With merger vote looming: Do we want universities that help us remember and reimagine Pa.? | Opinion

By Eric Hartman

A judicious mix,” was the turn-of-the-19th Century owner’s terminology for just enough of each ethnicity in a coal mine to prevent worker unionization and striking.

That tactic, implemented in tiny towns across central Appalachia, undermined broader efforts to forge shared commitments to basic wages. My learning about that judicious mix, and the critical moments in Pennsylvania’s industrial production, from the Homestead Strike of 1892 to the Knox Mine Disaster of 1959, began in earnest at Lock Haven University in the late 90s, when I took a course on Appalachian Regional History.

Attending Lock Haven gave me the opportunity to learn about lesser-known events, too, like the ways in which the floods of 1889 loosed over 150,000,000 feet of logs down the Susquehanna River at Williamsport, and how summer homes for the wealthy played into the Johnstown flood catastrophe. I was recently reminded of the wonders of hiking near Lock Haven, discovering old logging roads, lumber camp cemeteries, and even small, hand-cranked dams on tributaries to the West Branch of the Susquehanna River, as I read Mansfield University Professor Jimmy Guinard’s meditation on the Wellsboro Woodsman.

That Wellsboro Woodsman, George Washington Sears, wrote under the pen name Nessmuk, and was a kind of Henry David Thoreau of North Central Pennsylvania. In Tioga County, a mountain, lake, gun club, trail and stores are named after Nessmuk.

The writer of naturalist poetry and prose had little sympathy for industrialists, preferring instead to celebrate and defend the region’s, “thousands of cool, green nooks beside crystal springs.” Professor Guinard updates those sensibilities today in Pedaling the Sacrifice Zone: Teaching, Writing, and Living above the Marcellus Shale, as fracking brings new kinds of industrial threats to the region.

Place-based, regional public universities improve our shared understanding of our history and our contemporary opportunities.

Will six Pa. State System universities merge? A vote is expected this month.

Fundamentally, the universities at Bloomsburg, California, Clarion, Edinboro, Lock Haven, and Mansfield do this through serving as centers of learning, arts, culture, and sports opportunities in those small towns that share their names. These universities are places of continuous renewal and possibility. Yet we can also speak of state system universities’ specific, tangible contributions to shared understanding.

West Chester University Professor Charles Hardy has played a key role in on-road and online opportunities to ExplorePAhistory. Though I didn’t have the opportunity to learn about it in my rural Pennsylvania high school civics class, thanks to the work of Hardy and others like him, it is now well documented that in the mid-1800s,  Lancaster County was home to 3,000 free Black people and individuals fleeing slavery, one of whom was William Parker.

This history complicates and expands understanding of rural Pennsylvania, where Parker, a Black farmer, ran a self-defense group to protect fugitive slaves.

In 1851, Marylander Edward Gorsuch showed up at Parker’s farm, pursuing three enslaved people who had escaped. Gorsuch and a small group with him were met by between fifty and one hundred African Americans. Yet Gorsuch refused to retreat. In the skirmish that followed, he was killed. Parker, his family, and the individuals Gorsuch had enslaved fled through Central Pennsylvania and Upstate New York to Canada, aided at the border by Frederick Douglass.

Farther West, Shippensburg University Professor Steven Burg is working to document and expand understanding of Black experiences and community in South Central Pennsylvania through the preservation of Black Cemeteries. Professor Burg reflects in The Burg“To be standing in Shippensburg, Pennsylvania, at the grave of a man who was born a slave and lived 28 years of his life as a slave in Pennsylvania, especially for young people, forces them to rethink what is slavery, what is freedom, what is the community where I live?”

But it’s not just looking backward, thoughtfully and with attention to the particulars of place, where Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education (PASSHE) institutions excel.

They also expand access to science and business. Sian Proctor, a member of Edinboro’s Class of 1992, was recently one of four people selected for the world’s first-ever, all-civilian mission to space. Dr. Proctor is exceptional – and so are PASSHE institutions. PASSHE universities outperform their peers, graduating and retaining seventy-six percent of first-time, full-time Bachelor’s degree-seeking students. And a 2017 study by the Keystone Research Center found that PASSHE  institutions accounted for more than half of PA college students who move from the bottom sixty percent of incomes to the top 40% as adults. But isn’t PASSHE in some kind of serious trouble?

Sure, but it’s largely due to the fact that Pennsylvania is almost dead last in funding public higher education.

While the PASSHE Chancellor and Board of Governors Chair have continuously focused on declining enrollments since 2010, State Representative and Board of Governors member Judy Schwenk has admitted that the largest single factor undermining PASSHE’s competitive edge is the significant reduction in state funding. According to the State System’s own analysis, the affordability advantage diminished from $6,500 to $1,500 per student per year between 2010 and 2019.

That’s why the drop in enrollments is disproportionately strong among the families with the lowest capacity to pay – and why competitor institutions are marketing toward PASSHE students. Our state’s lack of funding hurts our most vulnerable students, and private institutions with similar and even lower graduation rates are now picking up the students who have capacity to pay. All of this while funding PASSHE is an incredibly smart investment, delivering an 11 to 1 return for every taxpayer dollar.

Any reasonable, distanced observer can see that the Chancellor has been more focused on implementing consolidation than on truly figuring out the right path forward for affordable higher education in Pennsylvania. Most of the debate has focused on issues like online access and stackable credentials.

Those are important opportunities. But let’s not forget that universities are more than job training programs. They are places where we better understand our histories, get to know people from other cultures and contexts, explore art and humanity, and imagine our futures together.

If all we’re after is job training, the libertarian in me wonders why corporations don’t just pay for that. But if we’re interested in access to universities as places of robust learning and exploration, then the Pennsylvanian in me thinks it’s high time we recognize the incredible assets we have, and invest in them just a bit – at least enough to get to the middle of the pack in comparison with other states.

Eric Hartman, a native of York County, graduated from Lock Haven University in 1998. He is the lead author of Community-based Global Learning: The Theory and Practice of Ethical Engagement at Home and Abroad and co-founder of the Community-based Global Learning Collaborative.

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Capital-Star Guest Contributor
Capital-Star Guest Contributor

The Pennsylvania Capital-Star welcomes opinion pieces from writers who share our goal of widening the conversation on how politics and public policy affects the day-to-day lives of people across the commonwealth.