff to continually reach students in a new way, given that an increasing number are in the market for short-term credentials rather than the four-year experience. “We can get good at [offering credential programs], but we’ve got to work toward it,” Greenstein says.

The Elective recently spoke with Greenstein about the evolving mission of public higher education, what it takes to get faculty and staff onboard with change, and why fairness can be a unifying concept in a politically divided state.

Headshot photo of Dan Greenstein with his arms folded, on the left, and the logo of Pennsylvania's State System of Higher Education, on the right

Pennsylvania's State System of Higher Education

What is the unique role of public higher education in Pennsylvania?  And how is that role, and responsibility to the public, changing?

Higher education is a very segmented industry, and different institutions have very different missions. At the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education, our mission is to provide affordable, career-relevant higher education to all Pennsylvanians. We are the people’s universities, built and owned by the state. It’s nice to think we’re autonomous, but it’s just not true. We are beholden to serve the state’s needs. They own us, invest in us, and our job is to look at what the state of Pennsylvania needs from our universities.

What the data show is that the state needs help in two fundamental ways:  

First, there’s a huge talent gap. The biggest need is for people who have master’s and bachelor's degrees in high-growth areas of our economy, places like healthcare, teaching, high-tech industries. That’s right in our traditional wheelhouse, and we can scale up to meet that demand.

The second (and more challenging) issue is that there simply aren’t enough traditional-age students to fill that gap. There simply aren’t enough new high school graduates in Pennsylvania to meet that need. So, beyond ensuring our higher education is affordable, we have to widen the aperture for our institutions. Adults who have never been to college, students who traditionally haven’t considered college, people interested in nontraditional programs that don’t look much like our normal degree programs—they all have to be part of our vision as a university.

Are universities the right institutions to meet that need? How can universities shift their focus to serve students who haven’t traditionally pursued higher education or who don’t necessarily want the traditional college experience? 

We have to shift the way we think about our mission. This is what our state needs, and we are the state’s owned universities, so we need to at least consider how we can change to serve a different population of students. A mindset of, “No, we can’t do this,” will have consequences—possibly the consequence of becoming a much smaller university system, but more problematically, leaving so many Pennsylvanians behind.

So, we’ve simply got to serve traditionally underserved students better if we’re going to continue asking for state support. There are attainment gaps between Black and White, rich and poor, urban and rural. Who’s there to fill those gaps? Where do you find the people who are going to earn those credentials? Who can we serve if we open the aperture?

It’s notoriously hard to create big changes in higher education, where decisions involve a lot of different stakeholders and a lot of formal processes that take time to navigate. Given these potential roadblocks, how did you accomplish big changes in Pennsylvania?

We were facing a real crisis. There was a fear that certain universities within the system were on the brink of financial failure, which would have been enormously costly for everyone. So, we set up a governance structure in which all of our universities are coinvestors in the system. They have a stake and a role in shaping and implementing the strategy. We made sure all of our individual presidents were engaged and really focused on building those leaders into a high-performing team that could take on these statewide challenges, instead of everyone just trying to survive on their own.

There was opposition to a lot of the plans we had to execute, and folks fought hard to resist some of the changes. But the only way to maintain state investment was to satisfy the General Assembly that we were serious about and capable of implementing reform. Our financial circumstances were serious, so there was a clear sense of urgency. We were transparent, and we engaged with folks in a spirit of fairness, but we just kept going. It was a journey, and not all of it was super fun. 

Dan Greenstein pointing at a computer  in a room with five other students while one sits at the monitor and another wears electrodes on his head

Courtesy State System universities

Given demographics in Pennsylvania and the long-term financial  challenges you were facing, some of the decisions you had to make were pretty drastic. How did you convince people that the challenging turnaround process would yield worthwhile and valuable results?

It was hard, and there’s no painless way to take hundreds of millions of dollars out of your operating budget or to reduce headcount at a public university that isn’t used to making difficult choices. But we did all of this in a way that was respectful to our faculty and to our employees, for example by using retirement incentives, and working very hard to find at-risk employees vacant roles in their own or at other universities.

At the same time, it is vital to invest in your people in ways that make sense for your new mission. You can’t just say to people, “Hey, now we need you to be a great online instructor!” You have to support people as they’re taking on new challenges, and you have to devote resources to the areas you’re trying to grow.

We are very honest with peoplefrom leadership to staffthat they are going to have to work differently to achieve the results our lawmakers and the people of our state need from us. The process is going to be interesting, but we’re going to support you along the way. 

It’s almost like you’re asking people to take on entirely different jobs from the ones they signed on for when they became professors or advisors or financial aid officers.

We expect jobs will evolve as our students do, as the needs of their employers evolve, and as technologies we use in our industry evolve. We’re talking about professional development on a massive scale—we’ve got more than 10,000 employees! This will be particularly important for people in student-facing roles. Engaging with adult learners is just very different from working with 18– to 22-year-old students.

But we also know we can get good at this. We’ve proven for decades that we’re very good at taking young students with humble backgrounds out of low- and middle-income environments and changing their lives for the better. We can get just as good at doing the same thing for adult learners, for people in the middle of their careers. I’m confident of that. 

Can you give some examples of concrete things you’ve had to change to serve more adult learners, more first-generation and low-income students, more people trying to balance school and work?

Let’s think about non-degree credentials—typically shorter programs of study that result in some kind of certificate testifying to competency in specific industry-recognized skills. We are not set up to handle such programs at any scale with existing systems that we have at most universities. From the registrar's office to the student information and billing systems, we’re set up to handle degree programs and degree-seeking students. So we’re putting in place a whole new student information infrastructure geared toward non-degree-seeking students, to help them discover what they’re interested in, then enroll and receive certification in a rich variety of non-degree credentials.

Part of that infrastructure involves identifying the competencies required to earn industry-recognized certificates in existing for-credit courses. By doing that, we can show students that if they take the right set of courses, they’ll be awarded credentials that will help them get good jobs in tech, in health care, in social work, or teaching, even in advance of their completing their degree. East Stroudsburg University, for example, offers students nearly three-dozen badges in business, education, sports administration, and other fields. Students earn these badges as they complete courses in pursuit of their degrees, and use them to get good summer as well as permanent jobs.

One thing I have learned about transformation and embracing new missions is that to make it happen, we have to spend time on very unsexy back-office stuff that is essential for institutional change.  

Dan Greenstein speaking to a lab full of nursing students in purple medical scrubs

Courtesy State System universities

How do you stay motivated for a big shift like this when you know it’s going to be years of work to be slogged through before you see clear results? 

I’m energized by the mission and by the challenge, and because I know that this opportunity won’t last forever. Serving this new population of students is a race that will be won by the swift, and public universities usually aren’t that swift. But we have an opportunity, in that many private institutions simply won’t make a transition to serving a different population of students. It’s just not in their ethos. But we do it because of our public mission.

Being chancellor of a public university means that you have to think about politics, and that can be especially challenging in an evenly divided state like Pennsylvania. How do you try to balance the competing demands on the university from people who may have very different political ideologies?

[The leadership guru] Brené Brown says you have to have a word in your head that focuses your values, and for me that word is “fairness.” I think it’s a good word to use in a polarizing political environment because it’s hard to weaponize. 

Pennsylvania is a red state and blue state—not a purple state where everyone is mixed together, but a state with a lot of very red areas and a lot of very blue areas. In that environment, words matter and can very quickly get associated with political ideologies and agendas. When you start with fairness, you can have a different kind of conversation that doesn’t automatically run you into those ideological walls. 

So much of the work in education is about building coalitions in the center. That’s where investment happens, that’s where progress happens. So, you have to work in the hardest part of politics, and that’s the center.

How do you handle the impassioned criticism leveled at the leadership that runs a public system, where there’s a lot of scrutiny both from state leaders and from your own students and colleagues?

If you’re going to make change, you may make enemies. And political discourse can be pretty venomous. So, you can’t take it personally. It takes courage to receive feedback with humility, and to give feedback with empathy. It takes courage to change course when you’re wrong. I’m not sure I had that mindset when I was younger, but I’ve developed it more now, possibly because of my age. I wish I had learned that stuff earlier! It has made me a better manager and a calmer leader. 

The more we can do to support young leaders in higher education, to help them develop their sense of values and direction, the more we’ll be able to take on the necessary changes that are coming for so much of the sector. We don’t have enough points of light in higher education, so we need to support those who are trying to make a difference.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.