Colorado State University Chancellor Urges Higher Education Institutions to Avoid Mistakes, Adapt

Note to Editors: The full speech is available at

Higher education institutions must adapt to a new environment that relies less on state funding yet embraces public accountability and access for lower-income students, Colorado State University Chancellor Larry Edward Penley told a crowd of 3,800 higher-education leaders today.

Penley, recognized as a leader in identifying and acting on challenges facing higher education, was invited to give the keynote speech in Chicago at the annual conference of the Higher Learning Commission, the organization that accredits degree-granting educational institutions in 19 states in the country’s North Central region.

"The writing is on the wall: Higher education confronts a very different and challenging environment," Penley said. "Seven countries with which we directly compete-Belgium, Canada, Ireland, Japan, Norway, South Korea, and Sweden-already are ahead of the United States in college-degree attainment. Meanwhile, here in the U.S., state budgets are strained by the rising costs of Medicaid, deteriorating infrastructure like bridges and roads, the need for more prison beds, and improvement of K-12 schools.

"Competition for what formerly was the state’s budget for higher education is growing."

Publicly funded institutions need to face four costly mistakes in dealing with this new environment, Penley told the group Monday. He highlighted these mistakes and alternative "success strategies" for those charged to make the case for higher education:

-Classic mistake: Whining about the money

Success strategy: Make higher education a partner in economic prosperity

-Classic mistake: Threatening to privatize

Success strategy: Elevate higher education as a public good

-Classic mistake: Focusing on the best and the brightest

Success strategy: Access WITH success for qualified students

-Classic mistake: Eschewing accountability

Success strategy: Set challenging and measurable goals -and meet them

"We must make accessible our universities to those with lower incomes, but with equal commitment to those students’ success," Penley said. "We must commit to accountability with transparency, with rising quality and value in our colleges and universities."

In Colorado, state support for higher education has dropped from 17 percent in 1997 to 9 percent today. Nationwide, the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems or NCHEMS projects state revenues will be 5.7 percent lower than necessary to meet anticipated services expenditures within the next eight years. Every state will face a shortfall of varying magnitude, according to the NCHEMS forecast.

"Arguing that education is different – which it is – from other industries only means that higher-education leaders must engage in change management that is sensitive to our own environment," Penley said. "We cannot be complacent; we must adopt goals that challenge us to stretch and improve, and then develop strategies and restructure and reorganize to achieve these goals."

Those goals include building partnerships with state governments; finding alternate sources of revenue; seeking lower-cost, higher-output alternatives to traditional instruction; and controlling administrative costs, Penley said.

Universities must also capitalize on their contributions to regional economic prosperity. At Colorado State, the university has developed a strategic plan tied to economic development and statewide outreach. As part of that plan, the university created an Office of Vice Provost for Outreach and Strategic Partnerships to more effectively deliver community services – everything from economic development to agricultural research – to a network of 55 offices throughout the state.

Additionally, the university has created a Supercluster program that will make it easier for businesses to commercialize groundbreaking research in areas of global concern such as clean energy and cancer. The first Supercluster, MicroRx, focuses on infectious disease and looks and acts like a business with a chief operating officer who can help business people navigate academia.

"Higher education is essential to our country’s future – its economic prosperity and our quality of life," Penley told the Higher Learning Commission conference attendees. "We are higher education’s leaders. The future of higher education-and the future of our country-depend on our rising to the challenges that confront us. Let us embrace those challenges."