College consolidations coming? Plan to shake up higher-ed in Pa. moves forward

The new measure would give more power to a state board of higher education and could lead to schools being closed or consolidated.

The Capitol in Harrisburg, Pa., on Wednesday, Jan. 15, 2020. (Russ Walker/PA Post)

The Capitol in Harrisburg, Pa., on Wednesday, Jan. 15, 2020. (Russ Walker/PA Post)

A major plan to reorganize Pennsylvania’s state higher education system — and potentially consolidate parts of it — cleared the state State Senate Wednesday.

The proposal, as amended by the Senate Appropriations Committee, creates a stronger board to oversee the fourteen-school Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education (PASSHE). The reconstituted PASSHE board would have the authority to consolidate schools, eliminate programs, turn existing schools into branch campuses of other universities, create new schools, and share back-office services.

In essence, the schools would be bound tighter together under the auspices of an empowered PASSHE board and chancellor.

PASSHE — whose schools include Bloomsburg, California, Cheyney, Clarion, East Stroudsburg, Edinboro, Indiana, Kutztown, Lock Haven, Mansfield, Millersville, Shippensburg, Slippery Rock, and West Chester — educates about 96,000 students statewide.

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The system has faced under-enrollment and financial pressure for years.

The latest reform efforts began in late January, before the coronavirus pandemic forced campus closures and delivered a $52 million hit to PASSHE school revenues. Prior to that blow, chancellor Dan Greenstein told legislators that the system needed a five-year, $100 million spending boost to create new back-office infrastructure and steer itself toward financial sustainability.

The coronavirus closures — which threaten university finances across the country — only deepened the need, said Greenstein in a May interview with Keystone Crossroads.

“The pandemic has only accelerated trends we’ve seen beforehand,” Greenstein said. “And I think it’s gonna force us to move more quickly to respond.”

In particular, Greenstein said, PASSHE needed to find ways to consolidate administrative functions like payroll so that there aren’t wasteful redundancies.

Skeptics, however, wondered if PASSHE officials used the pandemic as cover to make drastic changes that could stifle the independence of individual schools and ultimately lead to contraction.

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The Association of Pennsylvania State College and University Faculties (APSCUF), the union representing PASSHE professors and coaches, initially opposed the legislation, said president Jamie Martin. APSCUF has since reversed its position because of amendments that added administrative “safeguards,” Martin said.

Those safeguards include a public process for any consolidation or affiliation decisions.

PASSHE officials, for instance, would have to say whether the proposed move would result in job losses and how many. Consolidation and affiliation decisions would also require a two-thirds vote from the PASSHE board before being implemented.

Those amendments to the bill made it palatable to APSCUF leadership, Martin said.

“It is something [we’re] jumping up and down about? No,” Martin said. “But we do feel it’s in a better place than it would have been without some of those safeguards put into place.”

The amended bill will need to pass the state house again before going to Gov. Tom Wolf.

A spokesperson for the governor did not say whether Wolf would sign the measure.

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