Rethinking the Pennsylvania State System

Facing significant financial pressure, Pennsylvania’s State System of Higher Education will explore combining operations at three pairs of universities.

July 17, 2020
 
PASSHE
The 14 public four-year universities of the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education

Pennsylvania’s State System of Higher Education is in trouble. Years of falling student enrollment, declining state funding and increased competition -- particularly from out-of-state online providers -- have created an untenable situation for the system’s 14 public four-year universities.

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The system's chancellor, Daniel Greenstein, outlined the many challenges facing the system in a livestreamed board meeting Thursday. After outlining the pros and cons of different approaches the system could take to try and balance its books, Greenstein recommended that PASSHE explore the option of combining the operations of some of its universities. A motion to proceed with a review of the financial impact of various integration options was approved by the board and will begin this summer.

PASSHE will review proposals to integrate three pairs of universities, California University of Pennsylvania with Clarion University, Edinboro University with Slippery Rock University and Lock Haven University with Mansfield University of Pennsylvania. 

These combinations were selected because they "show enormous potential to sustainably serve more students, expand educational opportunity for their regions, and leverage the universities' proximity to one another," said Greenstein. 

Lock Haven and Mansfield

The Lock Haven and Mansfield integration proposal will explore an arrangement that “could develop nondegree and stackable credentials that meet workforce needs in selected high-demand occupations,” said Greenstein. The focus will be on adult learners and connecting students to regional employers.

Lock Haven has been in discussions with Mansfield to increase collaboration since last year, Robert Pignatello, president of Lock Haven, said in an email. Both institutions are located in the north of the state. “We see the opportunity for economies of scale to create savings but more importantly opportunities to grow -- to appeal to adult learners who will need to up-skill and re-skill in a post pandemic economy,” he said. “We also see the opportunity to reinvent ourselves as a ‘communiversity,’ redefining the regional public university.”

Resource sharing is not a new concept for Mansfield University, Ryan McNamara, a Mansfield spokesman, said in an email. Mansfield already shares human resources, benefits and procurement services with Bloomsburg University. “We have been actively and openly speaking with our university governance teams about the integration of additional operations and sharing of resources with other PASSHE institutions.”

“This is the beginning of a process that requires a great deal of planning and implementation -- one that will be undertaken over the next two years and includes no less than a year of review,” said McNamara. “We believe that for current and prospective students, their prospects have never been brighter.”

Edinboro and Slippery Rock

The Edinboro and Slippery Rock integration proposal plans to “strengthen and broaden available academic opportunities by aligning two educational programs into one, driving down costs and coordinating enrollment strategies,” said Greenstein.

Both institutions are located in western Pennsylvania. "This integration will clearly define a new era of influence and involvement that helps us to boldly share our remarkable University and its people with a much larger audience," said Bill Behre, president of Slippery Rock, in a news release.

“After years of deficits and dramatic enrollment declines, Edinboro had turned things around,” Guiyou Huang, president of Edinboro University, said in an emailed statement. “We had worked collaboratively with the campus community to develop a five-year path to financial sustainability, providing our assumptions held. We could not have anticipated COVID-19, which has disrupted our plan and prompted a need to accelerate our efforts to achieve sustainability. While the pandemic did not cause our problems, it exacerbated them.”

Huang said he looks forward to “continued conversations with Slippery Rock, System leadership and others as collectively we adapt to an evolving landscape. There will be challenges and uncertainty along the way and that is hard, especially in these already difficult times. We will, however, get to a stronger, more sustainable position that will enable us to best serve student needs in the years ahead.”

California and Clarion

The California and Clarion integration proposal focuses on online education and seeks “to stand up a low-cost, high-quality, online undergraduate degree and degree-completion program that is not currently available in Pennsylvania,” said Greenstein. Both California and Clarion are also located in western Pennsylvania and already offer a selection of fully online degree programs.

The proposals were “discussed extensively” by PASSHE’s executive leadership team, which includes all 14 system presidents, prior to the board meeting Thursday, said Geraldine Jones, president of California University of Pennsylvania, in an email.

Clarion University’s president, Dale-Elizabeth Pehrsson, echoed this statement. “We will work together to provide Clarion University with a framework to grow new student markets and become financially stronger,” said Pehrsson in a university news release. The planned integrations “are not mergers,” said Tina Horner, communications manager at Clarion. She explained that the university intends to “help build this online collaborative offering, while maintaining our Clarion identity and traditional face-to-face academic programing, student life, intercollegiate athletic and cultural activities.”

Representatives of each of the six institutions said they anticipate their institution will maintain its own identity while sharing academic programs with their integration partner. Paired institutions may share academic programs, leadership, faculty and staff, but continue to operate two campuses. College leaders generally rejected framing the integrations as mergers -- a concept that has been repeatedly opposed through years of discussion of the financial health of the Pennsylvania system.

A Data-Driven Process

The word "merger" was carefully avoided during the PASSHE meeting and in the system’s public messaging. The initial integration proposals concentrate on consolidating academic programs. But more drastic integrations may be on the table. The review process will consider the financial impact of sharing leadership, faculty and staff, enrollment management strategies, reporting lines and budgets at each pair of institutions. Other combinations of universities and integration approaches may also be considered, said Greenstein. 

While intentions are currently to keep campuses open and maintain the individual identity of each institution, PASSHE does not appear to have ruled out any possibilities at this point. “We will let the data drive the process as we seek the most effective and reliable means of sustaining affordable higher education for all Pennsylvanians,” said Greenstein.

Why Is This Happening Now?

PASSHE was already in the process of a “system redesign” before the pandemic struck. COVID-19 has forced the system to speed up its plans toward financial sustainability, said Greenstein. Collectively, the system spent at least $90 million moving face-to-face courses online during the spring and summer. State and federal funding helped institutions to shoulder this financial burden but “did not come close to covering it all,” said Greenstein.

Legislation that lays out the process for PASSHE to expand or consolidate its institutions was signed into law by Governor Tom Wolf earlier this month. Act 50 of 2020 requires that PASSHE carry out a detailed, transparent and broadly consultative review, planning and implementation process before any changes are made. The law does not give PASSHE the power to close any institution and applies only to institutions with fewer than 10,000 students. 

Initial Reactions

PASSHE’s executive team was aware of the proposals well before the public meeting, but some meeting attendees expressed surprise at the integration proposal and the aggressive proposed timeline for implementation. David Pidgeon, director of public relations for the system, said that the board hopes to conduct and present the results of the financial review as early as October. Following this presentation, PASSHE will develop an integration plan. The plan will be open to public comment for at least 60 days before it is submitted to the board for final approval. Implementation is slated to begin between July 2021 and August 2022.  

A vote on whether to proceed with a review of possible university integrations quickly reached positive consensus. Senator Scott Martin was among those who supported this action. "The system recognizes that in order to meet the educational needs of students and fill the gaps in the work force, substantial changes need to be made,” Martin said in an emailed statement. “If the system appropriately moves forward with these reforms they will be able to continue to fulfil their dual mission of a high-quality and affordable education for Pennsylvanians.”

Given that the financial review is just a starting point for discussions regarding potential integrations, it is difficult at this stage to determine what the impact on faculty at the six universities might be, said Jamie Martin, president of the Association of Pennsylvania State College and University Faculties. “We look forward to being able to review the specifics and ensuring that the requirements of Act 50 are followed,” said Martin in an email. “We are pleased that there will be complete shareholder input, including input from our faculty.”

Though the redesign effort is intended to ensure that students in Pennsylvania continue to have access to affordable, quality education, students are nonetheless nervous about what might happen to their institutions.

Carly Park, a fifth-year student at Clarion University pursuing dual bachelor’s degrees in communications and English, said she respects the reasoning behind a potential integration with Cal U. “The idea of it just unfortunately causes me a lot of stress at this time because I’d much rather be focusing on the fall semester.”

Park will be a Clarion alumna before any changes are made, but she worries what this potential change might mean for the identity of her institution in the future. “If Clarion and Cal U are operating under one faculty, it wouldn’t necessarily make sense to refer to them by their individual identities,” she said.

A message from Clarion University’s president, Dale-Elizabeth Pehrsson, shared on Instagram last night, did assuage some of Park’s concerns, but she still has a lot of unanswered questions.

“We’re going to investigate some work that we can do with California University, but that doesn’t mean that we will not be Clarion University. We will be Clarion University, we will continue to teach our online programs, but we will also have our face-to-face campus programs as well,” said Pehrsson in the video. “People are worried about what that means -- are we going to stop sports? No, we’re not going to stop sports. So please don’t worry, I’ll be here for a long, long time. I hope to retire from Clarion, and we’re going to be our Clarion University.”

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