PASSHE presidents exit as system gears up for overhaul

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Dive Brief:

  • As the financially burdened Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education prepares to combine six of its institutions into two new entities, presidents at those schools are stepping down.

  • Edinboro University President Guiyou Huang will take over Western Illinois University, the institution announced this week. California University President Geraldine Jones is retiring in January. And Lock Haven University President Robert Pignatello applied to lead a New Jersey community college. 

  • The system has remained largely tightlipped about the university integrations, including on prospective administrative and faculty cuts, though officials say they intend for the two sets of schools to each have one leadership team and faculty. 

Dive Insight:

PASSHE’s enrollment has plummeted by about 20% in the past decade, a result of shifting state demographics and Pennsylvania’s saturated higher education market. State support has also waned in recent years, and it looks unlikely to improve amid the pandemic-induced recession.

The 14-campus system has proposed combining California, Clarion and Edinboro universities into a single body geared toward online programming. Bloomsburg, Lock Haven and Mansfield universities, meanwhile, would focus on stackable and nondegree credentials.

PASSHE officials said they can’t offer much public information as they map out the mergers, though employee cuts are anticipated. More than 100 full-time faculty members across the system will already likely lose their jobs at the end of the academic year in light of the financial pinch, which the coronavirus exacerbated.

Edinboro and California have already named interim replacements. California’s vice president for administration and finance will temporarily run the latter, while Clarion President Dale-Elizabeth Pehrsson will oversee the former and her current institution.  

System spokesperson David Pidgeon wrote in an email that the system is “well-positioned” to continue work on the integrations, “even if a university leader decides to pursue opportunities elsewhere.”

“We understand and appreciate the circumstances everyone involved in the integrations find themselves confronting,” Pidgeon also wrote, noting Edinboro’s and Clarion’s governing boards supported Pehrsson’s appointment.

But the president of PASSHE’s faculty union, Jamie Martin, said in an emailed statement that Pehrsson taking dual roles raises concerns the system is moving forward with integration plans without public input. The state legislation that enabled PASSHE to proceed with the mergers outlines a multistep process involving multiple chances for the public and lawmakers to comment. The union expects that law to be followed, Martin said. She also took issue with one president leading two institutions while handling the integrations. 

Pidgeon wrote that PASSHE is just starting “a long journey” that is meant to be consultative. He wrote he had no new information to share on the integrations. 

However, documents the system published indicate that in addition to one contingent of leaders and staff, the two new units each would have a single budget, enrollment strategy and array of academic programs. Officials have stressed, however, that they are honoring the institutions’ local identities, a move postsecondary experts have said will likely help assuage skepticism from alumni, the public and state legislators. Pennsylvania House lawmakers have already expressed trepidation over the proposal.

A new goal for the two resulting entities is to reduce student costs by 25% to help eliminate equity gaps, PASSHE Chancellor Dan Greenstein told the system’s governing panel at a meeting Wednesday.

Though some mergers among public colleges have proven unpopular elsewhere in the U.S., PASSHE representatives have said it is necessary to preserve the system’s financial health. They forecast that joining the six institutions would reverse enrollment declines and the institutions’ bleak financial outlook.

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