Pennsylvania Votes to Combine Six State Universities

From PA Chamber

Leaders of Pennsylvania’s system of 14-state owned universities voted Wednesday to combine six into two, aiming to stabilize their finances and keep them vibrant and able to attract students.

By an 18-0 vote, the system’s board of governors approved a plan to combine Bloomsburg, Lock Haven and Mansfield universities, all located in the north-central part of the state, into a single institution. The plan does the same with three western Pennsylvania universities: California, Clarion and Edinboro.

Each trio of schools will have a combined administration and curriculum and share a new name. However, each will continue to have its own campus and athletic programs.

“This will create a unique, possibly historic opportunity to truly re-imagine public higher education as it ought to be in the 21st century,” said Cynthia Shapira, chairwoman of the board of governors for Pennsylvania’s State System of Higher Education.

It will take three years to carry out steps including merging and finalizing the curriculum, with the effort expected to be completed by the fall of 2024.

Dan Greenstein, the chancellor for the state system, promised students and parents the plan won’t interfere with students’ progress and ability to graduate on time.

Wednesday’s action concluded an anguished four-year effort in which the system’s governors, state lawmakers, students, faculty and others grappled with how to adapt the state system to factors such as stagnant state funding and declining enrollment, and how to keep tuition affordable for the students from middle class and working families the system was founded to serve.

Greenstein stressed Wednesday’s action “is not the end.”

“This is an opportunity to begin building these new universities together,” he said. “We will monitor our progress constantly, making course corrections whenever necessary.”

A sense of urgency

Enrollment within the system has fallen from about 120,000 a decade ago to less than 94,000. Moreover, state funding has failed to keep up with expenses: it now compromises about 29% of the system’s operating budget, down from 65% in 1983.

Some schools within the system are losing millions per year. Moreover, financial challenges threatened their ability to offer the broad, high-quality curriculums and programs needed to attract students and also meet the educational and economic development needs of their communities.

“If we do nothing, and things continue as they are, we’re in a race to the bottom,” said Democratic state Sen. Judy Schwank of Berks County, a member of the governing board.

Board member Samuel Smith, a former state lawmaker, said the plan approved Wednesday is not perfect, “but doing nothing is absolutely the worst thing we can do.”

Greenstein, in explaining the need for the change, gave the example of Mansfield being able to offer 80 or 90 programs as opposed to 18.

Under the integration plan, each trio of schools will share a president, administration and faculty. Moreover, curriculums will be merged and modified in order to maximize course offerings and make the full range available to students at each campus, system officials say.

At the same time, governors promised students at each campus will have access to plenty of face-to-face instruction as opposed to an over-reliance on online learning.

Another key part of the plan is to maximize offerings, including distance learning, for non-traditional students looking to upgrade skills or change careers. All of the schools are located in rural communities.

Union: Some details are lacking

Jamie Martin, president of the Association of Pennsylvania State College and University Faculties, said before the vote her group is happy the latest proposal specified that none of the six schools can be closed, and that the period for integrating curriculums was extended to three years.

But she said specifics are lacking on some important things, such as how much students will have to rely on online courses to complete degrees.

“We trust that when the answers come, and as additional feedback and suggestions are given, they will guide this plan going forward,” Martin said.

Despite assurances from the board of governors, some parts of the plan remain uncertain and vulnerable to outside forces.

For example, it remains to been seen how the Middle States Commission on Higher Education, which accredits colleges and universities, will respond to the combined schools, and how the NCAA will view the plan to have them maintain their athletic programs.

Responding to those uncertainties, Greenstein said those entities’ role is one of support, and “they can’t begin to support us until they know what direction we’re going in.”

Gov. Tom Wolf supports the integration plan as did state lawmakers on the board of governors.

The process leading up to Wednesday’s vote involved extensive student, facility and public input, with many objecting and some claiming the level of public input wasn’t enough, with the process hampered by the pandemic.

The vote was taken during a public meeting of the board of governors conducted via Zoom.

Several people voiced objections during a public comment period, including who one who said the integrations will create “second class … less prestigious” institutions.

“I don’t see how this plan is going to address anything, but I do see how it’s going to drive students away, and that’s going to further weaken the state system,” he said.

Another opponent, a West Chester University graduate student, said the plan fails to address the most pressing problem — tuition affordability for students.

However, Barbara Chaffee, an alumni and trustee of Edinboro University, said hundreds of colleges and universities around the country are showing “financial warning signs” and more than 50 have closed or merged since 2015.

 
“They try something new. They consolidate, they merge … they create a new or improved product. Our pivot is integration. It is a critical first step,” she said.