Facing huge public opposition, the Pennsylvania State Higher Education System Board of Governors voted on Wednesday to consolidate six universities in the system into two.
The vote sets in motion a multi-year consolidation process that will combine the University of California, Pennsylvania, Clarion University and the University of Edinboro into a single institution in the western part of the state, and Bloomsburg University, Lock Haven University and Mansfield University in one institution in the northeastern part of the state.
The first cohort of students to attend the consolidated universities will arrive in August 2022 and the integrated curriculum will be finalized by August 2024. New organizational charts of the universities – which will describe their unified administrations – will be released in the coming months. .
Since the plans were first introduced last July, system officials have championed consolidation as an inevitable effort to make the system financially sustainable amid declining enrollments and drastic cuts in funding from the State.
Many students, employees, alumni and others don’t see it that way. Hundreds of people spoke out against consolidation during a 60-day public comment period in May and June. They worry about job losses, changes in student learning, the potential loss of campus sports programs and the economic impact of downsizing at several regional universities.
Importantly, many opponents of consolidation do not believe that the process will solve any of the underlying problems in the system, namely continuity. decrease in public funding, declining enrollments and substantial debt in several PASSHE universities.
“These consolidation plans are truly a temporary dressing for a boat drowning in financial instability,” said Dana Morrison, assistant professor of educational foundations and political studies at West Chester University.
Despite the wave of opposition, directors were optimistic Wednesday when they voted unanimously in favor of the consolidation effort.
“Today’s vote represents the most profound reinvention of public higher education in the Commonwealth since the state system began in 1983,” Cindy Shapira, chairman of the board, said in a statement. . “This effort has proven that we can achieve what we set out to achieve – ensuring success for students and institutions while providing the highest quality education at the lowest possible price.”
Daniel Greenstein, the chancellor of the system, reiterated at Wednesday’s board meeting that universities marked for consolidation will retain their own names, identities and campuses. The board’s vote in favor of consolidation came with a guarantee that the board would not close any of the institutions involved.
“These universities have been part of the cultural and economic fabric of their communities for over a century and will continue to be so for years to come,” Greenstein said in a statement after the vote. “In addition, the degrees they offer to new graduates, as well as those held by former students will retain the highest value.”
Student, employee concerns remain
Many employees, students, alumni and members of the PASSHE community were nevertheless disappointed by the vote of the board of directors.
Ashley Lawson, a sophomore at Lock Haven University, has been very concerned with the pending NCAA decision on whether college athletics can continue on consolidated campuses. She helped create the Women’s Golf Team at Lock Haven and hopes to continue playing golf throughout her time in college.
“The NCAA hasn’t told us what happens to our sports teams,” Lawson said. “If they decide we’re not going to have athletics anymore, or if they’re going to cut teams, the students are going to go to another university that has their sport.”
As a result of consolidation, more students may be required to take online courses to graduate. Lawson said she was tired of online learning after spending so much time in front of her computer during the pandemic, and online classes aren’t as effective for her. Lawson said she plans to leave the PASSHE system following the board vote.
“I will miss Lock Haven dearly, but I did not choose Lock Haven as my university in the hopes that I would take online classes after the pandemic. This is not what I was promised when I registered, ”she said in a text message.
Save Our State Schools, a public interest group that challenged the consolidation effort, slammed the board vote.
“Given these important outstanding questions – will academic programs still be accredited, will sports teams still exist on these campuses – do not delay voting until there is at least some clarity on these elements is incredibly irresponsible, ”Danielle Gross, spokesperson for the group, said in a statement. “Students have not been on campus since the plan was published, which is why the Board of Governors should at least wait until the fall when students return to campus and have a chance to give their opinion. on the plane for the first time. “
When Jamie Martin, president of the Association of Pennsylvania State College & University Faculties, spoke to the board on Wednesday, she did not express support or explicit opposition to the plans, but encouraged the board to communicate openly. with students and employees and to remain open to changes as plans are implemented.
“Today’s vote is a step, and it does not complete the process of consolidation. There is still a lot to be determined and many questions to be answered, ”Martin said in a statement. “We hope that when the answers arrive – and as additional comments and suggestions are given, they will guide the plan for the future, allow for course correction when new information or issues suggest it, and allow for changes.” background, if necessary. “
Sixty days of opposition
System leaders held four town halls in June, where students, employees and community members could ask questions and give their thoughts on the consolidation. Town halls were scheduled for two consecutive weekdays in June and were held during working hours, making it difficult for some people to attend, Lawson said.
Most of the board members were not present at the virtual town halls, said Morrison, a professor at West Chester. He was told that they had watched the tapes of the sessions.
“It was a little disappointing that we couldn’t know for sure whether the members of the Governing Council were really hearing us,” she said.
Nick Marcil, a graduate student in higher education politics at West Chester, is the driving force behind PASSHE Defenders, a group of students, alumni and staff who have organized several rallies against consolidation. He spoke out against the consolidation effort and was frustrated by what he called a rushed and ineffective public comment period.
“I feel our comments were listened to but not heard,” said Marcil. “Do they really care about taking public comments into account? I haven’t seen this.
More than 150 people have asked the Board of Governors to postpone the vote on consolidation plans. Greenstein said at Wednesday’s board meeting that a delay would cost the system $ 40 million to $ 50 million a year, delay work with accreditors and prolong uncertainty for students and employees. A delay would also keep PASSHE in the limelight for at least a year.
“This increases our reputational risk,” Greenstein said at the board meeting. “This process has not necessarily been flattering for the Pennsylvania state higher education system.”
Critics of the plan have also offered suggestions for alternatives to consolidation. Greenstein said the system has already accommodated many of them, including disbanding the system, shutting down individual institutions and turning the entire system into one institution with 14 offshore campuses.
“As we have said from the start, building an integrated university will take time,” Greenstein said in his statement after the vote. “You can’t flip a switch and expect it to be done. The work will engage all stakeholders, be carried out transparently through routine quarterly reporting to the Board of Directors and the General Assembly, and be subject to our constant review and refinement so that we get the best out of it. possible outcome for our students and their communities, now and in the future. “