Pennsylvania college system redesign full of unknowns

Officials within the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education (PASSHE) announced last week they intend to integrate two sets of universities: California, Clarion and Edinboro, in the western part of the state, and Bloomsburg, Lock Haven and Mansfield in the north and east.

The language of their statements was highly aspirational, declaring that the partnerships could change the face of higher education in the institutions’ regions. But the communiques lacked depth. They contained no information about how those partnerships would look, whether they entail academic or staff reductions, or their leadership structures.

That’s because those decisions haven’t been made yet, according to system officials. However, the vagueness jolted the influential faculty union, whose leader, Jamie Martin, said she was unaware the news was coming. Just two months prior, PASSHE had announced a plan that involved different pairings among several of the public system’s 14 campuses — one it has apparently now scrapped. 

Martin, president of the Association of Pennsylvania State College and University Faculties, said the announcements were “premature” because the system hasn’t released details, and it has to follow a complex, legally dictated process before consolidating campus operations. 

The ambiguity is compounded by the public health crisis and system officials’ separate demand that the campuses develop financially sustainable business models, which undoubtedly will lead to faculty cuts. The uncertainty has rattled the already beleaguered entity.

“We’re completely in the dark and trying to calm our colleagues down,” Martin said.

A shaky system

Few familiar with PASSHE’s history would deny it needs an overhaul. 

Middling state support, shifting demographics and significant competition among institutions have driven down its enrollment by about 20% in the last decade. But system leaders couldn’t take the more drastic steps of merging or expanding campuses until state lawmakers passed a bill this summer giving them the ability to do so. That power historically lies with the legislature. 

The bill doesn’t allow the system to shut down universities, but PASSHE officials said they have no interest in closures.

The legislation, passed in July, means to enable the system to move more nimbly and pursue necessary cost-cutting measures, such as campus consolidations. The same month it was signed into law, the system proposed integrating three pairs of universities. Officials also began to review the financial implications of combining institutional operations. That inquiry is underway and due to be completed and potentially presented at the governing board’s meeting in mid-October.

But the system diverged from its summer proposal this month. David Pidgeon, a PASSHE spokesperson, said previously that the system was open to other integration options. But the latest one was delivered to faculty without any details.

In an interview this week, Pidgeon stressed the importance of PASSHE communicating with campuses, including faculty members, throughout the entire system redesign. 

“They’re critically important to the process,” Pidgeon said.

What would a new PASSHE look like?

When they announced the initial pairings this summer, system officials said they envisioned the newly linked universities excelling in certain modes of education: California and Clarion, which Pidgeon said have a history of robust online learning, could jointly expand their model. Lock Haven and Mansfield, which have a high demand for nontraditional students and stackable credentials, he said, could pursue more certificate programs. 

Adding Edinboro to the mix with California and Clarion, and Bloomsburg with Lock Haven and Mansfield, would help prop up their respective programming, Pidgeon said.

“In order to achieve the scale necessary and set up the integrations we want to achieve, three was going to make much more sense,” he said.

The financial analysis will help the system figure out the details of unifying the universities, Pidgeon said. But he was unclear about what features of the plan will be unveiled at the October board of governors meeting, and could not answer questions related to specifics of the proposal.

System officials have avoided describing the relationships as mergers, which tend to conjure doomsday scenarios of campus shutdowns. Instead, the system prefers words such as “integration” because it refers to a nonspecific goal, Pidgeon said. It has also called them “affiliations.”

The proposal will get a second, deeper review after the governing board sees through the current financial analysis. The final plan will be subject to at least two public hearings, and will be presented to lawmakers, though they don’t need to sign off on it. The earliest schools would be consolidated is fall 2022, he said.

“The urgency is now,” Pidgeon said. “In order for the state system to get academic opportunities in these critically important regions … we’ve got to challenge the status quo right now, and financially stabilize these universities as a whole.”

Challenges ahead

Skepticism about the system’s selection of the universities and its handling of the process abounds within and outside of PASSHE.

Officials are attempting to mesh institutions with vastly different brands, said Andrew Koricich, a Pennsylvania native and higher education professor at Appalachian State University, in North Carolina.

Edinboro was founded as a teacher’s college and has developed a nationwide reputation catering to students with disabilities. Koricich said he was unsure how those specialities would fit with California and Clarion. Meanwhile, Mansfield is located in a small, rural community near the New York border. How, Koricich pondered, would it work with institutions that weren’t nearby?

“If scale is your argument, wouldn’t the proper scale be getting the whole PASSHE system on the same back end for online programming and sharing services at the system office?” he said.

The new legislation giving officials more freedom to reconfigure the system excludes PASSHE’s two biggest institutions, West Chester University and Indiana University of Pennsylvania. To Koricich, that opens the door to the system “stripping” its less-resourced universities and preserving the wealthier ones. It’s a common financial dynamic in higher ed, in which powerful institutions are protected and regional colleges are punished as an outcome of efforts to downsize.

As the system redesign progresses, individual campuses are being directed to craft plans that would return them to 2010-11 faculty-student ratios — when PASSHE’s enrollment was at its peak — and have the effect of increasing the number of students per class. It’s part of a directive to save $250 million across the campuses within two years.

Initially, they were given five years, but PASSHE chancellor Dan Greenstein accelerated the timeline in April as the system’s financial position deteriorated.

“We’re completely in the dark and trying to calm our colleagues down.”

Jamie Martin

President, the Association of Pennsylvania State College and University Faculties

Greenstein also ordered the campuses in February to halt the use of temporary faculty, not fill vacant faculty and staff positions, and eliminate academic programs with low enrollment. 

At least 10 of PASSHE’s 14 campuses were put on notice that job cuts could come as early as next spring. At some institutions, that could mean more than 100 instructors would be let go, Martin, the faculty union president, told Education Dive

“Doing that in the middle of a pandemic has a chilling effect on individual universities willing to work with the state systems,” she said.

Pidgeon, when asked about the system’s position on employee layoffs, punted the responsibility to campuses, saying they make the call on where to trim.

As PASSHE continues to discuss consolidations, communication with the campuses and public will be key, said Tom Harnisch, vice president for government relations at the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association. Harnisch complimented Greenstein for moving forward with a plan despite economic and demographic headwinds. 

Getting lawmakers on board will also be necessary, Harnisch said, and the bill enabling system leaders to make changes passed with bipartisan support. But PASSHE campuses are regional economic engines, and the prospect of cuts can face pushback from legislators who don’t want to see institutions in the areas they represent gutted. A proposed merger in Florida was halted this year after it didn’t gain traction among some in the legislature. 

“These institutions are critical to regional economic growth and community vitality, so it’s essential to get this right,” Harnisch said.

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