It just got easier for the system overseeing Pennsylvania’s 14 state universities to make substantial changes, including consolidating, expanding, or affiliating its schools.
Gov. Tom Wolf on Wednesday signed legislation that gives the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education’s leadership and governing board the decision over such changes, instead of requiring a vote by the General Assembly.
It’s perhaps the most substantial change in the 1982 law that established the system. But the law does not allow the system to close a university.
The changes come as the 95,000-student system, which has seen its enrollment drop more than 20% since 2010, grapples with fallout and uncertainty from the coronavirus pandemic. The legislation was introduced in January before the pandemic, said system spokesperson Dave Pidgeon.
“This bill represents some of the most significant improvements to how the state system operates in our 38-year history,” Chancellor Dan Greenstein said before Wolf signed the package.
Any plan to change the system would be subject to a lot of feedback before implementation, including public hearings and review by the legislature. And at least two-thirds of the system’s governing board would have to approve the changes.
The legislation provides a three-year window for changes to be implemented before the authority would revert back to the legislature.
“This gives us some pretty commonsense tools for us to be able to adjust and pivot based on what the market conditions are,” Pidgeon said.
State system officials declined to say how they planned to use the legislation. The system was struggling before COVID-19 and now, like other colleges around the country, it has lost millions in revenue and faces additional expenses because of the virus.
Greenstein told the board in April that the system anticipates a $52 million revenue shortfall through the summer. Nine of the universities in the system anticipate they will have to dip into their reserves to cover $146 million in operating costs through 2023-24.
Pidgeon said universities are individually and collectively looking at their financial sustainability. Decisions will come as that process continues, he said. The new legislation also provides for more sharing of services and collaboration.
The legislation exempts the two largest schools in the system, West Chester and Indiana, from affiliation, consolidation or shared services, because each enrolls more than 10,000 students, Pidgeon said. West Chester’s enrollment exceeds 17,000. State Sen. Andy Dinniman, a Chester County Democrat, said some members of the Senate pushed for IUP and West Chester to be exempt.
“We succeeded in strengthening the role of local councils of trustees and increasing legislative oversight of the reorganizational process that will be initiated by the PASSHE chancellor and board of governors,” Dinniman said in a statement. “The amendment also protects any weakening of academic quality and strength of West Chester University by exempting it from shared service and affiliations.”