Clarion Conversations: Clarion University President Emphasizes Focus on Serving Students, Region

| September 23, 2019

CLARION, Pa. (EYT) – Clarion University President Dr. Dale-Elizabeth Pehrsson says Clarion is focused on serving the needs of both their students and the region as they move forward. recently sat down to speak with Dr. Pehrsson, who took over the helm at Clarion University just last year.

“I’ve been here about 15 months now, and my husband and I, we just love it here,” Dr. Pehrsson said.

“We deliberately chose Clarion, and we were glad that Clarion chose us because we like small university towns, and we love living in rural America. We love the hills, we love the green, we love all of that good stuff.”

Dr. Pehrsson came to Clarion University following a number of years of some turmoil and changes that were not universally lauded, and with an understanding that building back up the university’s relationship with the local community would have to be a priority.

“One of the things that I’ve been talking about since I’ve been here – and I’ve been mentioning it to all of the people on campus in our academic leadership, the deans and the program leaders – is the impact and the importance that the university and the responsibility that the university has in terms of economic development. That can only happen in partnership with the community.

“The community are the experts in terms of what jobs are needed, what regional issues need to be addressed, and so to make decisions in the ‘ivory tower’ without conversations with the community is arrogant and ill-informed.”

Dr. Pehrsson has been hard at work helping to form and develop those community connections, meeting with alumni and community groups, as well as attending community events, to foster a better relationship between the university and the surrounding area.

“We’ve also developed the Venango Workforce Advisory Council, and I’ve met with the hospital, and it’s not just me. The deans are also charged to do that and to do outreach. All the expectations are that the academic programs need to be in partnership with what the regional needs are, in addition to what our core curriculum is.”

According to Pehrsson, her husband, Bob Pehrsson, has also begun to play an important role in those developing relationships.

“He’s on economic development, he’s on the blueprint board, he’s on the census committee, and all of those things are so important,” she noted.

“I also go to a lot of different events. I can’t go to all of the events I’m invited to attend, but I try to go to as many as I can, and I often will hear someone say ‘we haven’t had a president at an event like this before, thank you for coming,’ and I hope I continue to hear it less as they say ‘oh you’re back.'”

That breakdown of barriers that seemed to have developed between the university and the community is taking place on another level, as well.

“We’ve done some things with the downtown and the borough with the benches, so the benches are kind of connected with the campus down Main Street. We worked with them so that they are very similar in design so there’s this continuation from the campus to the core of the downtown area.”

“We’ve also done some other work with the community. The other night I think there were about five or six downtown business owners, Jim Cooks, Weins, the bookstore, and a few other places, that had that Friday night event welcoming students to the downtown area. It was well attended, there was music, it was a lovely event. So I think we’re doing a lot of things to bridge that.”

“We’re also doing a lot of things to encourage the students to walk downtown more and opening things up. Even the work we did in front of Still Hall, just pulling out those trees, which really was kind of a barrier, and redoing the sidewalks, it kind of creates an openness, not a block of ‘oh, this is where the Suites on Main are.'”

In a rural community, like the local region, one of the issues that sometimes comes up, and can create more of a barrier, is the somewhat pervasive stereotype of a university as a kind of liberal stronghold, pressuring students into a certain worldview.

“That’s a tricky topic,” Dr. Pehrsson said.

“I laugh because we have everything on this campus from very conservative to very liberal employees, whether they’re faculty or staff, and the students are in that mix, as well. So, I think that Clarion’s pretty lucky in the sense that we’re pretty balanced in terms of the way we have our worldview.

“I do think that as long as we continue to have good relations with our community and work together toward that end that we’ll break down some of those stereotypes. I think that we’re all in it for the community, to make the community better, and to make our students better, so I wouldn’t own that too quickly here.”

Making the students better, and fostering their education and development to the highest degree, is another major focus for the university.

“I think what really makes us different is that everyone at this institution knows it’s about the students. No matter whether they’re a 17- or 18-year-old or they’re a 38 or 45-year-old, older student, they want to make sure that student gets through and has their experience. They’re really not just a number here. We have relationships with all of our students.”

“Even if they’re a virtual student, our programs like our library science program, you have students from all over the world, and our faculty have figured out how to have these amazing connections with these students using digital platforms. I think that’s probably what makes us unique. Not all universities can say that, and for us, every student matters.”

That focus on the students also extends beyond academics into their overall well-being, especially with the increase in suicide rates both locally and on a national level.

“We understand that our population is a high-risk population for suicide,” Pehrsson said.

“For our students that are here on campus or digital we have mental health services, and we have counseling available. We also have what is called BART, which is basically a behavioral alert system where anyone who is concerned about a student can enter information to make sure that that student is checked upon.

“Our health and wellness center has also totally revamped the way it assesses and triages people so that student no longer have a wait time. If they have an issue, they get seen.

“We also have a wonderful graduate program in mental health counseling and opioid addiction prevention. We’re helping our students but we’re also educating the region. That’s an area we’re working on as well.”

“This is something that’s on our minds. We have probably one of the best protocols in the state and the best team. Our team goes out and trains others and gets consulted with a lot.

“You can’t prevent every person who is at risk, and as a president, and as a parent, and as a friend, there’s nothing worse than being the person who has to call and talk to somebody about when that happens, so we all take it very seriously.”

Another thing that has been on the minds of the leadership team at Clarion, according to Pehrsson, has been “taking back the backyard.”

“We’ve got an amazing enrollment management person in David Dollins. He came to us about two and a half years ago. He is really an expert in enrollment and retention and recruiting, and what he did was he found out we hadn’t been paying attention to our backyard.”

According to Pehrsson, an in depth analysis of Clarion’s recruitment efforts and students was the first step in revamping their information and how they reach out to potential students.

“We started our Advisory Council for Admissions with local and regional school councilors, and I met with them a couple of times. They had so many great ideas to help us inform them better about what we’re doing.”

“I think you’re going to see…well, we had an uptick in enrollment in freshmen this year, for the first time in ten years, so I think the seeds that have been laid and worked on the last two years, I think we’re beginning to see some of that come to fruition.”

Pehrsson noted that pieces of the puzzle include working closer with regional school districts and also developing further developing pivotal STEM programs.

“That’s a really important area for us to develop and that’s newer for us. We’ve done some of it within the elementary education structure, but that’s an area we really need to focus on because those skills are so critical for any job of the future, whether it’s hands-on in a manufacturing lab or it’s somewhere in a research center. Those skills are critical.”

According to Pehrsson, when it comes to the Clarion University, a lot of the issues boil down to one thing.

“Clarion’s not just a university in the PSSHE system, we are the region’s university.

“We are here to serve the region. That’s what we do, that’s our job.”

(This is the first article of a series of articles focusing on Clarion University’s Administration.)

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