Interview: Interim President Dr. Dale-Elizabeth Pehrsson talks integration, COVID-19 and more

Category:  News
Thursday, November 19th, 2020 at 7:15 PM

“My friends call me Dale, most of the students call me Dr. Dale, nobody ever calls me Dr. Pehrsson.” 

As Dr. Dale-Elizabeth Pehrsson prepares to take the reigns as Edinboro University’s interim president on Dec. 31 at exactly 5 p.m., she feels hopeful. 

In the morning hours of Nov. 18, Pehrsson was confirmed unanimously by the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education (PASSHE) Board of Governors (BOG) to fill the anticipated Jan. 1 vacancy created by the departure of current president Dr. Guiyou Huang. With ongoing issues of financial stability, the integration proposal and planning, COVID-19, and figuring out her own transition to EU, Dr. Dale has many obstacles ahead of her.  

“I’ll be working very closely with the leadership team and the president’s cabinet, and they’ll be giving me my orientation — helping me learn about all things Edinboro,” said Pehrsson. 

While continuing to serve as Clarion University’s president — along with leading integration planning for Edinboro, Clarion and California — Pehrsson will live part-time at Edinboro’s presidential residence and hopes to create a strong relationship with the university’s students, faculty, staff and community. “It’ll take some organization to do that, but the campuses aren’t that far apart, so I think it’ll be something doable and I’m excited about it,” she said. 

Prior to Pehrsson’s appointment, the EU administration has had teams working on integration and the Comprehensive Planning Process (CPP), which Pehrsson will keep intact and work with upon her arrival. “We already have the team in place for integration,” she said. “They’re a very strong team … the financial stability [plan] is now the CPP, and so that’s in place and we’ll be following through with those plans. Guiyou (Huang) and the team have done a good job of that, so we’ll follow through with that.” 

Though Pehrsson is new to EU, she’s well-versed in the ongoing PASSHE integration discussions and expressed excitement for the overlap in goals and plans between that and Edinboro’s CPP. She knows the financial goals for small universities like California, Clarion and Edinboro are “daunting,” but believes partnering will allow each entity to meet them. This, she said, will allow for reappropriation of funding to new or existing programs, equipment, and other supplies necessary for students.  

“For me, the bold and audacious goal of this integration is to reduce your costs by 25%,” said Pehrsson. “That doesn’t mean eliminate programs. We want you to have the best communications program in the world at a state school, with the best faculty and staff and equipment to really help you do the work you need to do. By partnering, we’ll be able to meet those financial goals and be able to reinvest in the ‘new U’ — the new university. We call it the ‘new U’ because we don’t know what to call it yet.” 

Figuring out a name for the configuration of Edinboro, Clarion and California is “way down the road,” according to Pehrsson, but she believes the moves from the state system and the three universities are about the students.  

“We’re looking at building it for the future. What is really exciting, too, for me, is that ‘Wow! Who gets to create the university of tomorrow?’ … Things are changing at lightning speed, so we have to get ready for that,” she said. “We have to make sure we’re ready to change with it.”  

Integration related changes first came to light earlier in the fall semester, when a list of potential cuts to the art department surfaced on a Facebook group called Save Edinboro University Fine Arts. Students, faculty and alumni of EU consistently expressed confusion, anger, and a sense of mistrust in the program review process. The art department may have emerged unscathed, but 21 programs across the university were placed into moratorium, and 21 permanent faculty members were retrenched. Add a new university president—the sixth since 2014 (Dr. Julie E. Wollman; Dr. David J. Werner, Interim; Dr. H. Fred Walker; Dr. Michael Hannan, Interim; Dr. Guiyou Huang; and now Pehrsson) — and institutional trust becomes a talking point. 

“Trust takes time to build. I’ve only been in Pennsylvania as a president for two and a half years and you’ve had three presidents since I got here: one left, one got put in, another one is leaving and now you’ve got four,” said Pehrsson. “That kind of whirlwind will make people just crazy with anxiety. It’s just difficult to absorb all that.” 

Her hope is to be involved in student activities at EU to help gain that trust. Though most events are held virtually because of the ongoing pandemic, Pehrsson believes being able to connect via Zoom will be helpful in building that relationship.  

“I [will] meet with the president of the council of trustees (Chairperson Barbara C. Chaffee), the president of the student senate, and a lot of other leadership, so I think those kinds of things where you get to know people and have a lot of greeting meetings helps,” she said. “We want to have a student advisory council who can give us a lot of input, to discuss the very things that you’re talking about — the communication, the transparency, student input. We need input because we’ve got all of these great working groups, but it’s really about you, so we should ask you what you think and what you need.” 

Pehrsson joked that once people get to know her, there’s no hiding from recognition with her “pepper and salt hair,” even behind a mask. She also mentioned that integration is a 3-to-5-year process, and “in some form or fashion, I’ll be working with Edinboro over the next five years and I’m very excited about that.” 

Even with the COVID-19 pandemic, “that doesn’t excuse not communicating” with the university community, she explained. 

Pehrsson also said that despite a term like integration: “Our hope is to really keep the traditions that are sacred, the campuses that have their beauty and their pride, but also create something for the future. That is going to be kind of a tricky balance to figure out. I think we can do it.” She believes the intimacy of a small campus is important to its community and is something she’ll be able to carry forward while working with both EU and Clarion. “I just don’t want to be disrespectful of the history and the love and stories that we’ve all built upon that give us our sense of who we are,” she said.  

Mentioning EU’s slogan,“For those who strive,” Pehrsson believes that’s one of ‘Boro’s strengths. “The ‘strive’ that you talk about, helping people get to that — those who strive, those who want to be better, make a better life for themselves or their family … that can-do gusto attitude is pretty ever present in Edinboro.” She’s seen this in the faculty members she’s spoken to. “I think that strength — whether it’s in teacher preparation, it’s in social work, it’s in the arts, the animation program which is really mighty fine — I think that comes through in everything. People are there for the students.” 

She continued: “They really love being at Edinboro because you talk about that culture, that mystique, that bubble of ‘this is what we do at Edinboro’ — all those cultural things — and people like that strong sense of community. When people get there, they feel it. They just feel it; it’s like a magnet. Those who come to work there want to be there and are a part of that. I want to be part of that. I’m really excited about that. I think that is great.” 

As far as university-wide improvements outside of the ongoing financial crisis goes, Pehrsson expressed some confusion on her end. 

“I think you (the Edinboro community) do a really good job of this, but it shouldn’t be such a secret that it’s such a wonderful place,” she said. “You do a really great job with your communications and so forth, and Angie (Burrows) is amazing, but why would people not go there (EU)? Why would they choose anything else? It’s so wonderful. I’d like to be the ‘Chief Storyteller’ for the campus so that I can share that word.” 

Looking ahead to the spring semester, and with COVID-19 cases on the rise within the Edinboro campus and community, Pehrsson mentioned it’s too soon to tell if the plans currently set will change. There are contingency plans ready in case things get worse. She mentioned her hopes for more of a national effort to help control the virus, but is concerned about the upcoming holidays. 

“I really think that if we want to gather next year, we need to not gather so much this year,” she said. 

Edinboro currently plans to have an increased number of in-person classes and students living on campus, but Pehrsson noted within the next six weeks the university should know if those plans have to change.  

Kimberly Firestine is the Executive Editor for The Spectator. She can be reached at edinboro.spectator@gmail.com.

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