The Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education recently merged six of its public universities into two multicampus institutions as part of an ongoing effort to maintain the system as a driver of economic development and social mobility in the state. State officials rewarded those efforts by approving PASSHE’s largest budget increase ever.
But amid this significant reorganization, a quieter, yet still noteworthy, change also occurred. PASSHE sold its Dixon University Center, the downtown Harrisburg building and grounds that formerly housed the Office of the Chancellor. The sale reduced operating expenses and generated an estimated annual savings of $2 million, according to Kevin Hensil, a PASSHE spokesperson.
The sale also provided the university system an opportunity to allow the office’s 27 employees to work remotely on a permanent basis at a time when colleges and universities are bleeding employees and looking for ways to retain workers feeling battered by the pandemic and burned out from heavy workloads. By being more flexible with remote work policies, the system’s leaders are also reacting to post-pandemic workplace pressures to innovate with the goal of optimizing employee productivity and job satisfaction.
“Most people enjoy working remotely, and it proves successful,” Hensil said. “While our staff has been working remotely, the state system successfully achieved several milestones for system redesign, including securing passage of a state law, Act 50 of 2020, authorizing the system to move forward with redesign, the integration of six of our universities into two universities—this required approval from the Middle States Commission on Higher Education and the NCAA—the restoration of the Legislature’s trust in the system and receiving the largest state funding increase in our history.”
The university center building is located on a six-acre site, which included five other buildings and an underground parking garage. It required extensive renovations when the system purchased it in 1992. The board approved its sale in August 2020.
“The exciting thing for us is that it’s going to get a really good use in the city,” Hensil said, noting that it was purchased by the Jewish Federation of Greater Harrisburg for use as a community center. He added that the chancellor’s office has maintained a limited “hoteling” office space in suburban Harrisburg for employee use when needed.
Proceeds from the sale helped finance the university system’s consolidation of Edinboro University, the California University of Pennsylvania and Clarion University on July 1 into an institution now known as Pennsylvania Western University—or PennWest. Months earlier, Bloomsburg, Mansfield and Lock Haven Universities in northeastern Pennsylvania consolidated under the name Commonwealth University.
“We would have ended up with education deserts in the western and northeastern part of our state,” PASSHE chancellor Daniel Greenstein said about the system’s trajectory had the redesign not taken place. Nearly 90 percent of PASSHE students hail from Pennsylvania, and approximately two-thirds live and work in the state for a decade after graduation.
Remote work options can help higher ed employers optimize recruitment and retention of a talented workforce, according to a 2021 College and University Professional Association for Human Resources study. Approximately two-thirds (64 percent) of the survey respondents reported that their preferred and actual work arrangements were misaligned—a majority preferred more remote work options. Also, employees who prefer remote work but do not have that option are more likely to seek work elsewhere, according to the study. Many value their reduced carbon footprint and personal well-being.
The COVID-19 pandemic has also nudged higher education leaders to consider flexible work options, though most have taken only tentative steps. One group of higher ed thought leaders, for example, released a Remote Work Continuum framework to help guide conversations about post-pandemic work. The framework reminds leaders that remote higher ed work need not be all-or-nothing proposition. In between a traditional on-campus model and a 100 percent remote model, the framework offers three hybrid models that vary by degrees. For example, an institution may maintain the same, a “possibly smaller” or a “much smaller” on-campus office space without forgoing an on-campus office space altogether. Also, some staff may work some days remotely or on a permanent basis. The hybrid models also feature flexible office and meeting spaces for use by remote staff. Many universities now offer their managers guidance for making decisions about flexible work arrangements.
Like the PASSHE leaders, administrators at Kansas State University’s Global Campus helped address budget challenges by moving to a permanent remote workforce in 2021. That move offered the university an annual savings of approximately $200,000.
Still, as higher ed leaders consider the future of work, only a small percentage (17 percent) envision increasing hybrid staff, and even fewer (2 percent) anticipate an increase in permanent remote staff, according to a survey by EAB, an education advisory board. IT, finance and procurement offices are expected to see the largest increases in flexible work arrangements.
Despite noteworthy benefits such as reducing on-site space needs, financial gains and attracting top talent, colleges and universities that opt for remote staff also face some challenges. Information security staff need to rethink data privacy for remote workers, especially with respect to “cloud vendor management, endpoint detection and response, multifactor authentication or single sign-on, preserving data authenticity and integrity, research security, and student data privacy and governance.”
PASSHE’s leaders were drawn to remote work for reduced on-site space needs, the possibility of attracting top talent and cost savings, according to Hensil, who was hard-pressed to name a drawback. PASSHE’s recent consolidation of universities has put the institution on sound financial footing. But like many other states, the commonwealth of Pennsylvania’s demand for college-educated workers is significantly higher than its supply. The chancellor plans to fill that gap both by serving traditional students better and by expanding the system’s reach to nontraditional students. Faculty and staff may need cultural competency training both to recruit and support a much larger and more diverse population of nontraditional students, according to Greenstein.
“Financial stabilization is hard, but that next phase strikes me as harder,” Greenstein said. “You need to change behaviors, mind-sets and ways of doing things at the individual level.”