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Education

State System Board To Vote Wednesday To Integrate Six Universities Into Two Anchors

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Clarion University is one of six proposed to integrate into two new entitites.

After reading and listening to hundreds of public comments critiquing a proposed integration plan, a 20-member appointed board is set to vote Wednesday on whether to integrate six of the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education’s 14 universities into two new institutions.

The premise of the plan, according to board president Cindy Shapira, is that the universities can do more together than they can alone.

“With all due haste, we will proceed, and every single student will benefit in this system,” Shapira said during a June 30 meeting.

More than a decade of enrollment decline has led to systemwide financial uncertainty, according to PASSHE chancellor Dan Greenstein. He also blames years of reduced funding from the legislature. He has said if a change doesn’t happen, the system could be bankrupt by 2027.

Under the plan, schools would maintain their individual university names and identities. But six universities — three in western Pennsylvania and three in the northeast of the state — would be led by anchor institutions.

Clarion, Edinboro and California universities would be led by a single president based at CalU. In the northeast, Bloomsburg University will be the anchor for partner universities Lock Haven and Mansfield. About 29,000 of the system’s 93,000 students attend the six universities.

Greenstein says the integration would significantly cut costs by streamlining overhead and the majors offered at each campus.

While the system has explored a full redesign for several years, the approval of Act 50 last June gave the Board of Governors the authority to restructure the state system’s institutions. The integration could go into effect as early as Fall 2022.

While Greenstein maintains that more than 1,000 students, staff and faculty were included in the planning process, dozens of students and staff asked the board to delay a vote, or to vote no, during four public hearings in June.

Critics have said the process has lacked transparency, and that the proposed changes make them uncertain about their future with PASSHE. The board will likely vote Wednesday without knowing how many athletic programs or majors will remain, and students have expressed fear their area of study or sports program would be cut.

While Greenstein hopes the Middle States Commission on Higher Education will continue to accredit all PASSHE programs, the re-accreditation for the two new integrated entities cannot be requested until the board votes on the integration plan. Leaders say they expect to submit that request in September. As for sports, the Post-Gazette reports that an NCAA panel discussed PASSHE’s bid to keep all of the athletics at the six universities facing merger, though a decision has not been made.

One faculty member who spoke at a public hearing last month, Clarion chemistry professor Jacqueline Knaust, warned the board not to interpret the fact that students and faculty participated in the planning process as a sign of support.

“Yes, my colleagues and I have participated in the integration planning,” she said. But "some faculty have participated because they believe the Board of Governors' approval is a foregone conclusion.”

She noted that junior faculty who are seeking tenure might feel vulnerable to retribution if they speak up. Knaust, who is tenured, asked the board to vote no or delay the integration plans. She said stakeholders deserve a plan that shows how it will increase opportunities for students and ensure sustainability.

At a June 30 meeting, Greenstein categorized the comments as proposed changes, proposed clarity, and opinion. He did not, though, aggregate how many of the personal opinions were in support of the plan. He encouraged board members to read through the hundreds of comments ahead of the Wednesday vote. Comments were posted in three batches and can be found here, here and here.

When Greenstein was hired in 2018 he said the board, the governor and those he interviewed with charged him with transformational change.

“We cannot and must not remain the same. We cannot continue doing the same things expecting the same results,” he said during an April 2021 presentation on the plan. “That was the instruction given to me.”

In April, Greenstein told the PASSHE board that 90 percent of currently enrolled students reported in a survey that they would be willing to take up to a quarter of their courses online if it meant that there would be a wider range of degrees, that tuition would remain the lowest in the state, or if they could earn their degree more quickly.

In a June update to the board, Greenstein said a vast majority of students and prospective students surveyed said they have a high degree of willingness to take more online courses, a key part of the plan.

“Our plans to leverage online to improve the student experience and to expand opportunity and to save, not close, our regional universities that are a critical part of their communities … is entirely in line with student and parent expectations,” he said during a virtual June 30 meeting.

According to the meeting agenda the board is expected to vote on the integration plan Wednesday, though the discussion could continue at its Thursday meeting.