Pa. Sen. Jim Brewster urges officials to pause vote on state university consolidations

·4 min read

Jun. 11—A spokesman for the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education says there are no plans to delay or postpone next month's scheduled vote that could be one of the final steps in consolidating six state-owned universities into two institutions.

System spokesman Cody Jones said Thursday that officials remain on target to vote on plans to consolidate the universities, despite pleas from anxious students and state Sen. Jim Brewster, D-McKeesport, who Thursday penned a letter, seeking a two-year pause in the process.

The proposals, the result of consolidation studies that began last year, call for merging California, Clarion and Edinboro universities into a single unit in Western Pennsylvania and rolling Bloomsburg, Lock Haven and Mansfield universities into one unit in Eastern Pennsylvania.

Members of the Board of Governors, the oversight board for the state-owned universities, are scheduled to vote in July on the proposals that would go into effect in the 2022-23 school year.

Consolidations would keep each of the six campuses open, but under a decidedly different operating model.

The proposals follow a decade of declining enrollment at the regional universities that have been plagued on multiple fronts. Among them are a shrinking pool of new high school graduates, increasing costs, and per-student state subsidies that put the state 47th or 48th in the nation in terms of support for public higher education.

Chancellor Dan Greenstein has portrayed the proposed consolidation as an opportunity to build on the strengths of the individual institutions and create academic powerhouses by consolidating the universities charged with providing affordable higher education options to lower and middle income families.

The residential universities, which are the largest employers in the towns where they have been located for over a century, simply are not sustainable under their current operating models, Greenstein has said repeatedly.

Over the last week, however, scores of concerned students, faculty members and community representatives have been weighing in, many critically, on the plans in a series of public comment forums.

Brewster, a graduate of California University and a member of the Senate Education Committee, voiced his concerns in a letter to Greenstein and Board of Governors Chair Cynthia Shapira, urging them to put the plans on pause for two years.

"The decision to significantly reorganize how our universities provide education at these institutions should not be done without a great deal of discussion with all stakeholders," Brewster wrote. "It also should not be considered without fully understanding that actions in haste will have long-lasting deleterious effects or be on the agenda of policymakers in the immediate aftermath of a debilitating pandemic."

He told the Trib there are too many unanswered questions.

Among other issues, Brewster said he's heard: Will students currently enrolled be able to get the classes they need at their campuses; will the NCAA allow each campus to continue with its own sports; what name will the consolidated institutions put on their degrees; and will alumni from the formerly independent universities continue their support for the mega institutions?

"And if enrollment is down, why is it down? We really need to figure out why," Brewster said. He speculated that much of it may come down to decades of neglect by the state, which has pushed more and more of the costs of a college degree onto families and students.

"Even with the State System costs, there are some people who feel that can't afford to go and end up with $50,000 to $60,000 in debt," he said.

He suggested the $10 billion surplus the state is sitting on this year, coupled with the potential for more aid from the Biden administration could provide alternatives short of consolidation.

Too little, too late?

Those pleas may be too little, too late.

A spokesman for Greenstein said the chancellor has no plans to change the schedule for a vote on the plan.

Shapira did not respond to a call for comment Thursday afternoon.

"A vote by the Board of Governors in July means the campuses can begin planning for the future," State System spokesman Jones said in email, addressing questions about Brewster's letter. "It means students and communities could begin experiencing the benefits and tapping into all the expanded opportunities of integrations by the fall of 2022."

Deb Erdley is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Deb at 724-850-1209, derdley@triblive.com or via Twitter .

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