Saturday, July 12, 2014
Inquirer Daily News

Bill could force change in Pa. university system

State Sen. Andrew Dinniman (D., Chester) says he and Sen. Robert Tomlinson (R., Bucks) hope in the coming weeks to unveil legislation that would grant schools like West Chester greater autonomy within the state system or allow those schools to perhaps become state-related institutions. (File photo at West Chester University)
State Sen. Andrew Dinniman (D., Chester) says he and Sen. Robert Tomlinson (R., Bucks) hope in the coming weeks to unveil legislation that would grant schools like West Chester greater autonomy within the state system or allow those schools to perhaps become state-related institutions. (File photo at West Chester University)

Picture a state university with a fast-growing student population.

That's hard to do across most of Pennsylvania's 14 state-owned universities, where enrollments since 2010 are down by 6 percent on average - nearly 20 percent at some campuses.

But at West Chester University, which has seen a 9 percent enrollment gain in those years, the image applies.

And to some, it is the starkest illustration of a university that would be even more prosperous but for the State System of Higher Education, which they contend sets policies that prop up schools with weaker enrollments while slowing needed expansion elsewhere.

State Sen. Andrew Dinniman (D., Chester), ranking Democrat on the Senate Education Committee, said he and Sen. Robert Tomlinson (R., Bucks) hope in the coming weeks to unveil legislation that would grant schools like West Chester greater autonomy within the state system or allow those schools to perhaps become state-related institutions, like Temple, Pennsylvania State, and Lincoln Universities, and the University of Pittsburgh.

Dinniman said the state system no longer can fill its 14 universities, has a state appropriation slashed to 1990s levels, and has fallen deeper into debt for construction on campuses with growing vacancy rates. Enrollment systemwide of 112,300 students this year is down from 2010's peak by 7,200 students - equal to an entire campus.

"The only way currently that the system has for survival is to take money away from those institutions that are doing well, which is actually only West Chester and Bloomsburg Universities, and [shift] it to institutions that are not in as good a shape," said Dinniman, citing enrollment gains at both schools.

Dinniman and Tomlinson have ties to West Chester. Dinniman has taught there and represents a district that includes the campus; Tomlinson is on the university's council of trustees.

Dinniman insisted this is not advocacy for West Chester but an attempt to force an overdue policy discussion of what the state system must do if birthrates and high school graduate numbers remain depressed.

State System Chancellor Frank Brogan declined to comment specifically on the potential legislation but said he hoped any effort championed quality and affordability.

West Chester president Greg R. Weisenstein did not return a phone call seeking comment Wednesday. Campus spokeswoman Pam Sheridan did not return messages.

Lisa Millhous, a professor and president of West Chester's chapter of the Association of Pennsylvania State College and University Faculty, said instructors wondered what greater autonomy would mean:

Would the school have more say over tuition levels? Could faculty negotiate a contract better reflecting the region's cost of living? Could a West Chester no longer in the system make a go of it after paying off property and other obligations to the state?

Bill Schackner Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
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