Clarion University President Pehrsson Stressing Strong Community Connection

| December 11, 2018

CLARION, Pa. (EYT) – It’s been a busy half year since Clarion University President Dale-Elizabeth Pehrsson assumed the presidency on July 4, taking time to meet the community, staff, faculty, students, and alumni and also look at ways to grow enrollment, improve education, and better meet local needs.

Pehrsson, whose husband Bob is now a member of the Clarion Rotary Club, decided to drop by for Monday’s meeting and offer an overview of what she has been doing since “Independence Day.”

Excerpts from her presentation follow:

Getting to Know Clarion University 

It’s been a very busy five and a half months. I spent a lot of time getting to know our university, the different campuses we serve, the outreach campus in Pittsburgh, getting to meet with different community members, people on campus, maintenance and the facilities, the faculty, the alumni, the donors, and all of the people we serve.

Bob and I have been really trying to learn the area and the town. As a regional comprehensive university, Clarion primarily offers teaching and training so that individuals can graduate and prepare to live in their communities from where they came or elsewhere. We want them to stay in Pennsylvania and in the region because they have so much to give.

First-Generation Students

About 33 percent of our students are first-generation college students, so that means they are the first to carry the torch of going on to college or gaining academic degrees. It’s pretty exciting, and sometimes they have a coach who can help them; lots of times they need advice. If you have a parent who has gone through college, oftentimes they can offer that advice, but when you’re doing it on your own, it’s a little bit more challenging.

What I have found on campus are amazingly gifted and talented faculty who really are dedicated to the endeavor of educating our youth. We have another population of students that we are going to try to expand, and that is our adult population of degree completers. They may not have had the opportunity to complete college or may have stepped out for a while. That will help workforce development, which is another important aspect of what our university does. We have a lot of courses that are basic to education, but if someone’s getting a bachelor’s degree, they also have courses that help people in training for business.

Hearing the Sound of Clarion

Friday night I went to a wonderful concert in the Presbyterian Church by students and community singers. If any of you were there on Friday night, it was one of the most beautiful performances we have heard. We have one of the most amazing chamber choirs, and they were just accepted into their second international competition. We’re hoping to find the funds for them go to Wales. They learned so much working with an international population but also came back prepared to consider working in an international environment.

They’re much more aware of working across cultures and across countries.

The point I wanted to make about our chamber singers and our band is that years ago our university discontinued some of the music education programs here on campus and yet we have the largest chamber group and also the largest band that we’ve had in years, even when we had a major, with 138 students. They help recruit other students and that’s the reason I love band and chamber and the same reason I love the athletic programs, (the) debate programs, and different things we have is because the students that come to campus and participate in these programs have a 90 percent chance of graduating. If they work in groups and have support, they do well.

True North Planning

We set something in place called True North. True North is a short-term process of about four months to look at where the university is going in the next three to four years. We are not doing a long strategic planning process because we have done that in the past and with all of the things going on in higher education now, we just have to right ourselves right now define what our resources are and where we’re going to put them and prioritize because if everything is important, then nothing will get done. There’s only so much to go around. They will be finishing that report on April 1 and that’s a fast turnaround for academia because we can move a little slowly. We’ve been talking about it for years so let’s just get the ideas together.

Lowering the Price of Campus Housing?

Some of you know that we have very expensive housing on campus. It’s really not anybody’s fault, just a series of unfortunate events that happened, so we are meeting with the Clarion University Foundation, and we have a task group that by March 1 will have some pretty good ideas of how we can lower some of the costs of housing. The idea is the plan will also be able to open the other low-cost housing on campus and if we have an overflow that will roll out into the community. It will take a couple years for us to do that, but we’re on our way and we are looking at that. Even if it doesn’t expand a lot of opportunities for rentals in town, it will bring more students to town who will be spending more money and working at more jobs.

Recruiting Students and Stepping Up

David Dollins has been our enrollment management director for about one year. He started digging into the data, looking at all the counties where our students are coming from, where they’re not coming from, and where we lost our market share. We’ve been aggressively tracking our students, sending our recruiters out. Our faculty have come in on Saturdays for Discovery Days and the place is just packed. We know that on campus we are all part of recruiting. Here’s the appeal to the community: we also need you to help do that. We want you to want us to bring in our students, and I know you do. The courtesies that you extended are greatly appreciated.

We started something called the Step Up Program. Everybody has to step up and do their jobs together. This time last year we were up between that 36 to 50 percent in terms of completed applications and submissions. What we want is more completed applications for the fall. We’re ahead of last year, and that’s a good first sign. We’re also calling part of the program Taking Back the Backyard. We’ve not done a very good job of or got a little too comfortable by not going out to the different regions, different local schools in Clarion. We want to make sure they know about the programs we have to offer.

Reviewing Venango Campus

We did a review of our Venango Campus, and I’m going to be focusing a bit more on course development in that region. We have mostly nontraditional students who attend Venango, and their interests are slightly different than traditional students. We’ve got a couple of different populations that we can serve. We’re not closing down the Venango Campus if anyone hears that rumor. We’re going to make changes to better serve the students. The students going to Venango don’t necessarily want intramural sports and some of the other things that we have on the Clarion campus. Students want a good education, flexibility, and get their degrees.

Every year we have about $100 million in revenue and operating expenses at our university. And every year that we try to make that break even. Universities are not profit-driven, so we try to wash it in and wash it out. We’re a little bit over this year in terms of our expenses, a couple million dollars, because we had raises that came as part of contractual agreements that we just simply have to pay, and also we have a slight dip in our enrollment. With better planning and retirements where people leave for other reasons, we can move those positions to where there is a greater need. With a student recruitment program, we’re hoping to edge ahead.

Hot Programs

Areas that are increasing include law enforcement, computer applied management, and healthcare. Healthcare is a big need in this area and we’re also going be spiffing up our business degree.

For our traditional students, we are also establishing living and learning residence halls, and they bring students together who are studying at the same things, they help one another with their skills and there is a high degree of retention.

Many of our students leave because of financial reasons. To me, it’s unconscionable for a student to live with no degree and debt, so we’re looking at her whole cost of attendance, and housing is just one piece.

Pets in Dorms?

We actually have animal-friendly residence halls right now for students who have comfort pets. Reinhard Village is actually going to be expanding and be the place that has pets on campus. We’ll have to teach students about being good neighbors and use their scoopers. For whatever reason, we know our students are much more anxious today when they come to college, so for them, having an animal or more of a sense of community in the sense of comfort will help retain them.

Eagles Rising Campaign

We are launching our athletics campaign called Eagles Rising in a couple of days. As a Division II university, our students come here because they love to play sports, and that crosses all disciplines, whatever degree there is. We have nursing majors playing volleyball, we have business majors playing with the football team. We have it across all disciplines, so, therefore, it affects our students. We’re getting our pants beaten off by some of the other schools who offer higher scholarships and lower-cost housing, so that’s an area that we really need to reinvest in. Launching of the opening of Tippin Natatorium right before homecoming in 2019, the campaign will also give our students more support. People may wonder why we’re going after all of the scholarships and why it’s so important now. When I went to college my state university, my state paid for about 75 percent of the funding towards a degree, but over the years, we’ve just simply defunded education as states have had other priorities. In Pennsylvania, instead of 75 percent in 1988, it’s now about 25 percent so the students do bear the costs, and that’s why their debt is going up.

If we can raise funding for an endowed scholarship that is perpetually funded, that will really help us attract students and get them a good education. That 89 percent of students with a type of athletic connection graduate in four years. Contrary to what people believe, a full schedule of 15 to 18 credits every semester actually makes people a little bit better organized with their time and actually get through in four years. It’s not only about less debt; if you get through in four years, you can start working sooner for a higher salary.

We Need Each Other

We feel that the town and gown are pretty seamless, and in many ways, without one or the other, students will not have a good experience. Bob and I try to buy locally as much as we can because without a good town and without a good connection with each other, and without students coming in, we will not thrive. I take that commitment very serious about making sure the university grows and gets stronger; the reputation of programs and all of those things are critical.

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