Pa.’s embattled state-owned universities are facing their challenges ‘aggressively and audaciously,’ top official says

Pa. State System of Higher Education Chancellor Dan Greenstein addresses the Pennsylvania Press Club in Harrisburg, Pa., on Monday, March 18, 2019 (Capital-Star photo by John L. Micek)

Shutting down any one of Pennsylvania’s 14 state-owned universities would be a costly mistake that would deal an economic body blow to the schools’ host communities, the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education’s new chancellor warned Monday.

But that doesn’t mean the schools can’t be improved or don’t have problems that need to be addressed, the official, Daniel Greenstein, told the audience at the monthly Pennsylvania Press Club luncheon in Harrisburg.

“The most important thing we have is our brand,” said Greenstein, who worked at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation before he took over as the state system’s fifth chancellor last September. “Why would we sacrifice that? You don’t throw away the biggest asset you have simply because you’re experiencing financial distress.”

Faced with rising tuition as well as decreased enrollments and taxpayer support, the state system has struggled financially for a decade, according to published reports.

READ OUR SPECIAL REPORT ON PENNSYLVANIA’S BRAIN-DRAIN:

As WHYY-FM reported, enrollment at the schools dropped 18 percent to fewer than 100,000 students last year. The historically black Cheyney University has been hit particularly hard and is at risk of losing its accreditation. 

The system is facing those challenges “aggressively and audaciously,” and making plans to change with the changing times, Greenstein said.

A RAND Corp. study released last year recommended a dramatic overhaul to the state system. It suggested, among other things, trimming the number of state-owned schools from 14 to five or eight; folding the state system altogether; or converting the schools into branch campuses of such “state-related” universities as Temple University, Penn State, or the University of Pittsburgh, WESA-FM in Pittsburgh reported.

On Monday, Greenstein said any benefit from such a move, which would require legislative authorization, would be far outweighed by the taxpayer expense of shutting down the schools.

More importantly, he said, shutting down the schools, which are often a major employer in rural Pennsylvania, would hollow out those communities. “You’re taking away from the people who need it … the most reliable path to the middle class,” he said.

But “that doesn’t mean things can’t change,” he said.

University officials are beginning to implement what Greenstein described as a “shared system” that would take advantage of economies of scale to reduce costs. For instance, he said, there’s no reason to have 14 separate data centers or human resources offices when such functions could be consolidated. Students at one university could also avail themselves of services at other universities.

Addressing the challenges facing Delaware County-based Cheyney University, Greenstein predicted the school will “survive and thrive,” but the university official said he didn’t want to “narrowly define what its success might look like.”

During an appearance before the Senate Appropriations Committee last month, Greenstein said Cheyney, whose enrollment has ebbed to a mere 469 students, was facing a “watershed” moment, PennLive reported.

John L. Micek
A 3-decade veteran of the news business, John L. Micek is the Pennsylvania Capital-Star's Editor-in-Chief. An award-winning political reporter, Micek’s career has taken him from small town meetings and Chicago City Hall to Congress and the Pennsylvania Capitol. His weekly column on U.S. politics is syndicated to 800 newspapers nationwide by Cagle Syndicate. He also contributes commentary and analysis to broadcast outlets in the U.S., Canada and the U.K. Micek’s first novel, “Ordinary Angels,” was released in 2019 by Sunbury Press

3 COMMENTS

  1. the legislature has ignored education spending for decades, and now they’re suddenly shocked that education is failing?

    [laughs]

  2. If enrollment has dropped overall by 18 percent, then it’s time to cut school budgets by that amount, which means a faculty cut. Also, the schools should offer degrees in what they are good at so if one school has an outstanding library science program, for example, that is where students who want a degree in library science would go.

  3. Cutting faculty would be counterproductive. Look at the actual statistics. At most of the PASSHE Universities, The number of faculty has declined, remained steady, or increased only slightly while the number of *administrators* has increased dramatically.

    Another eye-popping statistic: The state budget appropriation for Corrections (i.e. for putting people in prison) is now almost $2 billion *per year* more than it was in 1990. During that time, the percentage of the PASSHE budget funded through state appropriations has fallen from more than 60% to less than 30%, thus forcing the universities to rely far more on student tuition dollars.

    Trim university administrations and shift some funding from Corrections to Higher Education, and this bogus crisis will disappear.

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