Much-anticipated recommendations on solving financial and enrollment woes at Pennsylvania's state universities will be presented at a meeting in Harrisburg on Wednesday — and it won't be just the public getting the news for the first time.
That's when the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education's board of governors will hear the report from the National Center on Higher Education Management Systems, a Boulder, Colo., consulting firm that the system hired in March to conduct the review.
"We all agreed in advance that what we present should be presented in as transparent a way as possible to all interested parties," said Sally M. Johnstone, president of the consulting firm.
She declined to reveal the recommendations or say whether they include any closures or mergers of the system's 14 universities, which collectively have lost about 12 percent of their enrollment since 2010.
But Johnstone said it was uncommon for her private nonprofit to recommend closing or merging campuses. The firm, which has been in existence for about 50 years, has studied university systems in states including New Jersey, Colorado, Missouri, Oregon, and Tennessee.
The report, she said, "pulls no punches for anybody. It suggests a way out of a dilemma that the various parties have found themselves in."
The board of governors does not plan to act on the recommendations at the meeting and will take time to consider them, said Kenn Marshall, a spokesman for the system. The meeting will be live-streamed at www.passhe.edu.
The system hired the consulting firm under a $350,000 contract to look at the 105,000-student system, which endured its sixth straight year of enrollment decline in 2016-17. Financial and enrollment health varies by institution. West Chester University is the system's largest campus, with more than 17,000 students, and the one that has seen the most growth. Also part of the system is Cheyney, a historically black university in Delaware and Chester Counties. Cheyney has struggled with deficits and has lost more than half of its enrollment in six years.
Other universities in the system are: Bloomsburg, Indiana, California, Mansfield, Millersville, East Stroudsburg, Edinboro, Kutztown, Slippery Rock, Shippensburg, Lock Haven, and Clarion.
To conduct the study, the firm sent two-person teams to each campus, where they met with leadership, faculty, students, and community members. There were some "fearful moments," Johnstone said, but "by and large everyone cooperated."
Johnstone, a former university vice president and provost who also previously worked for the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education, which monitors high school graduate trends, said the study was comprehensive.
"We look at everything," Johnstone said, including broad demographic data, conditions in each region, students enrolled, and workforce demands. "We looked at the overall functioning and health of the … system."
Kenneth M. Mash, president of the Association of Pennsylvania State College and University Faculties union, said his members had some concerns about the swiftness of the study and would have liked faculty members to have even more input.
"It would seem to me that you would need a lot of time to look at each separate institution," said Mash, a political science professor at East Stroudsburg. "But I don't want to prejudge what they are going to say."
He said he doubted there would be a recommendation to close or merge campuses.
"I don't think that's doable for a whole bunch of reasons," he said, including that it would limit opportunities for students.