Pennsylvania Western University name adopted for merged state campuses

·5 min read

Oct. 14—The great wait is over for stakeholders at California, Clarion and Edinboro universities.

Officials with the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education made it official Thursday: the merged university that will include the three campuses will be known as Pennsylvania Western University, or PennWest for short, beginning July 2022.

As a nod to their long history and local identity, the three campuses will be known as PennWest Cal; PennWest Clarion and PennWest Edinboro.

Dale-Elizabeth Pehrsson, the interim university president overseeing the ongoing merger of the three institutions, said the new name was the result of a "thoughtful and data-driven process" that included surveys, workshops and focus groups of various stakeholders.

The merger, a reaction to a decade of declining enrollment and increasing costs, triggered a lot of anxiety.

But many greeted the release of the new name as proof that the anchor institutions and largest employers in these small towns will indeed survive.

Jim Crooks, 69, is a 1974 Clarion graduate and third-generation alumni of the university. He sees the new name as a positive sign for the town of 5,800 where his family-owned clothing store has outfitted residents for 116 years.

"I'm very thrilled with the name. It really reflects Western Pennsylvania," Crooks said. "I think it's a powerful name."

He sees the change as a sign that Clarion will make the changes it needs to survive. Crooks said change is nothing new for the school that was the Clarion Normal School back when his grandfather graduated. It later became Clarion Teacher's College and later Clarion State College before becoming a state university in 1983.

California and Edinboro followed the same track, beginning life as teacher prep academies and eventually becoming universities. They each have endured for well over a century.

Plummeting enrollment

But the last decade has been hard. Enrollment at Cal U declined by 31% between 2010 and 2021. During that same period, Clarion and Edinboro saw enrollment declines of 46% and 53%, respectively.

For elected officials and businesses in the three college towns, it was hard to minimize the impact of those numbers.

"There definitely has been a lot of anxiety, but there's always anxiety with change," Crooks said. "The bottom line is: without challenge there is no change, and without change there is no growth."

The universities that bear the names of the towns where they grew up are inextricably interwoven into those communities.

Crooks and Edinboro Mayor Aaron Gast are living illustrations of just how deep those ties run. Each man is a graduate of the local university.

Each one said he has about 30 family members who also graduated from the universities that were designed to provide families with a cost-effective alternative for higher education.

Rising cost, fewer high school grads

Increasing costs that officials say were pricing many out of public colleges, coupled with a shrinking demographic of new high school graduates who have long made up the bulk of students at the schools, forced state officials to take a long, hard look at how they operate.

That review and a resulting redesign triggered plans to merge the three universities in the west as well as Bloomsburg, Lock Haven and Mansfield, a trio of struggling universities in Pennsylvania's northern tier.

The Western Pennsylvania merger project shot ahead of its northeastern counterpart with the approval of a new name Thursday. But officials say both are on track to enroll their first classes next fall, pending approval by the Middle States Higher Education Commission, which must accredit the new mega schools.

"This is a very exciting moment. We now start to see things happening," said Cynthia Shapira, chair of the Board of Governors of the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education.

State System Chancellor Dan Greenstein believes the mergers that officials refer to as university integrations, coupled with cost-cutting efforts at the remaining eight universities, are proof that the system is retooling itself for the future.

In addition to the merged universities, universities that fall under the State System include Cheyney, Indiana, Slippery Rock, Shippensburg, East Stroudsburg, Kutztown, Millersville and West Chester.

Seeking more state aid

Board members endorsed those efforts Thursday, agreeing to ask the General Assembly for a significant boost in state support as well as a bump in aid to students.

Greenstein painted the request for more state aid as a bid to attack Pennsylvania's growing workforce shortage. He said the state that now ranks 46th in the nation for aid to higher education has been pricing out students who want to attend college.

Increasing state support for higher education and keeping tuition down is critical to closing the workforce gap, Greenstein said. He warned that jobs will flow to other states if Pennsylvania does not adjust its priorities.

For now, officials in California, Clarion and Edinboro are just glad they will retain the institutions that are at the heart of their towns.

Gast, 39, a 2010 graduate of Edinboro, said the school is critical to the welfare of the town located south of Erie.

"I think whatever needs to be done to keep the university in the town and keep the Fighting Scots (Edinboro's mascot) here, that's great. Our position as a town is to support them and go on together," Gast said.

Students at the three universities learned of the new name moments after the announcement at Thursday's board meeting. Although plans call for the schools to maintain their mascots — Clarion's Golden Eagles, Edinboro's Fighting Scots and California's Vulcans — students will vote on new logos, including PennWest and each campus name this semester.

Officials unveiled a selection of possible logos at each campus.

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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