SRU’s interim president leading the ‘Way’ during transitional period

Philip Way addressing group of University Managers

Slippery Rock University Interim President Philip Way addresses a group of University managers during an Aug. 30 meeting.

Aug. 31, 2017

SLIPPERY ROCK, Pa. - As the interim president of Slippery Rock University, it would be easy for Philip Way to simply stand pat, content with the idea that merely keeping his "hands on the wheel" is all that is required of him.

And who would blame him?

Despite the economic issues plaguing Pennsylvania, SRU is thriving. With nationally-recognized degree programs, enrollment at an all-time high and a ledger sheet that is tops in Pennsylvania's State System of Higher Education, it's little wonder that the University has received countless accolades, awards, rankings and honors, as well as extensive approvals by a variety of prestigious academic-accrediting bodies.

With that in mind, you could excuse Way if he just wanted to engage the "auto pilot" during his time in the University's top role.

But just keeping the presidential seat warm is not in Way's nature. In fact, his approach is quite the opposite.

"The University didn't achieve its current status and state of excellence by standing still," said Way. "It would be a mistake for us to remain stagnant during this transitional period. I would be doing a huge disservice to not only the future president but, and especially to, the students, faculty and staff who have worked so hard and achieved so much if, as the interim steward, I didn't keep us forward facing.

"We need to keep nurturing our relationships, inside and outside, so that we don't plateau or stall and endanger our long-term goals and potential results."

The State Systems' board of governors appointed Way to serve as the University's interim president effective July 21, assuming the duties of interim president following the retirement of Cheryl Norton, who had served as SRU's president since June 2012. Way will serve in the role until the successful conclusion of the search for a permanent president.

A national search for Norton's permanent successor is currently underway.

Way's approach is one of "continuity and change."

"Continuity comes in in that we need to stay the course we have set ourselves upon," said Way. "We need to make sure to maintain our upward trajectory.

"We have a strategic plan that we developed a couple of years ago that people have bought into and we need to make sure that it cascades down and filters into all areas. It's not just a "University plan," but rather a plan for the colleges and the departments and the offices. By doing so, we can tweak our current strategies in response to assessment data and be able to tightly link our planning, budgets and assessments. By doing so, we measure our outcomes against our goals and properly communicate our plan, strategies and outcomes to all stakeholders.

"I'm not coming in and doing something completely different, we've got a solid plan in place and we need to honor that and be true to its principles and direction so that we continue our advancement as an institution.

"We're not just going to stop and not move forward with attempts to grow our enrollment numbers and retain the best people. Those things are clearly going to remain priorities for us in the six-month interim that I am in office."

As for the change part of the equation?

"The kinds of things that we are doing that are new are by no means irrevocable," said Way. "They are things any person could easily change without issue and the way that we're setting up most of these things is to see them as experiments. A good example of that is that I am establishing a President's Council, which is an extension of the (President's) Cabinet. I want to solicit the opinions and ideas from a wide variety of persons across a wide swath of the campus. Doing so with a larger group should allow us to achieve our objectives better and deliberate issues with greater care and see the long-term with much more clarity. It all goes back to communication and collaboration...without those two things, we can't move forward."

Speaking of collaboration, Way, who is retaining his role as provost during the interim period, is doing plenty of just that in making sure all areas of academic operations are properly covered during the transitional period.

"In assuming all the responsibilities, both internally and externally, of the president, it becomes vital to delegate various managerial and operational matters of the provost's office so that no area becomes underserved," said Way.

To that end, Way has tasked Keith Dils, dean of the College of Education, with assuming the lead for all academic and student affairs meetings and retreats; Carrie Birckbichler, associate provost for academic planning, resource management and assessment, with attending chief academic officer meetings; Brad Wilson, associate provost for transformational experiences, to serve as the provost's office liaison to the Slippery Rock Student Government Association; and Mary Hennessey, assistant to the provost, with faculty relations and development.

"It's tough for one person to be an interim provost and learn the job quickly," Way said. "With the short period of interim time, we need the Office of the Provost to maintain its strategic direction, while not suffering from any sort of short-term deviation.

"I am a big believer in professional development and to be able to provide these sorts of experiences to a variety of more-than-capable persons in their quest to advance their knowledge, skills and career potential for the future, if they so wish, made this decision an easy one."

Way will also collaborate with SRU students through an aggressive plan that would see him personally interact with 1,000 or more students this semester. "It's a lofty goal, but one I think is doable," said Way. "Whether it's through little touches like passing out muffins in the Quad the first day of class or hosting a fireside chat in the Smith Student Center or hosting a lunch at Boozel, I want to get out and in front of the people we are charged with serving, listen to their comments and concerns and try to make our University work for them in the best ways that it can."

On both personal and professional levels, Way felt the best way he could serve the institution was by accepting the role of interim president. While the rules established by the State System prohibit him from applying for the University's top spot, leaving the post to another was never in the cards.

"First of all, I was humbled and honored to be selected by the State System to lead the University during this period," said Way. "Personally, I feel that continuity during this time is critical.

"When you look at the number of institutional and programmatic awards and accolades the University is continually being named the recipient of; and how well we are doing in terms of our risk aversion, financial security and other metrics within the System, 'rocking the boat' with someone from the outside during this period wouldn't make sense.

"Having been here for five years, I'd like to think I've got a finger on the pulse of the institution and the 'insider' knowledge needed to make this period a smooth one for all concerned," Way said with a smile. "It's not only an opportunity for me to expand my knowledge base and be, what I hope, is an asset to the new president, having had this experience, but a responsibility to the institution, its mission and its people that I felt was my duty to accept."

MEDIA CONTACT: Robb King | 724.738.2199 | robb.king@sru.edu