(*This story was updated at 5:05 p.m. on Wednesday, 4/28/21 with additional comment from PASSHE and APSCUF, and additional information on the timeline for implementing the consolidation.)
Facing sagging enrollment and stagnant state investment, Pennsylvania’s State System of Higher Education’s governing board moved Wednesday to consolidate six of its 14 schools in western and northern Pennsylvania.
State universities in Bloomsburg, Mansfeld and Lock Haven would be consolidated into one northern school; universities in California, Clarion, and Edinboro also would be combined, according to the Associated Press.
All six of the campuses would remain open, with integrated faculty, enrollment, and curriculum under the plan, according to the AP. Final approval could occur in July, and the consolidation could be implemented as soon as the 2022-23 school year.
This move by the state system, or PASSHE, has been floated since at least 2018, when a report from the RAND Corporation, a think-tank, commissioned by the General Assembly. suggested consolidation as a way to address systemic issues.
“Students are paying a greater share of costs because state appropriations are limited and have declined,” a report summary says. “Opportunities to change are hindered by state regulations, inflexible faculty labor relations, and governance that is reportedly bureaucratic and places politics above system needs.”
Daniel Greenstein, a former executive in billionaire Bill Gates’ foundation, was picked in 2018 to head the system. Since, he has pushed a redesign to cut costs and increase enrollment.
The plan will cost $30 million at first to consolidate the campuses. That “cost to implement is a one-time cost while potential savings are year-to-year and can continue into the future, said PASSHE spokesperson David Pidgeon in an email.
Consolidation of the system’s 14 campuses, however, has always seemed like a drastic step. It is also opposed by lawmakers in both parties — from rural Republicans with schools in their districts to urban Democrats who want to see better outcomes for their young constituents.
“We knew it was coming. But it’s still incredibly disappointing,” said Rep. Peter Schweyer, D-Lehigh, a frequent critic of the system.
He argued that PASSHE could address flagging enrollment by reaching out to more working- class, minority, or first-generation students.
The consolidation also would likely risk the jobs of hundreds of faculty and staff, and is opposed by their union.
A University of Massachusetts-Amherst study released this week found that the proposed cuts from Greenstein’s modernization plan would cut 14 percent of the system’s workforce, disproportionately impacting the small towns that PASSHE universities call home.
The total jobs loss would be equivalent to industrial plant closures that rocked the state over the past decades, the study continued.
At a Wednesday afternoon press conference, Jamie Martin, president of the Association of Pennsylvania State College & University Faculties — the union representing state system faculty and staff — said the system needed more state funding to address its long standing issues.
Consolidation has “been racing down the track because we have to do something,” Martin said. But what the system needs is Greenstein to advocate for more than the modest 2 percent budget increase he asked for in the past two budgets.
Consolidation as is, Martin argued, will harm students by forcing them into online classes to finish degrees.
Wednesday’s vote was only preliminary. The 20-member PASSHE Board of Governors will now accept public comment on the proposed consolidation until June 30.
The board, made up of current and former lawmakers, lawyers, business people and students, will then meet to approve the plan finally in mid-July.
The board must pass the consolidation plan with a two-third majority. The preliminary vote passed with such a majority.