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A new era?

State System to explore combining LHU, Mansfield

PHOTO PROVIDED Two LHU students walk under the arch on campus during a prior semester.

The Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education (PASSHE) will study the financial impact of “integrating” six state-run universities, including Lock Haven and Mansfield.

The announcement came with approval of the review by the PASSHE Board of Governors on Thursday as “another important step forward in its system redesign effort.”

Many of the state universities are facing financial strain due to COVID-19, but mostly because of declining enrollments over the past decade.

Chancellor Daniel Greenstein, however, believes integrating operations at selected schools “may enable the System to ensure that all of its 14 institutions can sustainably provide their students and their communities with affordable, quality higher education for years to come.”

“We have a unique opportunity to shape the future of public higher education in Pennsylvania, ensuring it continues to act as an engine of social mobility and economic development for all,” Greenstein said.

A financial review is the first step toward integrating universities as outlined in Act 50 of 2020 — legislation that passed the General Assembly with overwhelming bipartisan support and was signed into law by Gov. Tom Wolf in July.

Act 50 requires a detailed, transparent, and broadly consultative review, planning and implementation process, one that will be undertaken over the next two years.

The board’s resolution directs Greenstein to examine three potential integrations, which include:

∫ Lock Haven and Mansfield — This arrangement could develop non-degree and stackable credentials that meet workforce needs in selected high demand occupations and concentrating on adult students, all in partnership with regional employers.

∫ California and Clarion — An integration that would, in addition to on-campus programs, seek to stand up a low-cost, high-quality, online undergraduate degree and degree-completion program that is not currently available in Pennsylvania.

∫ Edinboro and Slippery Rock — An integration that would strengthen and broaden available academic opportunities by aligning two educational programs into one, driving down costs and coordinating enrollment strategies.

For the purposes of the review the chancellor will explore the financial impacts of university integrations that operate with:

∫ A unified leadership team.

∫ A single faculty and staff.

∫ A single academic program array.

∫ A unified enrollment management strategy.

∫ A unified budget.

∫ A single reporting line to the Board through the chancellor

“We are looking at these three combinations because they show enormous potential to sustainably serve more students, expand educational opportunity for their regions, and leverage the universities’ proximity to one other,” said Greenstein.

Greenstein further noted that the board action allows the review to assess other combinations of universities and integration approaches, adding “we will let the data drive the process as we seek the most effective and reliable means of sustaining affordable higher education for all Pennsylvanians.”

“We are optimistic about what this approach will mean for our three foundational goals of System Redesign — student success, leveraging our scale to achieve cost efficiencies, and restructuring our governance,” said Board chair Cindy Shapira. “Exploring this approach is a key part of our effort to support students currently enrolled and those considering these institutions as places to earn a life-changing degree. We’re focused on their future and the future of the entire State System with today’s Board action.”

The decision to pursue a financial analysis of integrating six universities into three pairs drew no opposing views from board members on Thursday.

Board member David Maser told Pennlive’s Jan Murphy that, in his view, “there’s no other path that would lead us to sustainability.”

Board member Janet Yeomans said she hopes the board will “have the courage to go forward with this.”

Board member Sam Smith called it the “right direction for the system to go,” Pennlive reported. He said the process will allow for any initially approved integration plan to be tweaked so nothing is set in stone at this point.

But he added, “if we don’t enter this discussion in a sincere and meaningful way, we’re back to one of the other options which is a slow death.”

Prior to the passage of Act 50, aggressive changes to the universities would not have been possible without the General Assembly’s approval. The law gave State System leaders the authority that opens up newfound possibilities of mergers, consolidations and shared services and provides a three-year timeframe to do it, Murphy wrote.

But that law also included a requirement that none of the 14 university campuses close. It further puts restrictions on changes that would affect its two largest universities: West Chester University and Indiana University of Pennsylvania. The rest of the system schools include Bloomsburg, Cheyney, East Stroudsburg, Kutztown, Millersville, and Shippensburg.

Many of the system’s universities are facing enrollment and financial challenges. The system’s overall enrollment has declined by 20% over the past decade. Pennsylvania is nearing the brink of a projected decline in high school graduates in the latter half of this decade, Murphy reported.

Nine of the 14 system universities project the need to dip into their reserves to keep their doors open within the next three years; two are already operating with financial assistance from the system and its sister universities.

Going down the path the system is on now, Greenstein told PennLive 13 of the 14 universities would have a balanced budget by 2022 “but a whole bunch of them would have really thin operating margins.” He said four will have bled their reserves to within $10 million; five others within $20 million.

“So there you are at the edge of the demographic cliff which starts in 2025 and you’ve got four universities with $10 million in the bank,” he said.

Greenstein said he would expect the financial analysis of the proposed university integrations to be completed by October to present to the board at its quarterly meeting that month. The board would hopefully then decide what further direction it wants to take. An initial integration plan for implementing the recommended changes could be developed over the next six months for board presentation in April.

Act 50 requires a 60-day public comment period to gather input on the recommended changes so Greenstein said at the earliest, the board could be in a position to make a final decision next July.

Greenstein said his rationale for recommending the pairings – beyond the geographic proximity of those universities — goes like this.

∫ With Lock Haven and Mansfield, Greenstein said they exist “in a region which is really hungry for what I would call non-degree educational programs, non-degree course certificate and there’s employer groups and associations who are just ready to go. Those institutions have some track record there so there’s an opportunity for them to break into that adjacent work” while continuing to provide its traditional programming.

∫ California and Clarion have significant online capability, he said. “So you can imagine ways that could be expanded by leveraging their collective strength.” But both would maintain their campuses and offer a traditional residential educational option.

∫ As for Edinboro and Slippery Rock, he said the hope is with the combined strength of those two institutions situated near the Pennsylvania-Ohio border, they could be more attractive in that marketplace.

Preserving the identities of each of these centuries-old institutions is among the areas that would be studied although the chancellor said he thinks there’s a way for two universities to have “a single academic structure but still preserve the identity, the brand, the name, can students still get the T-shirt, what’s it say on the degree.”

Then again, Greenstein told Murphy, whose story can be found online at www.Pennlive.com, “At the end of the day, it’s not beyond the bounds of reason that two universities get together and say, ‘We’re so cool. We’re about to become something different.'” and decide to change their name.

“You don’t want to foreclose an opportunity,” he said. “This is about growth and exciting people and building for the future. Right now the question is very simple. If we bring institutions together are we better off or worse off financially so let’s start there.”

Peter Campbell, president of the LHU Association of Pennsylvania State College and University Faculties, told The Express that “The Board of Governors has partnered Lock Haven University with Mansfield for a study on possible integration opportunities between the two institutions. On behalf of the 226 faculty members at LHU we hope to be working with the administration to chart a course forward to explore opportunities for growth and development between the two institutions, to achieve financially sustainability, and meet the educational workforce needs of our local communities.”

“The goal will be to improve educational opportunities within the region while maintaining and supporting the concerns of the faculty and staff at both institutions,” he added.

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