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Faculty cuts and university integrations loom, as enrollment declines at Pennsylvania state universities

If approved, the integrations, allowed under a new state law, would reduce the 14-university system to 10 and become the most significant change in the system’s 37-year history.

Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education Chancellor Daniel Greenstein.
Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education Chancellor Daniel Greenstein.Read moreCommonwealth Media Services

Leaders of Pennsylvania’s state university system agreed Wednesday to continue down a path that could lead to integrating six of its 14 schools into two entities, while the faculty union warned that more than 300 members could lose their jobs by next year, before the integrations even occur.

The board of governors of the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education unanimously gave chancellor Daniel Greenstein the green light to plan the integration of Lock Haven, Mansfield, and Bloomsburg Universities into one school and Clarion, California, and Edinboro Universities into another. Lock Haven, Mansfield, and Bloomsburg in eastern Pennsylvania collectively serve 13,391 students and Clarion, California and Edinboro in Western Pennsylvania, 15,669. Both the new institutions would still be smaller than the system’s largest university, West Chester, with 17,719.

If approved, the integrations would reduce the system to 10 universities and become the most significant change in its 37-year history. Greenstein said much needs to be worked out but a financial review over the last few months showed that the integrations, while maintaining the separate campuses, would help the schools operate more efficiently, grow enrollment, and stop drawing down on their reserves.

The system’s financial analysis projected a 4% to 5% enrollment growth for the new entities and improved operating margins within the next three to five years.

» READ MORE: Major change could be coming for Pennsylvania’s state universities

Greenstein emphasized that the integrated institutions will be looking to grow new markets, those in the western part of the state eyeing online programs and the other group looking at graduate programs and nondegree certificate programs.

“This is an opportunity to think big and go big,” Greenstein told the board.

The state system enrolls about 93,700 this year, a 2% decline from last year and down from about 120,000 a decade ago. Greenstein, however, noted that the enrollment picture this fall is more promising than anticipated given the pandemic. Seven universities showed flat numbers or growth.

» READ MORE: Enrollment falls again across Pennsylvania’s state universities

Greenstein said he would present the integration plan to the board of governors as early as April, followed by a 60-day public review and comment period, with a vote by the board as early as July. The integrated universities could possibly enroll students by August 2022, he said.

Five of the six universities slated for integration were identified in July when the chancellor announced the plan. Since then, Slippery Rock was removed and Bloomsburg added.

Each campus will keep its location and identity but report to a single leadership team and operate with one staff and budget, Greenstein said. Just what the new entities will be called is uncertain, he said.

» READ MORE: As colleges compete for fewer students, the pressure rises to meet enrollment targets

“The next phase would run from now until April and answer all the hard questions: How does it work? What does it look like? How do we do it? Over what timeline,” he said before the meeting.

What’s clear is that the system will have fewer employees. In 2021-22, even before the integrations would take effect, the system will be down 674 employees from the current year, a loss of nearly 7% of the workforce.

That includes retirements, layoffs, and other reductions, though the system declined to say how many would be faculty positions. The union has asserted that more than 300 members could lose their jobs.

Greenstein said downsizing is necessary, given the enrollment decline.

“Thirteen universities have lost 30% of their students since 2010," not including West Chester, which has continually grown, he said. “We’ve pushed tuition about as high as we can. We are losing students. It’s just not fair to continue to operate in a way that doesn’t take account of the fact that we’re just smaller.”

Tuition and room and board costs top $21,000 annually.

“It’s really important for us to work in concert with one another across the system and not cannibalize opportunities," said Dale-Elizabeth Pehrsson, Clarion’s president. "We have to share the resources so that the costs go down for the students.”

» READ MORE: With finances growing tighter, state universities told to cut back on adjuncts, combine underenrolled programs

Jamie Martin, president of the more than 5,000-member Association of Pennsylvania State College and University Faculties, said projections from last month show the system could be targeting several hundred faculty members for layoffs. Seven universities — Mansfield, Lock Haven, Clarion, Edinboro, Indiana, California, and Cheyney — have warned they are considering cuts.

“My colleagues are getting to the point where they are beginning to get terrified,” she said. “We’ve been banging our heads against the wall, trying to figure out what is happening here.”

Martin said at Indiana, where she taught criminology before becoming union president, 120 jobs could be cut, roughly 25% of the teaching staff. A spokesperson for the school declined comment.

Over five years, much of the reduction could be achieved through attrition, Martin said. This year, more than 250 faculty took early retirement, she said.

Martin told the board she worries students will be hurt when they return to campuses to find some academic programs and their faculty advisers gone and their class sizes higher.

While offering suggestions on the integration plan, including the need to reach out to alumni, board members said they understood the need for integration.

“We knew this was coming,” said Steven Crawford, vice chair of the council of trustees at Mansfield. “We believe the difficult parts are to come, but we’re encouraged.”