Pennsylvania’s state university system will proceed with plans to merge schools
The affirmative vote by the Pennsylvania State System's board of governors kicks off a 60-day comment period with a final vote likely in July.
More than 60 alumni and faculty from Lock Haven University gathered on Zoom one night this week to talk about how they might avert what one called “a hostile takeover.”
They were upset that Lock Haven was targeted for merger with two other Pennsylvania state universities, worrying it will hurt students and damage the school’s reputation.
“By doing what we’re doing, we’re underselling ourselves,” Steven Marks, a 2014 alumnus said on the Tuesday night call, “which I think for me, as an alum, makes me feel like my degree is worth a little less.”
But the mounting concerns from faculty, alumni, and others didn’t stop the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education’s board of governors from voting Wednesday to proceed with plans to consolidate six of its universities, including Lock Haven, into two new entities.
It would be the most significant change in the system’s 37-year history and reduce its universities from 14 to 10.
“I don’t think there is a perfect solution, but I think that we have done the best we can do to come up with the best solution,” David M. Maser, board vice chair, said during two hours of statements and debate.
A 60-day comment period, including public hearings is next, with a final vote expected in July.
Wednesday’s vote did not come without board members expressing concerns and reservations. They said they wanted more information on how much online learning would be required at the new entities, the financial impact on the campuses’ six host communities, how accreditation and athletics would be affected and how students feel about the plan. The board voted 17-2, with dissenting votes from only State Rep. Tim Briggs, (D., Montgomery), and Nicole Dunlop, student government association president at Slippery Rock University.
Under the merger plans — developed with input from more than 1,000 students, faculty and staff — Bloomsburg, Mansfield, and Lock Haven would become one entity and California, Clarion, and Edinboro in Western Pennsylvania another. All six campuses would remain open and report to one of two leadership teams with integrated enrollment strategies, curriculum, and faculty.
Many questions remain, including whether each of the six can retain their athletic teams. The 93,000-student system is awaiting a decision from the National Collegiate Athletic Association.
If NCAA says no, Chancellor Daniel Greenstein said the system will work with the association to develop a solution “that works for everybody.”
System officials say the mergers are necessary, given a 21% decline in enrollment over the last decade, eroding reserves, and projections for continued decreases in the high school graduate population.
“Integrated institutions can do more together than they can on their own,” Greenstein said.
Even the state universities not a part of the mergers are feeling increasing financial pressure and can’t continue to subsidize other institutions, including some that have had to borrow money from the system.
“It’s going to start dragging us all down,” said Christopher Fiorentino, president of West Chester, the system’s largest university, where enrollment continues to grow.
Jamie Martin, president of the Association of Pennsylvania State College and University Faculties, the statewide union, questioned how much money consolidations will save.
In hundreds of pages of planning documents released Monday, the system said it would save $18.4 million after five years. But, Martin pointed out, the system also estimates that it will cost nearly $30 million to implement the plan over the same period.
Dave Pidgeon, system spokesperson, countered that the $30 million is a onetime cost and that savings would continue.
Martin also questioned whether students would have access to academic programs they want on each campus or would need to take classes online.
“There are too many questions left unanswered,” she said in an interview. “I don’t know why we’re at breakneck speed when we’re not saving money and when there are questions about access.”
Bashar Hanna, president of Bloomsburg and interim president of Lock Haven, who led the merger planning for those schools and Mansfield, said a student survey showed the majority are comfortable with 25% of their classes online.
“That will be guiding us as we build our programs,” he said.
He also noted that 75% of students enrolled at the three universities fall into eight disciplinary areas that all will continue to be offered in-person on each campus.
Dawn Schram, a 1995 Lock Haven graduate whose daughter attends the school, said during the Tuesday Zoom meeting that she’s concerned about the 15 programs already slated to be cut at Lock Haven and a push to move some courses online.
“It’s heartbreaking that they are taking all these opportunities away from these communities because it’s not just affecting the schools, it’s affecting the communities,” she said. “It’s affecting everyone.”
There are concerns on other campuses, too.
Mary Jane Bowes, chair of Bloomsburg’s Council of Trustees, said she’s concerned that Bloomsburg, a more stable school, may deteriorate because of financial issues at the other two. She said Mansfield and Lock Haven have to address a combined $65 million in needed repairs, known as deferred maintenance, and Mansfield has not balanced its budget.
But Jack Webby, who chairs the association of trustee councils for the 14 universities, said the integration plans “provide a thoughtful and data driven approach to expanding opportunities for students while shoring up the financial health of our system.”
A day before the vote, the Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center, a progressive public policy research center, released a report that said the consolidations would have a disastrous impact on local communities where campuses are based. Employment at three campuses, including Bloomsburg, would decline 20% and drop by 26% at the campuses including Clarion, said Michael Ash, study coauthor and a professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.
Combined, they will lose more than 850 jobs, he said, in communities that can little afford to withstand the blow.
Greenstein countered that the job losses would occur even without the mergers due to declining enrollment.
Both Ash and Martin said the system should be seeking greater state funding, more than the 2% boost Greenstein has asked for, noting that Pennsylvania is nearly last in the nation in state higher-education funding.
But Pidgeon said moving Pennsylvania to the middle would require hundreds of millions in additional funding when the state is suffering economically from the pandemic.
“We have to confront the conditions we’ve been given,” he said.
Cynthia Shapira, board chair, noted the decline in women’s colleges nationally as an example of schools recognizing the need to alter course.
“Everyone basically had to change in order to further their mission, like we have to further our mission,” she said.
The public hearings are set for June 9 and 10. People also can submit comments at https://passhe.co1.qualtrics.com/jfe/form/SV_00YFhobC8CjvV2K.