PA Senate Democrats Hold Policy Hearing on the Impact of the State System of Higher Education Redesign Plan
Harrisburg – May 17, 2021 – At the request of state Senators Judy Schwank (D-Berks) and Lindsey M. Williams (D-Allegheny), the Pennsylvania Senate Democratic Policy Committee held a virtual public hearing on the impact of the Pennsylvania state system of higher education’s (PASSHE) redesign plan.
“I serve on PASSHE’s Board of Governors, and through that role I’ve had the opportunity to meet with students, faculty, university presidents and trustees from all of the campuses,” Schwank said. “I know firsthand how important these institutions are to both the students who attend them and the communities where they are located. The system is an undeniable asset to the commonwealth. I’m hopeful that through honest and constructive dialogue, my colleagues and I will learn more about the current status of PASSHE and the impact that the integration plan will have on every aspect of the system. Our task as legislators, and all stakeholders, is to get us to a plan that will help the system survive and thrive. Many Pennsylvanians are counting on us to bring stability to the system and set it on a course to serve generations of learners.”
PASSHE has advocated for a system redesign since its strategic review in 2016. The comprehensive review was conducted because fiscal challenges within the 14-member network of PASSHE showed that the current financial course they were on was untenable.
Act 50 of 2020 provides the authority and guidance for the Board of Governors of PASSHE to restructure the PASSHE’s institutions.
“Over the last few months, we’ve heard from Chancellor Greenstein on his proposed redesign plan, but one of the things missing from those conversations has been the voices of those most directly impacted by these changes—our students, faculty members, and staff,” said Senator Williams. “Our state system schools are intended to make a college degree affordable for Pennsylvania students, especially for our minority and first-generation students and right now, we’re not fulfilling that mission. I continue to have questions and concerns about the proposed consolidation plan and whether it will provide the type of relief that our struggling state system and our students desperately need.”
Dr. Jamie Martin, President of APSCUF, said that the consolidation of universities in the western region (California, Clarion, and Edinboro) and in the northeastern region (Bloomsburg, Lock Haven and Mansfield) are a serious concern for her and her faculty union members.
“The concerns we have for our students range from questions regarding course availability, especially opportunities for face-to-face classes, and the way in which the 25% price reductions described in the plans will be achieved,” Martin said.
Ross Brumagin, President AFSCME Local 2329 and an Edinboro University High Voltage Electrician, said that he was concerned that the current redesign plan does not prioritize preserving jobs.
“We’ve been steadily losing AFSCME-represented positions for a decade now. We had 231 positions in 2011, 217 in 2015, and now we have just 125. We just went through layoffs in November 2020 because of PASSHE’s so-called “financial sustainability” policy. Then on top of that, they are proposing to integrate Edinboro with the Universities of Clarion and California under the umbrella of one accredited university – and eliminate even more jobs,” Brumagin said.
Shawn O’Dell, President AFSCME Local 2360 and a Lock Haven University employee and graduate, said that she is concerned that her degree will eventually be from an unaccredited university based on how the consolidation plans continue.
Cameron O’Neill, Junior at Bloomsburg University and a members of the Honors College, testified about her experience as a current student and the challenges she and her peers have faced as a result of online learning during the COVID-19 pandemic. She said that this experience has made them even more apprehensive about the proposed consolidation plans that rely heavily on hybrid online and in person education models. O’Neill also voiced concern about what she saw as a lack of outreach to current students to about the consolidation and redesign process, and whether or not they were in favor of this plan.
“I can confirm that the only thing I have received (and completed) regarding our needs was one survey asking for a name of the consolidated schools. There was no option on that survey that asked if we thought this was a good idea,” O’Neill said.
Dr. Marc Stier, Director of Pennsylvania Budget & Policy Center, said in his testimony in regards to the student experience that decrease in attendance at PASSHE schools is not necessarily the result of demographic changes, but the fact that prices at these institutions have increased dramatically.
“Tuitions have risen dramatically at PASSHE schools as state funding has precipitously declined. State funding is now only 38% of the 1983-84 level. The state ranks 47th out of 50 states in per capita investment in higher education. As state has fallen, the student share of costs has increase dramatically,” Stier said.
Dr. Dale-Elizabeth Pehrsson, President of Clarion University and Interim President of Edinboro University, testified at the hearing about why PASSHE feels that the redesign and consolidation are necessary, “We see integration as a next step in this evolution – one that brings inevitable uncertainties, but is also necessary to ensure that we can continue to serve our mission and the students who are at its heart.”
“Integration will allow these three sister institutions in Western Pennsylvania to harness their collective strengths and provide students with a wealth of opportunities not found at any single institution,” Pehrsson continued.
Dr. Dan Greenstein, Chancellor of PASSHE, also participated in today’s hearing, and responded to the criticisms that the redesign process has not been transparent, or student centered. He said that he was grateful for the feedback he has heard today and from the public comment period available still ongoing in the PASSHE redesign process.
In response to questions about why this process what happening now and why it could not wait for a longer period of time, Greenstein said, “By not addressing these problems and continuing to push them down the road we make the inequalities within our system worse.”
Greenstein said that based on the past 10 years of financial predictions, the trends of what will happen to the universities if nothing is done is clear, and they will eventually run out funds to operate successfully.
“As someone with significant student debt myself after pursuing a graduate degree, I know how important it is for Pennsylvanians to have access to quality and affordable higher education. I am very grateful for all who joined us at this hearing today to continue to discuss the best options to create a Pennsylvania state system of higher education that prioritizes students, faculty, and the communities that house the education institutions of Pennsylvania,” Sen. Katie Muth (D- Berks/Chester/Montgomery), chair of the Senate Democratic Policy Committee, said.
Below are all who participated in today’s hearing:
- Dr. Jamie Martin, President of APSCUF
- Cameron O’Neill, Junior at Bloomsburg University (Honors College)
- Justina Arena, Junior at California University
- Ross Brumagin, President AFSCME Local 2329, Edinboro University High Voltage Electrician
- Shawn O’Dell, President AFSCME Local 2360, Lock Haven University Clerk Typist 3
- Dr. Marc Stier, Director, Pennsylvania Budget & Policy Center
- Dr. Dan Greenstein, Chancellor
- Aaron Walton, President, Cheyney University
- Dr. Dale-Elizabeth Pehrsson, President, Clarion University and Interim President, Edinboro University
- Mia Swales, Student Trustee, Lock Haven University
The full recording of this roundtable, as well as the written testimony from participants, can be found at senatormuth.com/policy. A full recording of this hearing can also be found on the PA Senate Democratic Facebook page.