Some Democratic lawmakers asked tough questions and raised grave concerns about the proposed merger of six Pennsylvania universities at a joint hearing of the House appropriations and education committees Tuesday.
One even questioned whether the consolidation of six universities into two entities would so shake public confidence that the 14-university Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education would find itself in a “death spiral.”
“I’ve never seen government cheering the demise of a government entity like I have today,” said State Rep. Peter Schweyer, a Lehigh County Democrat.
Republican lawmakers acknowledged the plan isn’t perfect but said something has to be done to deal with declining enrollment and a worsening financial picture.
“We’ve got a very significant challenge here and I don’t see a lot of other solutions being presented other than coming up with more money to put into a system that is bleeding money,” said Republican State Rep. John Lawrence of Chester County.
Chancellor Daniel Greenstein painted a dire picture: Four or five of the system’s universities are “insolvent” and four of those proposed for merger have lost 40% to 50% of their enrollment. Other universities in the state system have been subsidizing the ones that are struggling at about $46 million annually. At West Chester, the largest school in the system, students are paying $1,000, “maybe a bit more,” annually to subsidize the other universities.
“This system is at a tipping point,” Greenstein told the body. “It is no longer sustainable in the current model. Tweaks to that model will not serve our students. It will not serve their communities, and it will not serve the state.”
The state system’s board of governors voted last week to proceed with a plan to merge Bloomsburg, Mansfield, and Lock Haven Universities into a new entity and Edinboro, Clarion, and California into another. The approval kicked off a 60-day public comment period, with a final vote by the board likely to come in July.
While the House and Senate don’t vote on the merger plan, they do vote on state funding for the system, and Republicans control both the House and Senate.
Several lawmakers asked about the savings the mergers would derive. One asked about a system report laying out plans for the proposed mergers, which stated $18.4 million would be saved after five years, while implementation would cost nearly $30 million.
Greenstein said that the implementation expenses were a one-time cost and that savings were ongoing and would compound and actually be $100 million over five years.
“I just want to be clear,” said State Rep. Leanne Krueger, a Delaware County Democrat. “Your report says very clearly on page 161 that $18.4 million is the amount over the course of five years, not ongoing.”
“It is ongoing,” Greenstein said.
System spokesperson David Pidgeon said later that once the mergers were in place in 2022-23, personnel savings would accumulate each year until reaching an aggregate total of $18.4 million in 2025-26. Going forward at that point, integrations would save $18.4 million annually, he said.
Asked about job loss as a result of the consolidation, Greenstein said 60 jobs would be cut in one region and 80 in the other, most of them at the administrative level and about half would be absorbed through retirements. He said other cuts in faculty are a result of lower enrollment — the system has lost 21% of its enrollment since 2010 — and would occur even without the mergers.
Some legislators questioned what courses students would have to take online and whether the system will supply laptops, hot spots, and locations for students to deal with concerns about equity.
“What is the standard by which courses are suitable for hybrid learning?” asked State Rep. Emily Kinkead, an Allegheny County Democrat.
Kinkead said she was left with more questions than answers after reading the system’s more than 400 pages in planning documents.
“I would ask the chancellor to go back to the drawing board,” she said.
Greenstein said the mergers will create two new “powerhouse” universities with greater program offerings for students and a residential experience.
“This is about fixing a system that we have all identified as broken,” said State Rep. Torren Ecker, a Republican who represents Adams and Cumberland Counties.
Greenstein said that Mansfield, Clarion, and Edinboro have been “under a cloud” and that students and parents are relieved that someone is taking the concerns seriously.
But Schweyer, the Lehigh County Democrat, worried that the cure may cause more harm.
“Chancellor, you said a number of your … schools are failing. Why would anybody choose them today? Why would anybody choose them after a consolidation? I wouldn’t.”