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From left to right: Mansfield University, Bloomsburg University and Lock Haven University.

Courtesy of Mansfield University, Bloomsburg University and Lock Haven University

The Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education on Monday published a pair of consolidation plans for two groups of public universities.

The plans were published eight months after the university system announced its intention to consolidate six universities. The state higher education system has struggled with declining enrollments and anemic state funding for years, and the COVID-19 pandemic pushed the system to hasten its plan for financial sustainability.

The Board of Governors posted the plans online in advance of a busy week of hearings and alumni advocacy focused on the consolidation plans. Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education representatives are scheduled to formally present the two plans to the board Wednesday, and board members will decide whether to initiate a 60-day public comment period. The State Senate appropriations and education committees are planning to hold a public hearing on the plans Thursday.

Meanwhile, alumni groups that have challenged higher education consolidation in Pennsylvania will host virtual events this week to prepare a response to the two plans. Dozens of alumni of state public universities, as well as state residents, have expressed concern that PASSHE chancellor Daniel Greenstein is rushing into consolidation without first pushing the state Legislature to better fund the system.

The first plan, dubbed the west integration plan, will consolidate California University of Pennsylvania, Clarion University and Edinboro University, which are all located in the western part of the state. The second plan, called the northeast integration plan, will consolidate Bloomsburg University, Lock Haven University and Mansfield University. The second group of universities is clustered in the northeastern part of the state.

Each consolidated university will have one president, who will report to the Board of Governors through the chancellor, according to the plans. The consolidated universities would also have a shared enrollment management strategy and student support services, such as academic advising, financial aid, health and wellness counseling, library services, and career counseling.

More than 50,000 Pennsylvania students enroll in out-of-state online education each year, according to the west integration plan. In an attempt to capture part of that market, the west consolidated university would offer a range of fully online programs that would integrate existing programs, including fully online undergraduate degree and degree-completion programs, the plan said.

The two plans do not detail exactly how the consolidation efforts will affect employees. At the west consolidated university, enrollment is expected to increase by 2 percent year over year. If enrollment projections are met, system officials expect that the consolidated university will maintain its faculty levels and may hire more faculty members as part of its online offerings.

At the northeast consolidated university, enrollment is expected to increase by 1 percent year over year, the plan said. Future faculty staffing levels will be based on which programs the consolidated university will offer and how many students enroll in each program.

The system will reorganize nonacademic staff members into a single structure for each consolidated university by July of next year. The number of staff members employed by each consolidated university is likely to change.

“Given the efficiencies to be achieved and analysis of retirement eligibility, continued planning is occurring to achieve these results, where possible through removal of vacancies and attrition while maintaining optimal functional capacity,” the plans said. “Periodic adjustments to personnel may be required to meet institutional needs.”

The PASSHE faculty union, the Association of Pennsylvania State College and University Faculties, said Monday that it was still reviewing the new plans.

“APSCUF is reading the plans carefully -- through a lens that keeps student concerns at the forefront -- and making sure the plans comply with Act 50,” Kathryn Morton, a spokesperson for the union, said in an email.

Act 50 is a state law that requires that PASSHE carry out a detailed, transparent and consultative review, planning and implementation process before any changes are made to the state system. The faculty union will release its full evaluation of the consolidation plans later this week.

The plans recommend maintaining current NCAA Division I and Division II sports at each individual institution. They also aim to reduce the total cost of degree attainment by 25 percent per student.

“This goal does not assume primarily a reduction in tuition, but incorporates opportunities such as reductions in time to degree attainment due to expanded program availability, high school dual enrollments, lower student fees, additional fundraising achievements, space utilization improvements, reduced operating expenditures, enhanced grant funding, more federal work study opportunities, working with community partners to reimburse student wages off-campus, and timing of summer job opportunities for students,” the plans said.

In-state tuition at all six institutions currently falls between $7,770 and $11,200 per year.

As the system has developed the consolidation plans, system officials have emphasized that each institution will maintain its own name and branding even after the consolidation. That said, the two consolidated universities will also be given a name this summer.

Save Our State Schools, a public advocacy group that has challenged the consolidation effort, will host an online event Wednesday to discuss a response to the new plans. The faculty union will also hold a press conference and virtual rally that afternoon.

Over the past several months, dozens of PASSHE alumni and community members have expressed concern about the consolidation effort. System officials have cherry-picked data to support the consolidation effort without working equally hard to lobby the state for more higher education funding, said Eric Hartman, a Lock Haven alum and co-founder of the advocacy group PAPublics.

The consolidation plans continually refer to an enrollment decline beginning in 2010, but 2010 was an unusually good year for enrollment across the system, Hartman said.

“We’re really the same size state system as we were 20 years ago, but they keep citing this massive decrease,” he said. 

The plans also target institutions in rural parts of Pennsylvania, where access to education is already limited, Hartman said. The west integration plan goal of creating fully online degree programs may not help some rural students who don’t have broadband internet access.

Hartman and other members of PAPublics want Greenstein and other state officials to work harder to get more money from the state. Education appropriations per full-time-equivalent student have decreased by 52 percent since 2001, falling from $8,716 in 2001 to $4,106 in 2019, according to the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association’s latest State Higher Education Finance report. At the same time, every public dollar spent on public higher education in the state results in $10.61 of economic output, according to PASSHE’s 2021 appropriations request.

“The chancellor’s goals are solidly laudatory, there’s no doubt about it,” Hartman said. “It’s just unclear why the path that he appears to have been on for the last three years has seen so little deviation, and so little effort to address the very low funding compared to other states.”

Presidents at five of the six universities slated for consolidation responded positively to the plans Monday.

"Months of painstaking work by more than 400 students, faculty and staff have resulted in a comprehensive plan for integrating California, Clarion and Edinboro universities," Dale-Elizabeth Pehrsson, president of Clarion and interim president of Edinboro, said in a statement. "We look forward to presenting the document and supporting data -- more than 300 pages in all -- to the State System’s Board of Governors on Wednesday. Our institutions have evolved over many years, adapting to meet the needs of our students, our communities, the Commonwealth and beyond. This proposed integration is a next step in that evolution."

Bashar Hanna, president of Bloomsburg University and interim president of Lock Haven University, also supports the plan.

"We must evolve so that each campus can continue serving the needs of its home community," Hanna wrote in a statement. "This plan proposes to expand dual-enrollment opportunities for high school students, ensure a thriving and vibrant campus-life experience, and deepen our relationships by expanding our local partnerships to provide more internships and mentoring programs, volunteerism/service, and lively arts and cultural opportunities that enrich our communities."

Mansfield president Charles Patterson said the new plans will allow his institution to offer a greater range of academic programs and faculty expertise to students.

"Over its 164 year history Mansfield University has continued to evolve, as have the other institutions within the State System," he said in a statement. "University integration is the most recent evolution that is required to meet educational and career goals of an increasingly diverse population of twenty-first century students. Through integration, Mansfield has the potential to offer a greater range of academic programs and faculty expertise than the university can offer as a single institution."

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