Podcast Interview: Transformational Change PPU

Transformational Change in a Rapidly Changing Market 

In a time of dwindling enrollments and stiff competition, universities must embrace experimentation and change. How should higher education institutions adapt to meet the changing demand of modern-day students? Level Agency sat down with Point Park University President Chris Brussalis to hear how he is re-thinking higher ed. From expanding programs and involving students in the cultural life of the community to finding like-minded leaders, universities need to adapt to reach more nontraditional students, especially adult learners. 

Give us a little background on yourself before you became the president of Point Park.  

I’ve been a long time management consultant, about 32 years in that industry; the long time CEO of the Hill Group, a national management consulting firm; then the last several years trying to semi-retire as chairman of the firm. 

The thing that really pulled me into higher ed, to the greater extent, was one of my clients, Tom Galinsky [of Integra Bank].  He said, “Chris, I’m the board chair of this university. I think we have some opportunities to grow and take things to a whole other level. Would you take a look?” And that’s how I got involved with Point Park probably over 20 years ago. And so over the years, our firm did most of the strategy work for Point Park. 

How would you describe the challenges you are seeing in the higher ed marketplace? 

There’s a loss of traditional age students. There’s a demographic shift going on. So there are some of those challenges in the marketplace. We’ve really doubled down on thinking of a major concept which is critical to our mission, and that’s […] inspiring creativity and imagination in students through experiential learning. That is our sweet spot. 

With the national decline in college enrollment of 18 to 22-year-olds, how does Point Park University plan to leverage its strengths to address the declining trend to ensure continued growth and relevance to the Pittsburgh region? 

We have these three areas of focus. [The first is] around our program excellence. We think we really walk the talk around experiential learning and embracing downtown. [The second is] through the student experience – training to include a truly inclusive environment, a university campus where, you know, our students, faculty and staff are immersed and engaged as one community. And then the third major driver is around community engagement. 


How does Point Park University’s mission align with the changing student demographics in the education market?

We know that one out of five adults in the United States have started a degree but haven’t finished and have a desire to finish that degree… You know our mascot? We’re the Point Park Pioneers, and we have always been pioneers in providing education for adult learners, nontraditional learners. 

What’s an example of how Point Park is adapting to stay competitive and better serve the growing market of adult learners? 

Actually, we’ve created a solution to address a teacher shortage across the United States. We’ve created a pathway to attract and enable paraprofessionals working in the indicated K-12 environment […] to gain teaching degrees and certifications while they’re continuing to work, giving them academic credit for the excellent work they’ve been doing in the classroom for years. So, that’s just an example of, you know, that we’re here to meet the demands of nontraditional students, adult students, and providing a very innovative solution to solve a major problem. 

 How does Park University prioritize community engagement, and what specific initiatives are in place to foster collaboration? 

This goes back to our strategic plan. We have these three drivers, right: our program excellence, our experiential learning, embracing the community… the third driver there is around community engagement. This is all about giving back to the community. That’s where, you know, we’re putting a stake in the ground. We’re saying Point Park University can be the catalyst for Renaissance III in the Pittsburgh region. It’s about tripartite collaboration with the university creating that vision, being the catalyst, being the driver, collaborating with government to grease the skids, provide the support, and collaborating with all the mighty resources of industry.  

What led to the decision to establish an institute of community engagement on campus, and how do you envision it facilitating collaboration between students, faculty, staff, and members of the community to address urban challenges and opportunities? 

We’re going to create an institute of community engagement right in the middle of our campus […] to welcome members of the community to collaborate with our students, faculty and staff, to solve some of these problems facing urban areas, to seize some of these opportunities that we have before us in these downtowns, in these urban areas, in our regions. 

And, so it gives our students, faculty and staff an opportunity to […] apply what they’re learning in the real world. It provides our faculty and staff opportunities for translational research and to do consulting. So, these are ways that we are really walking the talk around providing experiential learning opportunities for our students while simultaneously giving back and hopefully advancing and adding value back to our community. 

What factors have led you to prioritize leadership in the context of university initiatives like the establishment of the institute of community engagement? 

I think leadership is critically important. You know, when I started, I focused on three things. First thing I did was listen. I established listening sessions [and] spent over a couple of months listening across the entire university community to really understand what’s going on. 

And then the second thing is […] really understanding the culture, because, you know, there’s a value chain here, right? Peter Drucker always said that culture will eat strategy for breakfast. You have the best strategy in the world, but if you don’t have a culture that’s aligned with that strategy, that helps enable the attainment, that strategy is going to go nowhere. 

And then, strategy turns into structure and execution. Well, you can’t execute a lousy strategy, right? You have to have a good strategy. So, I focused on listening, understanding culture, and then leadership. 

What are the primary challenges universities face when navigating periods of significant change? 

It’s not being afraid to experiment and take risks. In order to win in a hockey game, you have to shoot the puck. You’re going to make mistakes. And that’s okay to make mistakes, but you have to try. And so, we’re doing things significantly, substantively different, and we’re expecting different results. We’re starting to get different results. 

How does effective leadership influence outcomes and performance within various organizational contexts, particularly within the dynamic landscape of higher education? 

I had some opportunities to add some folks to our senior team here at the university and also a couple other areas of the university. […] We’ve brought in people who are dynamic, out-of-the-box thinkers, who are not afraid to take risks… And that’s leadership, right? You have to be able to challenge a process. You have to be able to develop a shared vision and enable others to act and get involved. The process is all leverage. 

As we conclude our discussion, having delved into the significance of accommodating non-traditional students and the pivotal role of adaptive leadership, what reflections can you offer on the broader implications of change, especially in regards to the critical role of stakeholder engagement in fostering institutional resilience and progress? 

It requires an understanding of the importance of stakeholder engagement […] that elevates the acceptance. There’s a concept in the education world, and it’s called hermeneutics. Hermeneutics speaks to this concept, this fact that oftentimes process is just as valuable, and sometimes it’s even more valuable, than the end product. Change is always hard. It’s not natural for most of us to want to change. But when you have leadership to be the catalyst of the process [to] get things going, and you create that shared vision that inspires others to add to that vision, enabling other people to act and get engaged along with a robust stakeholder engagement process, you have a chance to make change. And, that’s worth trying hard to do. 




5 Ways to Adapt Universities for the Adult Learner Market 

  1. Leverage Unique Strengths 
  1. Find Like-Minded Leaders 
  1. Meet Evolving Student Needs 
  1. Embrace Experimentation and Change 
  1. Utilize Stakeholder Engagement  


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