Pennsylvania Board Votes ‘Yes’ on Consolidation

The 14-university system will move ahead with a multiyear consolidation process despite months of public outcry about the plans.

July 15, 2021
 
Courtesy of Mansfield University, Bloomsburg University and Lock Haven University
From left to right: Mansfield University, Bloomsburg University and Lock Haven University.

In the face of enormous public opposition, the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education Board of Governors voted Wednesday to consolidate six system universities into two.

The vote puts in motion a multiyear consolidation process that will combine California University of Pennsylvania, Clarion University and Edinboro University into a single institution in the western part of the state, and Bloomsburg University, Lock Haven University and Mansfield University into a single institution in the northeastern part of the state.

The first cohort of students to attend the consolidated universities will arrive in August 2022, and the integrated curriculum will be finalized by August 2024. New organizational charts for the universities -- which will outline their unified administrations -- will be released in the coming months.

Since the plans were first introduced last July, system officials have defended consolidation as an unavoidable effort to make the system financially sustainable amid enrollment declines and steep cuts to state appropriations.

Many students, employees, alumni and others don’t see it that way. Hundreds of people spoke out against the consolidation during a 60-day public comment period in May and June. They worry about job losses, changes to student learning, the potential loss of campus athletic programs and the economic impact of downsizing several regional universities.

Most of all, many opponents of consolidation don’t believe that the process will solve any of the system’s underlying problems, namely continuous declines in state funding, slipping enrollment and substantial debt burdens at several PASSHE universities.

“These consolidation plans are really a temporary Band-Aid for a boat that is drowning in financial instability,” said Dana Morrison, an assistant professor of educational foundations and policy studies at West Chester University.

Despite the wave of opposition, board members were optimistic Wednesday when they voted unanimously in favor of the consolidation effort.

“Today’s vote represents the most profound reimagining of public higher education in the Commonwealth since the State System began in 1983,” Cindy Shapira, chair of the board, said in a statement. “This effort has proven we can fulfill what we set out to do -- ensuring student and institutional success while providing the highest quality education at the lowest possible price.”

Daniel Greenstein, the system’s chancellor, reiterated during Wednesday’s board meeting that the universities marked for consolidation will retain their own names, identities and campuses. Attached to the board’s vote to consolidate was a guarantee that the board would not move to close any of the involved institutions.

“These universities have been part of the cultural and economic fabric of their communities for well over a century and they will continue to be so for years to come,” Greenstein said in a statement after the vote. “Additionally, the degrees they offer to new graduates, as well as those held by alumni will maintain the highest value.”

Student, Employee Concerns Remain

Many PASSHE employees, students, alumni and community members were nonetheless disappointed by the board’s vote.

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Ashley Lawson, a sophomore at Lock Haven University, has been most concerned about the pending decision by the NCAA on whether collegiate athletics can continue at the consolidated campuses. She helped create the women’s golf team at Lock Haven and hopes to continue playing golf throughout her time at the college.

“The NCAA hasn’t told us what’s happening to our athletic teams,” Lawson said. “If they decide that we’re not going to have athletics anymore, or they’re going to cut teams, students are going to leave to go to another university that has their sport.”

As a result of consolidation, more students may be required to take online classes to complete their degrees. Lawson said she’s tired of online learning after spending so much time in front of her computer during the pandemic, and that online courses aren’t as effective for her. Lawson said she plans to transfer out of the PASSHE system as result of the board vote.

“I will miss Lock Haven immensely, but I didn’t choose Lock Haven as my university with the expectation that I’d be taking classes online post-pandemic. It’s not what I was promised when I enrolled,” she said in a text message.

Save Our State Schools, a public advocacy group that has challenged the consolidation effort, slammed the board vote.

“Given these significant outstanding questions -- will academic programs still be accredited, will the athletic teams still exist on these campuses -- not delaying the vote until there is at least some clarity on these items is incredibly irresponsible,” Danielle Gross, a spokesperson for the group, said in a statement. “Students have not been on campus since the plan was released, which is why the Board of Governors should at least wait until the fall when students return to campus and have the opportunity to give thoughtful feedback on the plan for the first time.”

When Jamie Martin, president of the Association of Pennsylvania State College & University Faculties, spoke before the board Wednesday, she did not express explicit support or opposition to the plans but encouraged the board to communicate openly with students and employees and remain open to changes as the plans are implemented.

“The vote today is one step, and it does not complete the consolidation process. There is still a lot to be determined and many questions to be answered,” Martin said in a statement. “We trust that when the answers come -- and as additional feedback and suggestions are given, they will guide the plan moving forward, will allow for course correction when new information or issues suggest it, and will allow for substantive changes, if warranted.”

Sixty Days of Opposition

The system’s leaders held four town halls in June, during which students, employees and community members could ask questions and offer their opinions on the consolidation. The town halls were scheduled on two back-to-back weekdays in June and held during work hours, which made it difficult for some people to attend, Lawson said.

Most of the board members were not present at the virtual town halls, said Morrison, the professor at West Chester. She was told they watched recordings of the sessions.

“It was a little disappointing that we couldn’t know for sure if the Board of Governors members were truly hearing us,” she said.

Nick Marcil, a graduate student studying higher education policy at West Chester, is the driving force behind PASSHE Defenders, a group of students, alumni and employees that has held several rallies against the consolidation. He’s spoken out against the consolidation effort and has been frustrated by what he says was a rushed and ineffective public comment period.

“I feel like our comments were being listened to but not heard,” Marcil said. “Do they actually care to take the public comments into consideration? I didn’t see that.”

More than 150 people called on the Board of Governors to delay a vote on the consolidation plans. Greenstein said during Wednesday’s board meeting that a delay would cost the system $40 million to $50 million per year, stall work with accreditors and prolong uncertainty for students and employees. A delay would also keep PASSHE in the limelight for at least another year.

“It increases our reputational risk,” Greenstein said during the board meeting. “This process has not been necessarily flattering for the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education.”

Critics of the plan also offered suggestions for alternatives to consolidation. Greenstein said the system already considered many of them, including dissolving the system, closing individual institutions and turning the entire system into one institution with 14 branch campuses.

“As we have said from the beginning, building an integrated university will take time,” Greenstein said in his statement after the vote. “You cannot flip a switch and expect it to be done. The work will engage all stakeholders, be conducted transparently through routine quarterly reporting to the Board and the General Assembly, and be subjected to our constant review and refinement so that we accomplish the best possible result for our students and their communities, now and in the future.”

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