Archived Speeches

Rodney A. Erickson Remarks
Quality Issues Forum
Friday, May 9, 2003, 11:30 a.m.
Nittany Lion Inn

Thank you, Louise. I’m glad to see Bill Asbury and Jim Ryan recognized for their contributions to continuous quality improvement and their success in building support for CQI in their units. Their work will bring long-lasting benefits to Penn State.

The staff in the Office of Planning and Institutional Assessment don’t just advocate quality initiatives to others, they jump into their own quality initiatives with both feet. Witness the name changes of this office – from the Continuous Quality Improvement Center to the Center for Quality and Planning and now the Office of Planning and Institutional Assessment. They also look for improvements each year in their programs, and this year they suggested that instead of a Quality Expo, we could try a different format to recognize Penn State’s leaders in innovation and improvement. It sounded like a good idea – little did I know that I would be the substitute program! I don’t think that’s quality improvement.

There are many signs of progress at Penn State – applications for admission are strong, we are a more diverse institution, new buildings are going up, the School of IST is graduating its first cohort of baccalaureate students who started four years ago, research expenditures now exceed a half billion dollars per year, we have several exciting new degree programs, and – a big item from my perspective– all of the vice presidents, deans, vice provosts, and campus CEO’s will all be regular position-holders on July 1, with no interim appointments. That’s the first time in many, many years we’ve started the academic year in that way.

The Grand Destiny Campaign has been a big success, raising over $1.3 billion in private support for the University’s endowment and to support student financial aid, endowed chairs, professorships, and faculty fellowships, and programs such as the University Libraries, the performing arts, and the World Campus. Since the Campaign began, private support has helped to make possible the construction or renovation of 35 major structures on 12 Penn State campuses. The Pasquerilla Spiritual Center and the MBNA Career Center, for example, were built entirely with private funding. I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that over 99 percent of the money we raise is restricted by the donor, usually for scholarships, special academic or other programs, and bricks and mortar. No one has ever given us money to pay the electric bill or other types of operating costs–donors want to support things like endowments that will continue to improve education long into the future.

In spite of the successful campaign, many of our current challenges at the University are financial. Difficult fiscal conditions have become the norm for higher education this year. At last tally, only three states are running a budget surplus this year: New Mexico, Wyoming, and Florida. Several states have imposed mid-year cuts in spending for higher education, and the vast majority of states are proposing reduced appropriations for higher education in the coming fiscal year. In California, Governor Gray Davis has proposed deep budget cuts in higher education to help offset what is expected to be a $30 billion state budget deficit. As the speaker of the Assembly said of California’s projected FY 2004 budget deficit a few months ago, “[It’s] a hole so deep and so vast that even if we fired every single person on the state payroll–every park ranger, every college professor, and every Highway Patrol officer–we would still be more than $6 billion short.” To offset these state funding shortfalls, the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education reports that tuition and fees at four-year public institutions rose in every state last year, and 16 states increased tuition and fees by more than 10 percent.

Closer to home, we know that the Commonwealth is facing a difficult fiscal situation. In the last year and a half, Penn State’s has received $29 million less state dollars because of budget cuts. And the budget scenario for next year will undoubtedly add to this negative tally. We continue to explain to state legislators that the University is seriously underfunded in relation to its peers. Penn State receives less state funding per student than any other state-owned or state-related school in Pennsylvania, and we receive less funding per student than any other school in the Big Ten. At the same time, Penn State has experienced cost increases in salaries, health insurance, utilities, maintenance, information technology, library resources, and this year . . . even snow removal. As we increase tuition, expectations from students and families also rise accordingly.

In the future, Penn State must place even greater emphasis on raising funds for need-based institutional student aid. And, we’ve done this via the Grand Destiny Campaign and the creation of the new Trustee Scholarship Program. We also know that Penn State must continue its strategy of cost containment and continuous quality improvement. I’d like to briefly discuss our activities in both of these areas.

Penn State is nationally recognized as one of the most efficiently run universities, but we are committed to cutting costs even further and finding new sources of non-tuition revenue. Gary Schultz and I are co-chairing a Task Force to identify additional cost savings, recommend cost avoidance strategies, develop new ideas for generating non-tuition revenue, and make investments now that will reduce costs in the future. This is a long-term effort, but we have already identified $3 million in central cost savings and $3 million in new non-tuition revenue to help reduce next year’s tuition bills from what they would otherwise have had to be. These include more administrative streamlining, program consolidation and elimination, and fringe benefit cost containment. Improvement Teams charged by the Task Force are examining publication costs, telecommunication services, travel expenses, and energy savings. We’ve also requested cost savings ideas from the entire university and the community has been forthcoming in offering suggestions. Over 230 responses have been received so far, and the suggestions are being reviewed by appropriate working groups or individual units.

Over its 20 year history, CQI has evolved and become an important part of the Penn State culture. I confess that a dozen years ago I was very skeptical about what was then called Total Quality Management could bring to the operations of a University like ours. I recall sitting in one of my predecessor John Brighton’s early TQM presentations and wondering where this then-buzz word would lead us. But later, first when I served as dean of the Graduate School, I came to appreciate much more fully, and to observe firsthand the benefits of continuous quality improvement and the successful teams we brought together to streamline our enrollment management, information-sharing, and other critical processes. The end result was truly transformative in terms of the organization and operation of the Graduate School. We were doing far more business with fewer staff and with much happier applicants, incumbent students, and academic partners who felt like we were working with them rather than against them. In the years that have followed, nothing has diminished my enthusiasm for our efforts at quality improvement. What is perhaps most gratifying–now these many years later–is that continuous quality improvement has been institutionalized at Penn State to the point where it is second nature. I can’t tell you the number of times when I’ve been in meetings to discuss issues and problems, and very early on the suggestion is made, “Let put together a team and re-work this process.” It’s become part of our culture here at Penn State.

Today, we are more consciously linking planning, improvement and assessment. To encourage comprehensive and coordinated planning, we have asked campus colleges to discuss their goals specifically in light of enrollment projections, staffing requirements, budget forecasting, and existing and projected space and facilities. This integrated planning approach provides a comprehensive and realistic backdrop for strategic planning. Individual improvement teams also involve planning, improvement, and assessment strategies as they conduct their work. The objective is to advance our academic goals while taking into account infrastructure and human resource needs.

I’ve read the descriptions of the new Improvement Teams for this year, and was pleased to see that the descriptions included goals such as, “Simplify a process,” improve management,” “improve employee morale,” “reach new audiences,” “improve communication strategies,” and “promote a healthy and safe work environment. Many of these worthy goals are qualified by statements such as “while maintaining or enhancing customer service.” Yes, CQI involves cost savings and efficiencies, but it also means better meeting the needs of those we serve. Service remains the centerpiece of our work.

CQI projects are not always glamorous, they don’t always make the front page of the Intercom, or involve rewards and recognition. We are usually looking at processes–how things get done. CQI projects involve details that usually aren’t easy to resolve, but that are important to the University.

Let me give you some examples of recent CQI projects –from teams represented here today–that have improved a number of important functions. All of the teams are working to enhance stakeholder satisfaction. For example, the Steam Service Shift Schedule team (that’s quite a tongue-twister) is enhancing employee morale as well as health and safety. They have measured the current turnover levels, sick time and grievances, and they hope to achieve a reduction in all three measures when they check their results in a few months. Teams in the College of Agricultural Sciences’ Information and Communication Technologies unit are improving the services they offer to faculty and staff in their College. They used focus groups to determine current customer satisfaction levels so that they will be able to track the success of their improvements when they re-measure customer satisfaction.

Numerous teams have made an impact on student learning and student and faculty satisfaction. For example, the Innovation and Quality teams sponsored by the Schreyer Institute give students more of a voice by enabling them to recommend course changes during the semester. This in turn helps make teaching and learning more rewarding. The Student Affairs’ Pulse team continually studies students’ needs and expectations and their overall satisfaction with aspects of academics and campus life. This information is used by units to make improvements in their programs and services. The new Grade Collection System where faculty enter grades directly on eLion has already drastically reduced the number of late grades.

Many teams are streamlining processes in ways that will reduce costs and enhance effectiveness. For example, the Outreach Magazine Process Improvement team streamlined their process so much that they are now able to produce more magazines per year in less time and with less mailing cost. The Outreach Marketing Communications Production CQI Team has reduced by half the time that projects are in their shop, while enhancing the quality of proofreading and other services that are important to their customers. The Civil and Environmental Engineering Academic Administration team is reducing the administrative paperwork for undergraduate student administration and advising, and improving the management of student records. The Technical Imaging team has created solutions to expedite transactions, thereby enhancing service. The Student Rating of Teaching Effectiveness team implemented process improvements and reduced SRTE error rates.

Another way to reduce costs is through agreements with vendors and consortia. The Travel Services Online team has achieved savings through volume discounts that have saved the university $334,000 per year over the lowest available airfare and $210,000 per year on car rentals.

Many teams have achieved tremendous cost savings through solutions like the elimination of printing and mailing costs and the reduction of paperwork. One example is the benefits enrollment team which has eliminated $74,000 worth of mailing costs each year. That adds up quickly. The Registrar’s Call for Courses team has reduced paper work to the extent that they now use only 2 filing cabinets where they used to use 8.

Many teams have streamlined processes to such an extent that they have been able to save labor costs that have then been redeployed to higher value-added service activities. For example, the Agricultural Economics and Rural Sociology Financial Processing Team has enhanced the efficiency of financial forms processing and now provides better administrative services with fewer staff. The Web-based Student Applications Team saved $24,000 in the 2002 student application cycle that was recycled into new service initiatives like an online visit schedule and an online transfer course evaluation. The Electronic Gifts Processing team has reduced their turnaround time to 24 to 48 hours.

Over the past decade we have seen remarkable results from improvement teams at Penn State. The end result is that we have truly been able to “do more with less” while increasing the satisfaction of those we serve.

You can see that CQI continues to be important–and even more important–in this time of tight funding. We must continue to improve, even when things are going well. I would like to see all employees have an opportunity to participate in improvement efforts, whether it is through formal CQI teams or more informal approaches to seeking opportunities for increased efficiencies and organizational effectiveness.

This is certainly a good opportunity to express my thanks to Louise Sandmeyer and her staff for their support of CQI and their very effective efforts to keep quality improvement in the spotlight. I’d like to ask Louise and all the staff of the Office of Planning and Institutional Assessment to stand and be recognized. (Applause)

I’d also like to thank everyone in the audience for their contributions to quality improvements at Penn State. All of our guests have found a certificate of appreciation in their envelopes which recognizes their great work and commitment to quality. After 20 years, continuous quality improvement is not only “alive and well” at Penn State, it is part of the very fabric of the University. Its concepts are still relevant and important. It takes all of us to find opportunities for cost savings and increased efficiencies and to focus on improving the quality of education and services for our students and other stakeholders. Thank you for being part of the Penn State Quality Improvement team and good luck with those new CQI teams that have been recently formed!

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