PASSHE integration plan faces fierce opposition

PASSHE Chancellor Daniel Greenstein

PASSHE Chancellor Daniel Greenstein Commonwealth Media Services

This week’s public hearings on proposed university integration plans made one thing clear: Staff and students alike are vehemently opposed. 

The Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education (PASSHE), made up of 14 public universities, provides quality education, and unionized and professional employment to various regions across the state. The system redesign, led by Chancellor Daniel Greenstein, seeks to consolidate six universities into two larger entities in order to maintain sustainability amid declining enrollment. 

The integration plan proposes merging the western campuses of California University of Pennsylvania, Clarion University and Edinboro University, as well as the northeastern campuses of Bloomsburg University, Lock Haven University and Mansfield University. 

At the start of the hearings, PASSHE board Chair Cynthia Shapira said the intent of the plan is to “expand opportunities for students in the Commonwealth, to help us preserve the rich on-campus experiences that our 14 universities provide, all the while expanding our reach to better serve new students who seek a different path ... These universities can do more together than they could ever do alone.”

The vast majority of speakers, on the other hand, were against the integration plan, arguing that it will only diminish the staff and education quality at each school. 

Greenstein has argued that while the plan may result in some employees being laid off, the merger would allow the schools to keep their campuses open and continue offering an affordable education. At the same time, the “high-quality education” PASSHE is required to provide would also include some virtual classes on the proposed campuses. Staff and students during the public comment period shared their dismay with the plans, particularly the proposal for online classes. 

Greg Zimmerman, chemistry professor and department chair at Bloomsburg, testified that “going to online courses is a colossal mistake and will take Bloomsburg and the other universities down a bad road in terms of enrollment.”

State Sen. John Gordner, who represents the Bloomsburg area, said something needs to be done to ensure financial stability, but some schools shouldn’t have to keep others afloat. 

“With enrollment as it is, declining across the state, and with places like Lock Haven and Mansfield being recipients of other schools’ funds, there needs to be some actions taken in order to rebalance that,” Gordner told City & State. “Bloomsburg, which is doing well on its own, shouldn’t have its good position eroded because of obligations they have to take in the future regarding other institutions.”

A report developed by the Political Economy Research Institute at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, funded by the nonpartisan Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center, states that the cuts would amount to 14% of PASSHE employment. It adds that “their spillover effects will have a substantial negative impact on the Pennsylvania economy” in the economic regions around each university. 

The report noted that the job cuts would have the most severe impact on women, who make up a large portion of the student population and untenured faculty at the schools. Women make up about 60% of PASSHE students and about 57% of untenured faculty.

The redesign would cut 1,531 faculty and non-teaching staff positions by 2023, a 13.9% decline in system-wide employment. The cuts would amount to a budget cut of about 11% by 2023, according to the report. 

Marc Stier, director of the Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center, testified in front of the Senate Democratic Policy Committee in May, stating that the cuts would have similar effects on the surrounding communities as factory closures have had in the past. He argued that the cuts would have a direct impact on employment, as well as indirect impacts on the communities, with fewer suppliers and workers spending money in the area. 

Speakers at the public hearings argued that PASSHE needs to address the root causes of the enrollment drops rather than try to counteract them. Changing demographics and rising tuition costs, due to less state support in higher education, are major contributors to drops in enrollment. The system saw a 35% decrease in support per capita from 2007 to 2017, causing tuition to grow by nearly 66% since the turn of the century. 

“Enrollment stagnation in PASSHE schools is, in our view, not a reason for the state to continue to disinvest from higher education but, rather, to invest more,” Stier said.

State Sen. Jim Brewster sent a letter to Greenstein and Shapira Thursday calling for a two-year delay on implementation of the integration plan. “The potential application of new federal resources, in concert with heightened state support may provide a path for bold and progressive action that does not involve consolidation,” Brewster said in the letter. “In addition, I believe the merger – as discussed – should serve as a wake-up call for the General Assembly to end years of neglect.” 

Democrats, including Gov. Tom Wolf, have been vocal supporters of increasing education funding. The calls for more investments were amplified during the pandemic as the state received more than $7 billion in federal relief. 

Gordner, who’s also Senate Majority Whip, said budget considerations are taking the redesign into account. 

“With drafts of the budget coming down the line, I’ve been advocating for money specifically for this integration process,” Gordner said. “I’m optimistic that we’re going to be putting in some special money for PASSHE ... just to help with this rightsizing and integration process.”

Wolf has tried to shape his legacy as governor with large investments in education. His current budget proposal would keep higher education funding level and boost scholarship and grant funding by tapping into sources like the state’s horse racing fund. Coming to the end of his term, he’ll continue to push for funding – and have to work with Republicans – to leave a lasting mark on the Commonwealth.