For Hanna, Bloomsburg University’s 19th president, the transformative power of education is not an abstraction. It’s a reality that he has lived.
“If you would have asked me when I was 10 if I would have thought that an undergraduate, a master’s and a doctorate would have been in the realm of reality or possibility for me, I probably would have laughed and said, I just want to learn a few words of English.”
“If it weren’t for my fifth-grade teacher, I probably wouldn’t have finished high school,” says Hanna. “She gave up her lunch period every day to review flash cards with me. If it were not for her doing that, I’m not sure English would have been attainable for me as quickly as it was.”
“Each of us can think of individuals who transformed our lives along the way. Many times the magnitude of the transformation is unremarkable in the moment.”
“I’ve had people who have extended a hand to help me. Part of how I can give back is to make sure my hand is always extended to help others. Especially our students, who might think that attaining a college degree is beyond their means or ability.”
Hanna’s personal experience has translated into a core professional philosophy that has guided his career: Students first.
“Every time I walked into the classroom when I was a tutor, a teaching assistant, or a professor, that was the number one underlying core value I carried with me. Without students, my classes wouldn’t be offered, my department wouldn’t exist, my college or school wouldn’t exist, and my university wouldn’t exist.”
Higher education across the country is experiencing unprecedented challenges with declining enrollment. Nationally, enrollment was down 1.4 percent in 2016, according to the National Student Clearing House Research Center. In Pennsylvania, there was a 2.6 percent decline last year, more than 18,000 fewer college students.
“The number of students available to go on to college has decreased. So the competition to recruit these students has become fiercer,” says Hanna. “I will always work with my faculty and staff colleagues at Bloomsburg to always focus on students’ success – they are our number one priority.”
The good news: Bloomsburg is well-positioned to meet these challenges.
“The energy of our campus is incredible,” says Hanna. “Our enrollment is robust. Is it as high as it was a few years ago? No. But, it’s stable. Our finances are stable, which allows us to have a conversation about what we can continue to do and want to do instead of reacting and panicking.”
Another one of Bloomsburg’s strengths is in its culture, says Hanna.
“When I was a dean at Kutztown I had always heard that Bloomsburg University is like family. That impression became real when I visited campus in March. Every session I had as a candidate reinforced how much our faculty and staff love the students at BU. The faculty and the staff care for their students in a way that is remarkably personal for an institution of 10,000 students.”
While he’s optimistic about Bloomsburg’s future, Hanna is adamant “that this is not the time to become complacent. It doesn’t take too many years of less than dedicated service and commitment to excellence for an institution to find itself in real trouble.”
Hanna already has several priorities in mind, listing “student retention, persistence and degree completion. These issues have urgency and immediacy. The campus has already identified some of these. And that’s a significant advantage in itself because we know what we need to focus on.”
Bloomsburg’s first-year persistence rate, at about 75 percent, handily beats national averages by nearly 10 percent, but it has declined slightly in recent years — a trend Hanna would like to see reversed.
“Students should not come to Bloomsburg and leave after a year with loans and no degree,” he says. “We need to ensure that, without compromising academic standards, we are providing them with an avenue towards degree attainment.”
A focus on real-world preparation and careers
Beyond increased competition for students, Hanna sees a change in societal attitudes about higher education.
“The affordability question is front and center,” says Hanna. “Our cost structure is a tremendous advantage. There’s not a better quality education that you can earn in the commonwealth for what we charge. So the loan amount that a young man or lady is going to be shouldered with coming out of Bloomsburg will be significantly less than most of our competitors.”
A second significant change is a focus on career readiness, says Hanna. “Times have changed. Many of us went to college to become more learned and become a more informed person. Today, expectations have transitioned significantly in the direction of preparing students to launch a successful career or gain admission to graduate or professional school.”
To illustrate the point, he jokes about his own experience as a second year Ph.D. student who needed a resume for a grant. “I ran around Temple’s campus trying to get advice on how to write a resume. Today, many first year students arrive on campus with their resume in-hand. The expectations are very different today.”
The answer, says Hanna, is to ensure that students learn “soft” skills as well as the discipline-specific knowledge of their chosen major. “Critical thinking, problem-solving, effective communications, being able to function as a team member, being able to lead a team. All of those things are expected by employers by the time students graduate.”
“Universities that have shaped their curriculum inside and outside of the classroom to make sure that the discipline has not been forgotten and the soft skills are integrated with the discipline will produce graduates who will succeed.”
Bloomsburg’s Professional U programs — which provide students with professional workshops and experiences outside the classroom — have already put Bloomsburg ahead of the curve, says Hanna. “Not too many public regional comprehensive institutions do the phenomenal job we do in rounding out the soft skills of our students. I look forward to working with our faculty and staff to make sure that every student gets those experiences before they graduate.”
“Sometimes students are going to come to us and may be underprepared or a little rough around the edges. It’s our job to help them succeed. That’s what a university does — we develop teenagers into responsible adults.” •
Eric Foster is co-editor of Bloomsburg: The University Magazine.