Central Pennsylvania needs workers that are skilled in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM). Providing those skills through a coalition of businesses and educators seems like an ideal situation. It's pretty common around the world for universities to partner with business, there is nothing new or innovative about this. (See: Has HU failed their mission?) Nobody expected HU to be up and running from day one, it was expected that there would be some hard times. Yet a full decade has passed since the founding of the University and it is still struggling to survive. Why?
The University has long suffered from poor leadership. I've complained ad nauseum on this blog about the incredibly bad leadership. Ultimately, the responsibility for this rests with the Board of Trustees. Either the Board of Trustees is the most incredibly incompetent group of people on the planet or they are willfully supporting inept leadership. Their motivation for this is a mystery to me. I can only speculate that bringing in an outside person would expose the University's finances to an outsider.
The blunders that administration commits read like bad fiction:
Provost Eric Darr decided to hire Thomas W. Small to be the Program Director of Computer and Information Sciences. On June 8th of 2008 Darr said “Tom is a seasoned information technology professional with an extensive background in strategy, enterprise services, hardware and infrastructure coupled with teaching at premier institutions of higher learning. Our students will benefit from the depth-and breadth of his experience.” Darr failed to mention that Small pleaded guilty in October of 2007 to stealing over $900K from his employer while working as...wait for it...their chief of Information Technology. Small was sentenced to federal prison just 20 days after Darr made his announcement. Awkward.
Then of course there was the China Incident.
And the $100K Hamster Ball of Marketing.
There was the "Information Support Center" for which Dauphin County gave Harrisburg University a $55K grant. Darr's chosen business partner was on the verge of bankruptcy when he made the deal. The company ceased operation less than six months after Darr's announcement. What happened to the grant money?
Also in February of 2012 Darr announced that the University signed a 10-year lease for student housing in downtown Harrisburg. This coincides with Darr's recent announcement that the University was going into the "student housing business". Darr conveniently ignores that fact that HU's current student housing isn't full because as soon as students realized they are paying an extra $300 a month in rent over similar housing, they leave. (Duh!) The obvious question is why is the University signing a 10-year lease and planning expansion when they can't make their current loan or bond payments? Is that Darr's idea of fiscal responsibility?
And on and on...
Harrisburg University lacks a major endowment and thus, is tuition driven. This has predictably lead the university to act like a for-profit institution. Sadly, this means they have focused their efforts on recruiting and marketing. Again, I have complained ad nauseum on this blog about the false picture that university paints about itself. Everything from fake "Advanced Centers of Science", actual student enrollment, the number of faculty, the number of degree programs, spurious claims about NSF grants, the number of books in the library, false claims of job placement rates and on and on. Students are fooled into enrolling and leave in droves after the first year. (See Harrisburg University students run like Forest Gump) This is the exact behavior of low quality for-profit institutions.
I know "tenure" is a dirty word in today's political climate, but Harrisburg University is a prime example of what happens without a tenure system or other safeguards that protect academic freedom. Harrisburg University faculty are contingent faculty, meaning they have no job security. What this means is that the faculty that would normally advocate for students and academics simply does not. Harrisburg University has a long history of simply firing anyone that has a dissenting view from the administration. At most academic institutions the faculty are the professional educators and are a strong force in governance, tempering the business inclinations of the administration. At HU, the faculty don't have to be good at their jobs or conduct any quality research, they only have to agree with administration on all matters. At Harrisburg University, the faculty are just employees.
Despite appearances, there is no substantial research being conducted at Harrisburg University. There are very limited facilities/equipment and administration simply does not support research. What this means is that Harrisburg University has nothing to offer local businesses and nothing to offer students. Why would any company partner with Harrisburg University? For example check out Sensory Science Research Lab at HU. The Hershey Company made the blunder of giving HU money. And in return? HU has done pretty much nothing other than let consumers taste candy. You know why? Because there are no food scientist at Harrisburg University and no scientist that are conducting food research.
Do you know for which program Harrisburg University is especially well known? That's right, NONE! Some programs are better than others at HU. Some of them should have been eliminated a long time ago. Assessing and improving academics is not important to HU administration, so it's simply ignored. The weakness of the academic programs hurts the University's reputation and is an affront to the students.
It's just a matter of time before Harrisburg University's accrediting body takes notice of the boondoggle that is HU. Perhaps administration feels they can just lie to them again and everything will be fine. HU's long history of dishonesty, serious financial problems and lack of qualified leadership are all valid reasons for Harrisburg University to lose accreditation. When HU loses accreditation, they won't be able eligible for federal financial aid. This will effectively kill the institution.
Failure to Retain Students
If you read Harrisburg University students run like Forest Gump, you'll note that Harrisburg University has one of the worst retention rates of any school in Pennsylvania. HU's retention rate averages in the upper 30% range over its entire existence. There are many factors that can influence retention, it's a much discussed topic in academia. Provost Eric Darr has attempted various laughable schemes to improve retention, including making the first year course load very light (thus students are still freshman in their second year) and appointing a political scientist to be the Director of Academic Success (Lets vote for some retention!)
All kidding aside, a serious lack of retention is a death knell for a tuition dependent institution. No retention means no students, which means no tuition money. HU's business plan differs significantly from the reality.
| HU Business Plan 2006|
Source: HU Bond Limited Offering Memorandum
Harrisburg University is a failure as a business and a failure as an institution of higher learning. It has successfully bridged the failure gap. The institution continues to doggedly follow a "curvilinear" downward path into oblivion with the same incompetent leadership. Harrisburg University's only hope at short term survival is a another handout from taxpayers. Under the current regime, HU has no chance of long term success.