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Several Pennsylvania public colleges are looking for a way out of the state’s struggling 14-university system.

Supporters say a bill proposed this month would strengthen the state’s higher education system by allowing its best institutions to leave, while critics worry the bill would hurt the system, lead to higher tuition and weaken faculty and staff unions.

Trustees and lawmakers representing three relatively healthy universities in the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education began a public push for the bill last week after working for months to quietly come up with the plan.

Even one of the bill’s sponsors doubts it will pass in its current form. But the end game, supporters said, is to eventually make broad changes to PASSHE, as the Pennsylvania system is known. The bill’s bipartisan co-sponsors have variously called the state system a train wreck and a house of cards on the verge of collapse.

The bill would allow PASSHE’s best-off institutions – those with more than 7,000 students and good financials – to leave the system and become “state-related” rather than state-owned institutions.

Supporters cited the financial benefits for PASSHE of exiting universities paying the system back for some of the value of the public land they use, though those payments would happen gradually over 30 years. Critics include Pennsylvania’s Republican Governor Tom Corbett, who called the plan “a mistake,” and PASSHE itself.

The epicenter of support is at West Chester University, a growing university 45 minutes outside of Philadelphia. One of the bill’s sponsors, Republican State Senator Tommy Tomlinson, is a West Chester trustee. The university’s foundation even hired a PR firm to lobby for the bill.

West Chester is the only university in the system that is really growing. Over the past decade, twelve of the 14 universities lost enrollment, including six that suffered double-digit percentage declines; another had only a 0.4 percent gain.

Another West Chester trustee, Eli Silberman, a former ad man, is helping lead the push. He said the university wants the option of leaving the troubled system.

“West Chester, happily, is not in trouble,” Silberman said, “but we can foretell that if the trend continues we could be experiencing at some point what some of the others may.”

Universities in the 110,000-student system have shed 5 percent of their work forces and frozen enrollment to about 200 academic programs, yet are still unable to fill budget holes while coping with fewer high school graduates. This year, roughly 45 faculty members across the system faced layoffs. Systemwide, over 500 employees, mostly staff, have lost their jobs since 2008.

Faculty representatives are worried about their collective bargaining rights. The system is heavily unionized – there are eight different contracts with seven different labor unions – and collective bargaining agreements are statewide.

West Chester Faculty Senate Chairwoman Ellie Brown said faculty are worried they will lose benefits and rights.

“It’s a big concern to lose our contract and to not know what would be in the place of what we currently have,” she said. “It’s a high-risk situation for faculty.”

Brown said West Chester President Greg Weisenstein approached the faculty senate’s executive committee late last year about the plan but did not seek input. She said the president “has made clear that were we to secede [from PASSHE], he would want us to have local negotiations.”

A West Chester spokeswoman declined to comment on the president’s position.

The Association of Pennsylvania State College and University Faculties, or APSCUF, negotiates on behalf of PASSHE professors across the state. And, so far, it appears to be doing a good job: Even as PASSHE universities have cut jobs, expenses for all unionized employees are still rising. Some of the union jobs can be especially lucrative. More than a third of Pennsylvania public employees who make six figures come from the university system, according to a 2013 analysis by the Harrisburg Patriot-News, although PASSHE employees make up less than a sixth of the public employee work force.  (Note: This article has been updated from an earlier version to remove incorrect information.)

But the bill could have implications on union activity, said APSCUF President Steve Hicks. The bill’s supporters are quick to note that even if a university exits PASSHE, its current collective bargaining agreements would stay in effect. What is less clear is what happens after that. The current agreement expires next summer.

Hicks said there are certainly “wrinkles,” and there could end up being a fight with the state’s labor board. Would the faculty have to unionize again? Perhaps.

“I know there would have to be separate bargaining units [rather than a systemwide union], but I don’t know how many votes and card checks would have to be done in the meantime,” Hicks said.

And his union could face competition from other unions – the American Federation of Teachers, the National Education Association, United Steelworkers, and Service Employees International Union – for the ability to represent faculty.

Hicks said that representatives for unionized construction workers are also very worried because state-related universities, unlike state-owned universities, do not have to pay prevailing wage. That means that construction could be cheaper for universities while hurting union crews.

Democratic State Senator Andy Dinniman, one of the co-sponsors, has been a faculty union member at West Chester, where he taught history. He said the bill would operate in labor’s favor by allowing local bargaining units to negotiate higher pay in areas that have a higher cost of living and by shoring up the universities and the system in the long term.

In any case, Dinniman said, “The real danger for faculty is this house of cards” -- which is what he calls PASSHE.

He said PASSHE has been slow to adapt to change and that its bureaucracy is bogging down West Chester’s growth.

West Chester supporters cite several decisions that have held back the university. For example, when West Chester attempted to partner with Cheyney University – a struggling historically black university – to create a branch campus in Philadelphia, PASSHE nixed the deal and then opened its own education center in the city, with tuition discounts that critics said ended up putting the system in competition with its own universities.

Dinniman led an effort to change PASSHE’s operations a few years ago. Those changes, he said, were modest.

“We did make certain changes,” he said, “but what we have not been able to correct, thus far, is the growth of a centralized bureaucracy which takes too much money from the universities and, in the judgment of many of the universities, does not give an in-kind value back. Instead [PASSHE] operates as a barrier for its own advancement.”

The senator said he didn’t think the bill would get through in its current form, but that its introduction has been a “little shock treatment” to get broader discussions started.

Faculty representatives question some of the bill’s key economic assumptions. For instance, supporters say PASSHE will benefit from exiting universities when the institutions pay the system back for their public land.

West Chester would owe about $113 million, which it would pay to the system over 30 years. That’s only about $4 million a year for a system that supporters said needs tens of millions.

Hicks, the union leader, said he can’t be sure how either the system or an individual university would stand to gain from seeing both of their employee pools shrinking when it came time to buy health care. The weakest institutions left in the system would have less purchasing power, as would the exiting universities.

“I’ve heard it voiced that this is West Chester exceptionalism and they would like to be free of what they feel is the manacles of the Dixon Center,” Hicks said, referring the center in Harrisburg where PASSHE is housed.

West Chester, Millersville University and Shippensburg University have all expressed public interest in leaving PASSHE and becoming "state related." Pennsylvania has four other state-related universities: Lincoln University, Temple University, Pennsylvania State University and University of Pittsburgh. They receive state funding but have a freer hand to control their own operations.

Spokespeople from the four universities either declined to comment or had no comment on the pending legislation. PASSHE is controlled by a 20-member board that sets tuition and has final say on presidents, but individual university boards can set fees and make other policies.

Tomlinson, the state senator and West Chester trustee, said tuition might go up $500 or $1,000 because of the changes – about a 10 percent or 20 percent increase. But that increase “doesn’t even come close” to how much tuition would go up if the system isn’t repaired, he said during a press conference last week. Tomlinson said the system will be strengthened if the strongest universities leave because the universities will pay for their land, be willing to take a slight decrease in annual state funding and forgo state funding for capital projects.

In a statement, PASSHE Chancellor Frank Brogan said tuition and fees will likely go up and burden students and their families.

“Every university that leaves the state system could close another door to affordable, quality public higher education,” he said.

Brown, the faculty leader at West Chester, said faculty have a relatively simple idea for fixing the problems: more money.

“I think the most acceptable solution would be to simply increase funding,” she said, “and it’s not at all clear that faculty at West Chester can get behind this legislation, which many of us view as incompatible with the values of public higher education.”

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