West Chester U. to study possibility of withdrawing from state system

West Chester University’s Council of Trustees has become increasingly frustrated with the state’s higher education system and is solidly behind proposed legislation that would allow the school to explore withdrawing from it, a board member said.

“That’s the direction we are looking at very seriously,” said Eli Silberman, a retired advertising executive from Unionville and a trustee on the nine-member council. “It’s not guaranteed the university is going to do that, but considering what’s been going on over the last few years, it’s an option we’d like to have.”

Silberman said this year, the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education, which oversees 14 state universities, took $1.6 million away from the financially healthy West Chester to help other system schools that are struggling.

“That got us serious about this possibility,” Silberman said Tuesday.

West Chester said it will conduct a feasibility study on the impact on students, employees and the region if it were to exit the system and become “state-related,” like Temple, Pennsylvania State University, Lincoln and the University of Pittsburgh.

The university announced it would study the possibility in an email late Tuesday afternoon to staff and the West Chester community from Thomas Fillippo, chair of the Council of Trustees.

Silberman attended a press conference in Harrisburg Tuesday where the legislation permitting withdrawal was unveiled by Sens. Andrew Dinniman (D., Chester) and Robert Tomlinson (R., Bucks). The proposal would allow healthy universities with more than 7,000 students to exit. The schools also would have to buy their way out of the system over a period of years by acquiring assets under the state's domain and continue to contribute to the employer’s share for pension obligations.

Dinniman and Tomlinson, also a West Chester University trustee, said the system has been too slow to respond to changing academic needs and bleeding enrollment.

“By forcing legislation that requires hearings and debate, we’ll finally deal with this,” Dinniman said. “That’s our hope.”

The legislation has detractors.

Several lawmakers, the state system’s chancellor, Frank T. Brogan, and the Association of Pennsylvania State College & University Faculties spoke against the proposal, worrying it will force tuition hikes and lead to the dismantling of an affordable education system in Pennsylvania.

“Permitting schools to leave the state system doesn't make the school stronger, or the system stronger,” said State Rep. Mike Hanna, (D., Centre), the House Democratic whip and a member of the state system board. “The underlying issue here is that our state schools have suffered unprecedented cuts under the current administration. Secession may be a short-term fix at a time when Pennsylvania needs a long-term solution.”

Kenn Marshall, a spokesman for the state system, acknowledged that West Chester may have lost money this year. The university adjusted its allocation formula for the 14 schools. Some gained and some lost, he said.

Proponents of the legislation dismissed the idea that West Chester would be forced to charge exorbitant tuition if it became state related.

Dinniman said tuition likely would increase $500 to $1,000. He contended that tuition at other system schools likely will rise significantly anyway, given waning state funding, and says West Chester’s tuition, in any case, will not approach Penn State’s. In-state students pay about $16,240 annually in tuition, fees and room and board at West Chester, compared to $26,362 at Penn State.

The 112,300-student state system is facing perhaps the greatest challenge in its 30-plus-year history. Enrollment has declined 6 percent since 2010, with drops of more than 20 percent at some schools, and state funding has remained flat the last two years following an 18 percent cut.

With 15,845 students, West Chester is the system’s largest and growing. Other schools are Bloomsburg, California, Cheyney, Clarion, East Stroudsburg, Edinboro, Indiana, Kutztown, Lock Haven, Mansfield, Millersville, Shippensburg, and Slippery Rock.

CORRECTION: Earlier versions of this story incorrectly stated that $6 million was taken away from West Chester by the state system.