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Board OKs controversial plan to merge six Pennsylvania state universities

More than two hours of discussion and debate made clear a key factor was the system’s relationship with the state legislature and the funding it could yield.

Lock Haven University is one of six campuses, which will be merged.
Lock Haven University is one of six campuses, which will be merged.Read moreSTEVEN M. FALK / Staff Photographer

With a promise that none of the campuses will be closed, the board that governs Pennsylvania’s state university system gave unanimous final approval Wednesday to merge six of its 14 schools into two.

The plan, which drew hundreds of negative comments online and at public hearings over the last couple of months, will begin to take effect for the 2022-23 academic year. It’s the biggest change in the state system’s 38-year history, one that system officials say will grow enrollment, save millions, and improve operating margins within three to five years.

“We need to have the courage to act, and we need to act now,” said Janet Yeomans, a board member from Philadelphia.

More than two hours of discussion made clear a key factor was the system’s relationship with the state legislature and the funding it could yield. The Republican-controlled legislature, which has been supportive of the mergers, gave the system a $50 million boost in aid this year, on top of its $477 million allocation, to help implement the plan, with the promise of $150 million more over the following two years.

“We have a unique and arguably historic opportunity reflected in this new partnership with the state, which is to not just stabilize ourselves but to position ourselves to be successful going forward,” system chancellor Daniel Greenstein said in an interview before the vote. “I see this as a turning point, I hope, in our relationship with the state.”

» READ MORE: Pennsylvania plans to merge six universities. But some fear a 'slow death' for troubled schools

The vote comes a little more than a year after the state legislature and Gov. Tom Wolf approved legislation that allows the 93,700-student system to consolidate or merge some campuses. The move follows a 22% enrollment decline in the system since 2010 and mounting financial challenges.

Under the plan, Bloomsburg, Mansfield, and Lock Haven Universities in north-central Pennsylvania will merge, as will Clarion, California and Edinboro in the west. Collectively, the six campuses, all of which will remain open, serve about 29,000 students. Once merged, the campuses in both groups will report to a single leadership team and operate with one staff and budget.

Two board members who initially expressed reservations, State Reps. Tim Briggs (D., Montgomery) and Judith Schwank (D., Berks), also supported the plan. Schwank called the decision the “most difficult and impactful” in her time on the board and said she still has reservations.

“We don’t know necessarily how all this is going to work out,” Schwank said. “I believe it’s the best path for us to move forward.”

Before the vote, some faculty urged the board to oppose the mergers.

“Leave Lock Haven University alone,” implored Richard Goulet, a history professor and president of the faculty union, asserting that the university can grow and thrive on its own.

But others, including several university presidents and members of councils of trustees at schools to be merged, including Barbara Chafee, chair of Edinboro’s council, spoke in support. She said that the system should have been making changes nearly a decade ago and that the university integrations are “critical to our long-term survival and success.”

Jamie Martin, president of the Association of Pennsylvania State College & University Faculties, the statewide faculty union, credited system officials for making some important changes in the plan from its initial presentation but said there are still many unanswered questions and added that she hopes more changes can be made even after the approval. Greenstein said there would be opportunities to “course-correct” as necessary.

“We need to get out there to those campuses in the fall, explain what this means, and answer questions,” Martin said, noting that with the pandemic, students really haven’t had enough of a chance to weigh in.

Much still remains unknown: New names for the schools have not been identified. The NCAA hasn’t ruled on the system’s request to maintain sports teams on all six campuses, which has some concerned, and the mergers are subject to approval by the Middle States Commission on Higher Education, an accrediting agency.

“We are cautiously optimistic that we have fulfilled all of the NCAA’s requests and answered all their questions,” Bashar Hanna, president of Bloomsburg, interim president of Lock Haven, and lead president for the merger, said in an interview before the vote.

Critics worry the campuses will lose their identities, see a further drop-off in enrollment, and offer students fewer in-person learning opportunities. Some even fear the mergers are a precursor to closure, a worry the system tried to address by inserting language that none of the campuses can be closed.

System officials say the mergers will offer students a greater array of courses and enable them to graduate more quickly. They also say that although students in some majors may need to take a portion of their classes online, 75% of students who are concentrated in eight to 10 majors will have in-person access to all of their program.

“It’s that small minority of programs where students may need to take no more than 25% of their courses online in order to graduate in a timely fashion,” said Hanna, who also was named interim president of Mansfield on Wednesday. “The overwhelming majority of students will really experience very little difference between what we do now and what we will be doing, except they will have access to a broader array of courses.”

» READ MORE: Commenters overwhelmingly opposed state university mergers at first day of hearings

The system modified its time line for blending curriculum across the campuses from one year to three. Another concern was the amount of deferred maintenance on some campuses and whether stronger schools would be dragged down. Greenstein said the system will use some of the new state funding to address those concerns.

The system also recently released an economic impact study it commissioned, which found that the merged universities would have a better effect than if they were to stand alone.

Mark Cloud, a longtime Lock Haven psychology professor, said he was very disappointed with the vote. He said the plan does nothing to address the problem of affordability, which has led to the enrollment decline.

“I fear they have addressed the wrong problem,” he said.

Hanna said that with the board’s affirmative vote, the real work begins, with a focus on continuing to serve first-generation college students and those from lower- and middle-income families.

“We should be the economic engine that we were designed to be and continue to do it in every corner of the commonwealth,” he said.