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Commenters overwhelmingly opposed Pa. state university mergers during first day’s hearings

It was the first two of four public hearings scheduled on the plan, which the 14-university state system board intends to vote on next month.

Daniel Greenstein, chancellor of the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education
Daniel Greenstein, chancellor of the Pennsylvania State System of Higher EducationRead moreKRISTON JAE BETHEL / For the Inquirer

More than 40 faculty, alumni, and graduate students urged Pennsylvania state university board members to oppose or postpone a plan to merge six of their universities into two new entities at two public hearings Wednesday.

They argued that the plan to require some classes be taken online would negatively impact student learning and said mergers would not solve the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education’s financial and enrollment woes, only exacerbate them by chasing more students away.

“I oppose the integration and I ask you to vote against it,” said Holiday Adair, a criminal justice and psychology professor at California University of Pennsylvania, one of the six targeted for integration.

» READ MORE: Pennsylvania's state university system votes to proceed with plans to merge schools

She said during the morning hearing on Zoom that students struggled with online learning during the pandemic and grades were lower.

“Students kept telling me they could not learn this way,” Adair said. “Despite my numerous outreach efforts, I felt that I had lost them and in more than intellectual ways.”

Other commenters asked that the system at least delay the plan for more study. Several noted that students and faculty were organizing opposition — including one group calling itself the PASSHE Defenders — and said rallies were planned for this weekend in communities where campuses were being integrated.

The comments came at the first two of four public hearings scheduled on the plan, which the 14-university state system board intends to vote on next month. The other two hearings are Thursday at 8 a.m. and 4:30 p.m.

Under the plan, Bloomsburg, Mansfield, and Lock Haven would become a new entity and California, Clarion, and Edinboro another. The plan would require approval from the Middle States Commission on Higher Education, an accrediting body, and the system is still waiting to hear from the National Collegiate Athletic Association on whether all six campuses can retain sports teams as proposed.

Even if the NCAA were to approve, there are many questions that need to be answered, said John Gump, women’s basketball coach at Kutztown University and the union leader representing the system’s 300 coaches.

“How will one admissions office adequately serve three athletic programs?” he asked, urging the board to delay the plan.

» READ MORE: Pa. state universities release plan to consolidate six schools

Under the plan, students at the six schools may have to take up to 25% of their courses online.

Elisabeth Joyce, an English professor at Edinboro, said such online learning is fine for adult learners seeking advanced degrees, but not for students who come from lower-income families, whom she saw struggle with the modality during the pandemic.

“I suggest free or very reduced tuition for Pell grant recipients and fully face-to-face university experiences for them,” she said.

Greg Zimmerman, chair of the chemistry and biochemistry department at Bloomsburg, said he saw an increase in cheating in online classes.

“That is just a really serious problem,” he said.

Nahje Royster, a West Chester alumna who identified herself as Black, said the consolidation plan does nothing to address the systemic racism and oppression in the predominantly white schools or poverty among students.

“If you’re not going to address the actual issues and needs of students, what are you really doing with this consolidation plan other than further endangering the PASSHE system,” she said.

The lone commenter in support of integration during the three-plus hours of hearings was Marc Stempka, a 2010 California alumnus and current East Stroudsburg University graduate student. He referred to the system’s more than 20% enrollment loss over the last decade and financial challenges in Pennsylvania.

“The state system needs to be rightsized for the future and for online education,” Stempka said. “Right now, the best option on the table is the integration plan.”

Steve Gonzalez, another commenter, took issue with Stempka’s comments.

“Being in business for 20 years, I know what rightsize means,” he said. “It’s a weasel term we use to explain we’re going to cut something, to decimate something.”

Even professors from schools not a part of the consolidation spoke against it. Margaret Ervin, an English professor at West Chester, said the system has been hurt by Pennsylvania’s unwillingness to better fund the universities, noting that the state is near the bottom in higher-education support.

“This plan will not address the financial needs of the system,” she said. “Rather, the consolidation amounts to a gutting of the state system.”

Cynthia Shapira, board chair, thanked participants and said some comments show the system hasn’t done a good enough job getting information out about the plan.

“That’s on us,” she said.