Edinboro University

The Board of Governors of the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education gave preliminary approval Wednesday for a plan to consolidate six universities into two regional universities, kicking off a 60-day comment period ahead of a planned July final vote on the proposal.

The plan would create a Western merged university consisting of California, Clarion and Edinboro, universities, and a Northeastern merged university combining Bloomsburg, Lock Haven, and Mansfield universities.

Immediate reaction was negative on several fronts.

Union representatives said the plan doesn’t take into account the economic blow that job cuts will deliver to the communities that host universities. A student told the Board of Governors that he doesn’t think as many students embrace the idea as the state system is suggesting.

And, Mary Jane Bowes, chairwoman of the Board of Trustees for Bloomsburg University, told the Board of Governors that Bloomsburg “is the only stable school” involved in the planned merger and the PASSHE proposal is unfairly asking Bloomsburg to take on problems that Mansfield and Lock Haven haven’t fully confronted.

“It has hurt us to see our sister schools suffer,” she said. “It would equally hurt us to see Bloomsburg deteriorate under the integration plan as it is currently designed,” she said.

Kyle Schlecht, a junior at Lock Haven University student, said students on that campus, and local officials in and around Lock Haven, are opposed to the merger.

“As students, it is very disheartening to see that our voices are not being heard,” Schlecht told the Board of Governors. Later, in a virtual press conference, Schlecht told reporters, he’s “frustrated” and feels like the board “took my words and brushed them off.”

“We do not support this consolidation,” he said.

Schlecht said students are concerned that the merger will mean that they have to take too many classes online instead of in-person.

“It’s going to be terrible,” he said.

Cynthia Shapira, chairwoman of the PASSHE Board of Governors, said Wednesday’s vote will allow the system to continue working on the plan and get the public comment needed to make any changes necessary.

“There’s a structural problem that is deep and complex. You have to address it. That’s what we’re asking to do today,” she said.

The proposed merger comes as the state system as a whole has seen its enrollment drop and the universities involved in the merger plan have seen their enrollments drop even more than the system as a whole.

The PASSHE system’s 14 universities have seen a combined enrollment decline of 21 percent from 119,000 in 2010 to 93,708 in the fall of 2020. The three universities in the proposed western university saw their enrollment drop 38 percent from a combined 25,357 in 2010 to 15,669 in 2020. The three universities in the proposed northeastern universities saw their combined enrollment drop 29 percent from 18,953 in 2010 to 13,391 in 2020.

An analysis of the state system’s plan completed by researchers at the Political Economy Research Institute at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst found that three universities in the northeastern merged university are projected to shed a combined 369 jobs by 2023 -- 154 at Bloomsburg, 114 at Lock Haven and a 101 at Mansfield University. The three universities in the combined western university are projected to cut 502 jobs -- 141 at California, 125 at Clarion and 236 at Edinboro.

Sam Claster, a sociology professor at Edinboro who spoke on behalf of the Association of Pennsylvania State College and University Faculties, the union representing faculty in the state system, pointed to the expected job cuts.

“Beyond the unacceptable consequences for individuals who will lose their jobs, the spillover effects will cascade through the regional economy, resulting in spikes in poverty rates. These local economies cannot sustain this level of damage,” he said.

Claster said that while the current leadership at PASSHE is adamant that the mergers won’t lead to campus closures, “Who’s to say a future chancellor will not (seek to close campuses)?”

The faculty union is not alone in its opposition.

AFSCME Council 13 -- which represents custodians, groundskeepers, food service workers, clerical staff and others -- opposes the plan, as well.

“The details PASSHE has released about their consolidation plan, coupled with new findings about the economic damage of the proposed plan, confirm that more must be done to avoid such destructive job cuts,” AFSCME Council 13 Executive Director David Henderson said.

Henderson too much of the state system’s plan relies on job cuts to generate savings rather than seeking savings elsewhere.

“Our union stands ready to work with leadership at every university to properly examine ways to avoid layoffs of represented staff,” he said.

Under the plan, the merged universities would operate under one president and with one staff, though system officials say all campuses will remain open, said PASSHE Chancellor Dan Greenstein.

Greenstein said that more than 1,000 students, faculty and staff were involved in developing the merged university plan.

Greenstein said that when he was hired in 2018, he repeatedly heard that the system needed a substantive revamp, “not modest tweaks.”

If the plan is approved a final time in July, the system would move toward launching the merged universities in the Fall of 2022.

To deal with reduced enrollment, universities cut programs which created a “vicious cycle” as cutting programs fueled further enrollment declines, he said. The merger proposal is intended to help break that cycle by allowing the merged universities to offer students programs that each individual university wouldn’t be able to provide, he said.

Greenstein said that the merger plan is running parallel to a separate effort to get all of the universities in the state system to use uniform“financial sustainability” plans. Job cuts that will come as a result of that financial sustainability effort will happen whether the merger plan happens or not, he said.

“We are doing everything we can to minimize those impacts,” Greenstein said. That includes helping faculty transfer to open positions in other universities if their jobs are being eliminated at the university where they are now, he said.

The jobs that will be eliminated specifically due to the merger are mostly in non-union management positions, he said

“They make up 11 percent of our payroll,” Greenstein said, adding that those job losses would “represent a modest potential impact on the community.”

Jamie Martin, president of APSCUF, said it’s “disingenuous” for Greenstein to link the job cuts to the financial sustainability effort so that they can’t be blamed on the merger.

“The economic impacts in these communities will be severe,” she said.

 

John Finnerty reports from the Harrisburg Bureau for the New Castle News and other Pennsylvania newspapers owned by CNHI. Email him at jfinnerty@cnhi.com and follow him on Twitter @cnhipa.

 

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CNHI PA State Reporter

John Finnerty reports from the Harrisburg Bureau for the New Castle News and other Pennsylvania newspapers owned by CNHI. Email him at jfinnerty@cnhi.com and follow him on Twitter @cnhipa.

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