APSCUF President Dr. Jamie Martin: ‘The students have to be heard’

Dr. Jamie Martin

Dr. Jamie Martin APSCUF

As the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education continues its process of weighing a school integration plan, many school faculty and students have expressed concerns over the consolidation of six universities into two. PASSHE held public hearings last week to hear public comment, and the common theme was that more time is needed to take all potential impacts into account. 

City & State Pennsylvania spoke to Dr. Jamie Martin, president of the Association of Pennsylvania State College and University Faculties, about her concerns with the plan and how it would affect schools and their communities. Her responses have been edited for length and clarity. 

C&SPA: What were your initial thoughts when the PASSHE integration plan was announced, and what are APSCUF’s biggest concerns?

JM: When they announced in October that they were going to be working on developing a plan to consolidate six universities, we didn't really have a position on the plan because we didn't know what it was going to look like. But we began to become concerned. We were hearing from our colleagues that, yes, they were participating in some of the working groups, but they were doing it out of fear of getting left out. I think you heard some of that in those public comment forums, where the faculty were articulating that very thing: ‘Yes, I participated, but that doesn't go as an endorsement for the plan as it is,’ [they said]. 

When the plan was actually introduced in April, we were able to get a copy and read through the 439 pages. The concern, at that point, just grew. There are no before and after organizational charts. Those organizational charts would tell us a lot about what departments are going to remain, and how they are going to be organized within an integrated or consolidated university. Those are missing. We have concerns about the extent to which students would have to be forced to take online or hybrid courses. What we've heard from faculty since the pandemic began is students don't like that approach. I’ve heard from colleagues that the students aren't doing nearly as well in the classes as they would in a face-to-face class. You heard some of that in the public comments, with those saying like, ‘I felt like I lost them,’ and that they just weren't engaged. 

We haven't had an opportunity to hear from students. So, we had some participation in those public forums but we’re concerned about what little information we have from students. They did a survey for students at Mansfield, Bloomsburg, and Lock Haven, and one of the first questions was, ‘If you could attend a university that had a broad program, but had to take some of your courses online, would that increase or decrease your interest?’ Over 60% of students said it would decrease the likelihood that they’d come to that university. I was staggered to believe that kind of information wasn’t in the plan, and I never saw a response [from PASSHE] to that particular survey. I believe the students have to be heard. The other thing that came out of the public comments was, if you’re not going to vote no, you should at least vote to delay this until some of the questions can be answered about the NCAA ruling or how many classes students have to take online. If they delay it until even October, when students are back on campus, they could do face-to-face town halls to hear concerns and answer questions. I think that’s imperative. I don’t know how board members could hear all of those comments that were made in those sessions and still vote ‘yes’ in July to move this forward. If I were one of those people speaking out, my interpretation would be that they weren’t listening. They said they were having this opportunity for public comment, but is it meaningful?

C&SPA: A report developed by the Political Economy Research Institute (PERI) at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, funded by the nonpartisan Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center, outlined potential negative academic and economic outcomes. What are your thoughts on those findings?

JM: I would have to say the report speaks for itself, but we have been concerned. The report was striking. Most of these universities, especially those in rural communities, are economic drivers. A 2015 study looked at how much money is pumped into the economy by students, faculty, and staff at each of the 14 state universities. Taking that in tandem with the report from PERI that’s talking about the loss of tax revenues being the equivalent of having a plant closure, you can see the impact. I think – those two things together – you can see the impact on the tax revenue and how that’s going to impact local communities that rely on it for infrastructure, first responders and more. I think it’s going to have a significant impact, and it was disappointing to see that the plan said it was not going to have any kind of impact on the economy. I think that’s a bit disingenuous. It’s going to have a fairly high impact, particularly if students are not living on the campus. If they’re taking mostly online classes and they decide they are not going to live in the dorms and in those small towns, there is absolutely going to be an impact. I think they may now be talking about doing that kind of a study, but I don't know if that would be available before July 15 when the board is supposed to convene to vote on this plan.

C&SPA: Changing demographics and rising tuition rates are some contributing factors to declining enrollment, but how much does a lack of state financial support also contribute to that decline?

JM: It's accurate to say our enrollments have declined since 2010-2011, but that was when we had our peak enrollments of about 119,000. I point out as often as I can that the enrollments now are about the same level as they were in 2000. We have probably the same number of faculty and staff as we did, but the big piece of the puzzle is that in 2000, the funding that we received in public higher education received in the state legislature was significantly more. So, that is the overwhelming cause of what we're seeing in terms of the purported need to consolidate. Looking at student debt, we know students are leaving the state system with massive amounts of student debt and student loan repayments. So, we've lost our affordability, and I agree wholeheartedly with the chancellor on that piece. 

Advocating for additional funding from the state legislature is something all of us could get behind. We will certainly be supportive of more funding to help lower the tuition for our students and make everything more affordable so they're not leaving with crushing debt. That’s the fight we should be having, as opposed to thinking of consolidating these six universities into two as somehow the magic bullet that changes the course in which we're going. When I look at the plan and see it’s going to cost more than it’s going to save, that doesn’t make sense to me. I was expecting to see cost-savings, and those don’t exist. 

C&SPA: What would APSCUF like to see from the General Assembly in regard to funding to support the system and school staff?

JM: I was disappointed when the chancellor was before the Appropriations committees that he asked for a 2% increase. We had a 19% cut in funding under Gov. [Tom] Corbett’s administration. Gov. [Tom] Wolf has been a strong proponent for additional funding for higher education, but that still falls on Chancellor [Daniel] Greenstein to go in and make the argument that we need more funding. And not just a 2% request. Maybe we need another $150 million or whatever it may be, and we might not get that, but you can request more than 2%. I think that’s going to be key. Obviously, it’s a policy decision, but I think it goes beyond that and becomes more of an ethical question. What do you value? Where are we going to decide to put our state funding? We’re not a business. We’re not supposed to be profitable. We’re a common good, just like you don’t expect police departments, firefighters or first responders to make a profit. We’re a common good, so those are the ethical questions that legislators have to make in terms of what they’re going to fund.