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Can LHU survive consolidation?

STANLEY BERARD

Lock Haven

The coming two months are critical for higher education in rural Pennsylvania.

The Board of Governors of the State System of Higher Education will decide this week whether to begin a 60-day public comment period on plans to consolidate six of the system’s fourteen universities into two.

After the comment period, the board will vote on whether the consolidations proceed. One of the two consolidated entities is to include Lock Haven, Mansfield, and Bloomsburg universities.

The plan is to retain those names, but the three sets of academic programs and three faculties will be combined into a single faculty with a single academic curriculum. A student enrolling at LHU on the Lock Haven or Clearfield campuses will really be enrolling in the academic programs of the as yet unnamed New University.

Chancellor Dan Greenstein, the System’s chief executive, sells this as a good strategy for preserving and expanding public higher education in Pennsylvania.

He says that students of the New University will have access to many more academic majors than they would at any of the three universities alone.

He also says that this is the road to cutting costs enough to make higher education affordable again for the least well-to-do. Other consolidations around the country have netted little cost savings, but maybe we can do what others could not. If so, it would be in keeping with the System’s statutory mission to provide quality college education at an affordable cost, as well as a strategy for stemming and reversing a long-term decline in enrollment at System universities.

At the same time, the chancellor has directed LHU to reduce its faculty by 25-30%.

The first wave of these cuts occurred in 2020-21, and by 2022 the faculty is to be reduced by about 43 more people — the precise number to be whatever is necessary to get the student-to-faculty ratio up to what it was at around the historical peak of LHU’s enrollment, in 2010.

Some of these reductions will be through retirements or other voluntary departures, but the vast majority of cases will be layoffs–called “retrenchment” in the faculty contract.

LHU has already been steadily reducing faculty over the last decade–not all faculty who retired have been replaced over that time.

So the faculty members to be terminated are ones with a substantial history and record of service to LHU students.

Chancellor Greenstein says the cuts are necessary and not tied to the coming consolidation of universities. But no matter the intent, we will experience the cuts and the consolidation together.

This is crucial in thinking about the future of LHU as a residential institution.

How many academic majors will the New University be able to deliver fully or even partly in-person on the LHU campus with such a sharply reduced faculty?

Will students come to the LHU campus for majors that will be mostly online?

For those seeking an on-campus experience and a given major, why not go to the school that has the courses in-person?

If fewer in-person students come to LHU, will we have to reduce the New University’s physical presence in Lock Haven even further?

We cannot say how far such a spiral will go.

Local students who cannot leave our area to attend college may be willing and able to take remote courses offered by Bloomsburg- or Mansfield-based faculty. Expanding the System’s remote learning capabilities will indeed increase higher education opportunities for those students. But the university consolidations are not what will accomplish this.

Instead of spending all the effort and resources to merge academic programs at these six universities, we should be devoting our energy toward addressing how to use distance technologies and other strategies for expanding the reach of LHU and other System schools to more places and families–both in our area and in other parts of the state that are underserved.

Consolidation is at best a distraction from the real work to be done. It will certainly reduce LHU’s physical presence in the local community.

We do not want to find out how far that spiral can take us.

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