Employees, students and alumni of Pennsylvania’s state university system are worried and confused about the state’s complex and controversial plan to consolidate six of its 14 universities. Despite a 60-day public comment period established by the system’s Board of Governors to allow people to air their questions and concerns about the plan, many people have little optimism that their feedback will slow the consolidation process.
In the week since the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education published its 400-plus-page plan, the system has already received feedback. Public concern also has been heightened by a new report on the economic impact of the consolidation and ongoing system redesign, indicating it could mean more than 1,500 job eliminations.
“We’re shocked by how quickly an out-of-state expert has come into the commonwealth system, diagnosed it and declared downsizing the singular strategy,” Eric Hartman, a Lock Haven University alum and co-founder of PAPublics, a group that opposes consolidation, said of the plans. “Accessible institutions like the state system already invest tens of thousands of dollars less in students than elite institutions do. We’re frustrated that the chancellor has prioritized reduction of programs and consolidation of campuses in precisely the regions of the state with the lowest higher education access.”
The two-part plan lays the groundwork for integrating Bloomsburg University, Lock Haven and Mansfield University into one western institution, and California University of Pennsylvania, Clarion University and Edinboro University into a northeastern institution.
So far, praise for the plan has come from Pennsylvania’s higher education decision makers. PASSHE chancellor Daniel Greenstein, the Board of Governors and presidents at the universities marked for consolidation largely support the effort. The Board of Governors could vote to approve the plan as early as July.
Since the consolidation was announced last summer, Greenstein has framed the process as inevitable. He said during a State Senate hearing last month that if the board does not approve consolidation, he will recommend dissolving the state system.
But system employees, students and alumni have said they want more time to weigh in on the consolidation and wish PASSHE leaders would consider other options for the system.
The Job Toll
Critics of the plan have also noted that it offers few details on how many PASSHE employees will lose their jobs as a result of the consolidation. The Political Economy Research Institute at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, helped fill that information gap last week, when researchers published a detailed look at the economic impact of planned employment reductions across the PASSHE system.
The report examines the consequences of consolidating six institutions and redesigning the entire system, an effort that will reduce employment at all 14 PASSHE institutions.
Bloomsburg, Lock Haven and Mansfield could lose a combined 369 positions by 2023, the report shows. Mansfield will bear the brunt of those cuts and is expected to lose 101 employees, which amounts to 33 percent of total employment at the university. Bloomsburg, which employed 1,033 people in 2019, could lose 154 positions before 2023, amounting to 15 percent of total university employment. Lock Haven is looking at a 23 percent employment reduction, which includes 114 positions.
California, Clarion and Edinboro may lose a combined 502 positions before 2023. Edinboro will lose the largest proportion of employees of any PASSHE institution, with 37 percent of positions earmarked for elimination, the report states. California will lose 141 employees, or 19 percent of its workforce, by 2023, while Clarion will lose 125 employees, or 22 percent.
In total, the public university system plans to eliminate 1,531 jobs, including 809 faculty positions, by 2023 as part of its systemwide redesign process. Cheyney University, Slippery Rock University and West Chester University could see small employment increases, the report said.
The systemwide eliminations would amount to a 13.9 percent decline in employment and a 16 percent reduction in faculty positions across all 14 universities.
Employment loss could have serious consequences for the rural communities where the six institutions tagged for consolidation are located. The PERI report compared the likely job losses to a plant closure.
“The planned employment losses at the PASSHE universities is on a scale similar to a plant closure or shift elimination,” the report said. “The effects on the host communities will therefore be comparable to the ongoing experiences in Pennsylvania with factory closures and job destruction.”
The counties surrounding the six affected universities have high poverty rates compared with the rest of the state, the PERI report shows. For example, Lock Haven employs people from Clinton, Centre and Lycoming Counties, which have a poverty rate of 16.7 percent. The counties surrounding Edinboro — Erie and Crawford Counties — have a poverty rate of 15.7 percent. By comparison, counties that are not home to or near a PASSHE institution have an average poverty rate of 11.1 percent. The statewide poverty rate was 12 percent in 2019.
PASSHE officials said the economic effects on communities in which the colleges are located would be minimal.
“Because the integration plans preserve on-campus classes, housing, student activities, and other operations at all six campuses, we are confident their host communities will continue to benefit from a positive economic impact,” they said in a written response to the PERI report. “The integration plans under consideration, if approved, mean these institutions can better serve students, can continue their historic missions, and can better support regions where they’ve operated as economic drivers for more than a century — doing more together than any one institution can do alone.”
Kevin McClure, an associate professor of higher education at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington and co-director of the Alliance for Research on Regional Colleges, said the consolidation and loss of jobs would have a significant effect on local economies. He said the six universities are anchor institutions, which in many cases means they are the largest employers in their community.
“They are major purchasers and contractors for goods and services in the community, and so there are small businesses that depend on the anchor institution,” McClure said. “They often are a major site of civic and political activity. They are cultural hubs providing performances and bringing artistic talent that also has a way of making these communities quite vibrant.”
When public higher education systems eliminate jobs at anchor institutions, the community experiences effects beyond job loss, McClure said.
“It’s difficult for me to see how making cuts to an anchor institution that has devastating effects for the local community is good for students, if those students are themselves from the community,” he said.
Confusion and Criticism
Meanwhile, the consolidation plans have been criticized as being too long, too dense and too vague.
“I was a bit surprised how a document that was 439 pages long could have so little detail,” said Jamie Martin, president of the PASSHE faculty union, the Association of Pennsylvania State College and University Faculties.
Short summaries of the plans’ goals are posted on the PASSHE website, David Pidgeon, a spokesperson for PASSHE, said in an email. He also lauded the thoroughness of the two plans.
“What the public can look at is the result of nine months of intensive work that involved more than a thousand students, faculty and staff,” Pidgeon said. “It is comprehensive and thorough, not only because it covers what Act 50 requires, but it’s also the right thing to do.”
Martin flagged several areas she found unclear, contradictory or misleading. For example, many faculty members are confused about the new online learning components and wonder whether students in some programs would have to take online courses to complete their major. Communications from the system have been unclear on this topic, she said.
“It started out with, ‘you don’t have to take online courses if you don’t want to.’ And that shifted to ‘you may have to take some online courses.’ And then that shifted to ‘pretty much if you want to graduate with your desired major, you’re going to have to take online courses,’” Martin said.
Martin also noted that while the plans say each institution will retain its own athletic programs, the NCAA has not approved that plan.
“I’ve been hearing from coaches that this is impacting their recruitment already, because of the level of uncertainty,” Martin said. “I didn’t think it was fair to state in that report that this is going to happen.”
The faculty union expected to see an economic impact study similar to the PERI report included in the plans, but the document contained few details about job losses or economic impact to the surrounding communities.
“We shouldn’t be cavalier about merging six universities, each of them over 150 years old,” Martin said. “Change is hard, and it should be hard, but it also should be thoughtful and inclusive and transparent. Some of those pieces seem to be missing.”