Harrisburg University: A perfect fit,” Driving the Northeast

February 10, 2019; Chronicle of Higher Education

As our economic era changes, we will be looking at many different experiments in organizational design. This story reflects one such experiment, one showing early positive results by many measures according to a major writeup in the Chronicle of Higher Education. Still, this only looks at the surface, leaving aside any longer-term implications. We bring it to you to share some of the ideas in play; feel free to pile on with questions and comments.

Six years ago, the finances at Harrisburg University of Science and Technology (HU) were grim, with debt of $3.6 million and only $300,000 in available cash. Flash forward to today, and while their debt stands at $4.2 million, they’ve got $30 million in cash available. What has changed? Everything from its president to the number of students enrolled—and, most importantly, their partners.

HU, founded in 2001, doesn’t pay for parking or custodial services. They don’t do their own marketing. They don’t even have dorm rooms or a cafeteria; instead, as the Chronicle of Higher Education, reports HU has developed partnerships with companies that provide all these things, including nearby apartment-style living with kitchens.

Their partnerships don’t stop there. HU partners with Penn State institutions, where HU students take a semester at the Nanofabrication Lab at Penn State’s flagship campus. Their health sciences students work in labs at Penn State’s Hershey Medical Center. HU also lets universities that are nearby use drones that from their Geospatial Technology Center.

Tuition must be extremely high, right? Well, it’s not cheap, but tuition is $23,900 and hasn’t changed in five years. Moreover, no student pays that whole sum; each student receives a scholarship between $6,000 to $20,000, along with other awards. Is it an all-white institution? No, the majority of the students and faculty are people of color, with numbers well above the national average.

The business model at HU does, however, rely heavily on adjunct faculty. Only 94 of the 412 faculty are full-time (23 percent); the remainder are adjunct. Even full-time faculty are on contract, meaning they lack the typical protections of tenure.

Eric Darr, who has been president of HU since 2013, credits HU’s financial turnaround not just to this faculty model, but also to “flat” governance, which refers to organizations having little or no middle management between staff and executives. In addition to not having tenured faculty, the school also lacks standard administration structures such as academic departments or deans.

Who does Harrisburg attract as its students? To recruit its 600 undergraduate students, Darr states they “have spent time, effort, and money building relationships with teachers, advisers, and administrators in troubled urban school districts hoping to attract smart, curious students who others will overlook or deny for admissions.”

The school’s remaining 5,900 graduate students are enrolled mostly in part-time master’s degree programs which, as the school’s website explains, are “available in an executive weekend format where students are on campus one weekend a month and take classes online.”

HU is one example of the use of new conceptual frameworks to design organizations. It will be interesting to follow how the nonprofit progresses as it continues to expand its operations.—Diandria Barber