Frank Brogan has a talent for navigating choppy waters in higher education, those who know him say.
Brogan becomes chancellor of the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education with a charge to change a system with challenges: declining enrollments, a shrinking college-age demographic, stagnant state support, a historically black university threatening court action over uneven support and tension among 14 universities seeking to maintain some autonomy.
What will he need to head such a system?
“The ability to walk on water and turn fishes into loaves,” said Donald Heller, dean of the College of Education at Michigan State University. “These are tough jobs in the best of times.”
When Brogan became chancellor of Florida’s public university system in 2009, relations between the schools and lawmakers were so bad that the system’s board and a former governor were fighting the legislature in court.
“It was really about who had the authority over tuition,” said Richard Beard, a Tampa businessman who sits on that system’s board. “The legislature said they did, and we said we did.”
Beard said Brogan, 60, a lifelong educator who spent eight years as lieutenant governor under then-Florida Gov. Jeb Bush before returning to academia, quickly settled the debate. Each side went away with something.
“Frank can make a difference. He’ll make a difference for you,” Beard said.
The new chancellor, who is on a listening tour of the universities, said the system that grew out of 14 teachers colleges needs to reinvent itself. He has yet to offer specifics.
State Sen. John Yudichak, a member of the Pennsylvania State System’s board of governors, said Brogan’s political skills, coupled with decades of experience in education, should serve him well.
“It’s trying times. We needed someone with résumé experience and confidence to help us weather the storm and reposition the state system for the 21st century. I do believe you’ll see substantive change, constructive change,” said Yudichak, D-Wilkes-Barre.
Many experts in finance predict that by midcentury, the landscape of higher education will be littered with the remains of institutions that failed to adapt to changing needs and the finances of families and students.
Gov. Tom Corbett challenged the schools to maximize their resources, keep tuition increases low and tie programs to state workforce needs.
Officials at the state system are finalizing a strategic plan for the future.
Aaron Walton, a retired Highmark Inc. executive who sits on the system’s board of governors and chairs the planning effort, declined to discuss specifics. He said Brogan is reviewing the plan scheduled to be made public in January.
Michael Poliakoff, vice president for policy with the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, a national group that studies governance in higher education, said Brogan’s tenure in Florida was notable for accomplishments.
“He presided over a system and worked well with a very good, strong board of governors to eliminate programs that were no longer serving the needs of the people of Florida, thereby lowering costs,” Poliakoff said.
“And many of the quality measures of the state university system in Florida went strongly upward, even as state support was going sharply downward. He has certainly had a lot of experience doing more with less,” he said.
Susan McManus, a political scientist at the University of South Florida, said Brogan’s communications skills were a major asset.
“In Florida, as elsewhere, higher education is tumultuous. No matter what, people have different ideas about what should be done, what schools matter most. His asset here was the ability to speak the language of both the politicians and the education community,” she said.
Some question how that experience will translate in Pennsylvania.
State Sen. Andrew Dinniman, a professor on leave from West Chester University, the largest of the state system schools, said Brogan must respect that the Pennsylvania state system, which the Legislature created in 1983, has been a loose federation.
“He needs to understand that Pennsylvania is not Florida. He needs to understand we want to maintain as much independence as we can and keep the central office as small as possible,” said Dinniman, D-Chester County, voicing concern that high-performing schools could be penalized to assist weaker schools.
Heller said that could be a tough obstacle.
“When you have these (councils of trustees) for each campus, they focus on making their campus the winner. When you have a winner, someone becomes the loser,” Heller said. “The winners you’d like to come out of this are the students, and you’d like the students to be assured of getting a quality education at a reasonable price.”