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Education

Pennsylvania State System Merges Six Universities Into Two With Unanimous Vote

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Commonwealth Media Services
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PASSHE Chancellor Dan Greenstein was hired in 2018 and tasked with creating a sustainable system.

Three western Pennsylvania universities — Clarion, Edinboro and California — will integrate into one new institution as early as the fall of 2022.

The Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education unanimously approved plans Wednesday to merge the schools, as well as three in the eastern part of the state: Lock Haven, Mansfield and Bloomsburg. Combined, the mergers are the largest and most controversial change in the system’s nearly 40-year history.

The board heard more than eight hours of testimony in early June, and hundreds of comments were submitted. A majority of faculty who spoke said they feared the uncertainty, and asked the board to delay the vote.

Chancellor Dan Greenstein pleaded with the board to not delay the vote, saying the system would continue to lose money if it did so. PASSHE serves about 93,000 students now, down by about 20 percent since 2010. About a third of students, roughly 29,000, attend the six merged schools.

As Greenstein has advocated for the mergers over the past year, he has referenced a 2018 study that predicts the system would be bankrupt by 2027 without significant change. He says the mergers will reduce overhead costs and streamline services.

The plan hinges on online learning, though it’s unclear how many online courses a student will be expected to take to obtain a degree.

The board voted without knowing which academic and athletic programs would remain. The NCAA has not made a decision on the future of athletics at the six institutions, and the Middle States Commission on Higher Education, which accredits college programs, would not weigh in on until the board voted. At a June PASSHE board meeting, administrators said that they planned to submit the re-accreditation plan in September.

During Wednesday’s meeting, the 18 board members were each given an opportunity to speak. While most said it was a difficult decision, they said it was the best way to maintain affordable four-year degrees to students in every part of the Commonwealth.

Before the vote, Greenstein presented an analysis of public input surrounding the plan. More than 150 comments urged a delay and about one quarter of comments overall urged the board to lobby the state legislature for more funding to maintain 14 independently accredited schools.

He said the system is building back a relationship with the legislature, but that more funding wasn’t realistic. And financially, Greenstein said, “We’re bleeding $40 million to $50 million a year. We can’t wait.”

Jamie Martin, the president of the Association of Pennsylvania State College and University Faculties, told the board following the vote that she had hoped that improvements could have been made that did not fundamentally change the system.

She echoed many others who said the vote was only the first step and that many more questions are unanswered.

“We trust that when the answers come, and as feedback and suggestions are given, they will guide the plan moving forward, will allow for course correction when new information or issues suggest it, and will allow for substantive changes, if warranted,” she said in a statement following the vote.