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Pennsylvania should consider mergers for its state-owned universities, says a new report released Wednesday that immediately received pushback from the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education and the system’s faculty union.

The report, conducted by the RAND Corporation, recommended five options for Pennsylvania’s 14 state-owned universities that make up the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education:

  • Keep the current state system but improve its governance structures.
  • Keep the state system structure and conduct regional mergers to reduce the number of universities to a suggested range of five to eight.
  • Merge state system universities and convert them to state-related status. State-related universities in Pennsylvania, like Pennsylvania State University and the University of Pittsburgh, are not state owned and have more autonomy but receive funding from the state.
  • Place the state system under the management of a state-related university.
  • Merge state system universities into existing state-related universities.

Options that include mergers were favored. The last two options have the best long-term prospects, according to the report. If a deal cannot be reached with state-related universities, then it recommended the second or third options.

“These options are likely to be more difficult to implement and could entail other risks, including possible increases in student costs and the loss of valuable sovereign immunity from lawsuits that protects current State System universities,” the report said. “But if they are implemented well, these options are likely to meet the key objectives of strengthening financially weak institutions and better matching staffing size to enrollment trends.”

System leaders responded that they are already in the middle of a redesign after a study of their own that they commissioned last year. That study called for changes to governance and higher education policy but did not recommend closures, mergers or university spin-offs.

“Let me be clear, we are unequivocally committed to the success of all 14 universities within the State System,” said Cynthia D. Shapira, who chairs the system’s Board of Governors, in a statement. “Our 100,000 students and our entire Commonwealth depend on having access to the high-quality, high-value educational opportunities that our universities provide. We remain focused on that mission as we work with everyone -- on our campuses and in Harrisburg -- to continue progress on our System Redesign efforts.”

The system should focus on affordability, access and academic programs as it redesigns itself, wrote its interim chancellor, Karen M. Whitney, in a response letter included in the RAND report.

“Shifting control of the State System universities to the state-related institutions will not change the factors affecting enrollment,” she wrote. “Nor would it address the other major factor affecting the universities’ long-term sustainability -- lagging state support.”

The president of the state system’s faculty union, Kenneth M. Mash, issued a statement saying, “Those pushing for this study have no love for public higher education.” He called the new study flawed from the start.

“Most of our universities that are struggling are located in some of the poorest areas of the Commonwealth,” Mash said. “How does it improve the lives of those who live there to close out opportunities for students to achieve the American dream?”

The new report notes several external pressures on the state system, including a declining traditional college-age population in Pennsylvania, limited state support for public higher education and competition between colleges and universities. Enrollment declined 12.9 percent across the state system’s 14 universities between 2010 and 2016 and financial indicators worsened.