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Some Pittsburgh-area universities back away from shared-services consortium

A college campus with students walking and sitting.
Katie Blackley
90.5 WESA
The proposal for the consortium comes as many colleges in the region — including local community colleges, trade schools, state universities and small private colleges — are struggling with declining enrollment and revenue.

As several small Pittsburgh-area post-secondary institutions look to find ways to fill budget holes and reduce costs, one potential option that had been getting private attention has lost some steam after receiving a public airing.

Last month WESA reported that five small Pittsburgh-area colleges and universities and a dozen others in western Pennsylvania were considering joining a shared-services consortium to manage back office work. As planned, the consortium could begin operations on a limited basis in 2024.

Originally, the five colleges and universities joined a study led by The Hill Group to look into the possibility of combining back office functions: Point Park, Chatham, Robert Morris, Carlow and Washington & Jefferson. Paul Hennigan, Point Park University’s former president and the consultant at The Hill Group studying the idea, told WESA he was hoping to get the idea off the ground in 2024.

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The proposal for the consortium comes as many colleges in the region — including local community colleges, trade schools, state universities and small private colleges — are struggling with declining enrollment and revenue.

After the WESA story appeared, however, some of the five colleges reconsidered their participation now that plans for the consortium are public.

Some staff at those institutions said they worried that they might lose their jobs or that there wasn’t room for additional staff cuts. Others said the proposal is worth considering. Some staff members who work at the institutions say they are skeptical that many back office operations can actually be combined to meet the needs of culturally and geographically disparate campuses.

“Washington & Jefferson College has determined that our institution will not participate in the consortium moving forward,” a spokesperson for the college said in an email. “We determined that our interests and those highlighted in the recent [WESA] report are not aligned.”

Leaders for Robert Morris University didn’t respond to questions about whether they are still involved in the consortium study. But a spokesperson for Robert Morris confirmed to Inside Higher Education that the Moon-based university would no longer be participating in the partnership.

“We are no longer involved in the consortium,” Robert Morris spokesperson Brian Edwards told the publication. “It became clear to us at a certain point that our aims and those of the consortium weren’t aligned, and not in any way reflective of our original intent. So we and some of the other institutions that participated in the initial study actually withdrew from the consortium.”

A sign for Carlow University.
Katie Blackley
90.5 WESA

John Cardone, a spokesperson for Carlow University, told WESA the university fielded complaints from staff about the proposed consortium after WESA’s article was published. Cardone scheduled an interview between WESA and Carlow’s president, Kathy Humphrey, to answer questions about the consortium and highlight the college’s recent strengths.

Two days later, Carlow canceled the interview, citing “a scheduling conflict.” Carlow representatives have since stopped responding to emails about rescheduling or additional questions about the consortium.

A spokesperson for Chatham University wrote in an email that the university is still interested in the “shared purchasing/procurement initiative” that was intended to kick off the consortium next year. One of the first initiatives of the consortium in 2024 was supposed to be hiring a shared vendor to take over procurement.

No university has expressed as much support for the idea as Point Park University. But some faculty and staff there say they have concerns about the proposal.

Point Park

Point Park has a number of connections to the potential consortium.

It received a $350,000 grant last year from the R.K. Mellon Foundation to study the possibility of combining back-office operations. The university then disbursed that money to The Hill Group, where Hennigan, its former president, has served as the project manager for the consortium study. Chris Brussalis, Point Park’s current president, owns more than 35% of The Hill Group. Hennigan and Brussalis were the only university leaders involved in the study who granted WESA interviews to discuss the consortium.

In the September draft of Point Park’s 2030 strategic plan, the final goal/objective listed states: “Explore and implement shared service opportunities with other higher education institutions.” It’s the only goal listed under the subheading “Enhance operational efficiencies.”

WESA spoke to a number of staff and faculty at Point Park who raised concerns — including five people who didn’t want to use their names for fear of reprisal.

Some Point Park faculty and staff said they worried that the proposal would lead to layoffs. A couple of staff members said the proposal had some merits and should be considered. But they all said that the way the college rolled out the proposal wasn’t transparent and that they wished the idea had been shared earlier with faculty and staff.

“None of us knew it was actually a conversation,” said Karen Dwyer, a professor of English and creative writing at Point Park. “It's never been spoken about to us from management level down. It's never been, ‘Hey, let's all get together and talk about what a consortium even is.’ We all learned about it from the [WESA] article.”

Some faculty and staff told WESA that one of the main reasons they are suspicious of the proposed consortium is because of larger concerns about Point Park’s board and Brussalis making decisions without consulting the faculty and staff.

Point Park spokesperson Lou Corsaro, in an email statement, responded to some questions posed by WESA but didn’t answer many others about the consortium. Corsaro also sent a statement on behalf of Point Park’s board president and vice president, Dr. Lisa Cibik and Jamie Inferrera. The statements said the university is facing challenges with enrollment decline and a budget deficit but that Point Park has no plan to reduce staff “at this time.”

“The university’s strategic approach is committed to prioritizing essential programs and services, while identifying opportunities for cost savings that will not compromise its academic excellence,” the statement reads.

Kirstin Collins Hanley, an associate professor of composition and rhetoric, said, as a faculty union representative, she stands in solidarity with Point Park staff members who are not members of a union. She said she and other staff have a hard time understanding how Point Park could become part of such a consortium without some layoffs of staff who now perform that work. And, as a faculty member, she said, she finds the staff’s work invaluable.

“I am very concerned about being able to do my job and to serve students without the support of staff,” she said.

J. Dwight Hines, a professor of literary arts and social justice studies and head of Point Park’s faculty union, said he’s been hearing that “the sky is falling” at the university because of financial challenges for 15 years. In his experience, though, he said he believes the university’s leadership often has cited such challenges as an excuse to make cuts.

“We can't see that there's really anything to be gained, especially in terms of student experiences and success, from studying cutting staff any further,” Hines said. “We're already stretched very, very thin in that regard on campus, with regards to a variety of services, student services especially.”

In their statement to WESA, Cibik and Inferrera said their current focus is on attracting new students and that additional enrollment would lead to more jobs — not fewer.

“We believe that increasing enrollment will not only contribute to the financial health of the institution, but also expand educational opportunities for a more diverse and inclusive student body,” the statement reads.

Will it work?

Until a few weeks ago, Leland Claus worked as an IT staff member for Chatham and previously worked in IT for Point Park. Claus, who spoke to WESA when he was still employed by Chatham, said he believes it could be a good idea for the institutions to share their buying power.

“When you do collectively work together, you can get discounts on items in the same way that you would buy in bulk at Costco,” he said.

But Claus said he is skeptical that many other functions could be combined. For example, he said, the five institutions in the study have very different IT needs.

“Everyone is at different tech levels, [such as] how old their computers are, how old their wireless infrastructure is, what programs they use,” he said. “And it would really take a massive effort and a very expensive overhaul to even get all of them on the same page for this to even be feasible from a tech standpoint.”

Claus said a consortium would have to pay higher salaries to consortium IT staff in order to be able to service such a wide variety of needs. He noted he left Chatham earlier this month to take a job with a private company that pays more.

“Universities in general are on the bottom tier of the pay scale” in IT, he said.

In an interview for the initial story, one of the main examples Brussalis offered as an area of potential savings was cybersecurity, saying it’s difficult for small colleges to keep up with the latest technological threats.

Claus was skeptical, saying that if a consortium is controlling security at all five colleges, it could create a bigger target for a hacker.

“If anything, you're handing the keys to the kingdom, so to speak, to one person, which then makes that one company more volatile if they get a security breach,” he said.

A staff member at Chatham who asked to remain anonymous spoke of feeling some survivor's guilt after a recent round of layoffs there.This new proposal to join a consortium came at a difficult time, the staffer added: “This is still kind of shellshock. It's like, what can happen next?”

Oliver Morrison is a general assignment reporter at WESA. He previously covered education, environment and health for PublicSource in Pittsburgh and, before that, breaking news and weekend features for the Wichita Eagle in Kansas.