School report draws criticism, praise

Recommendations for improving Pennsylvania’s state university system, released this week, have drawn criticism from some lawmakers, who say they don’t go far enough and offer few practical solutions for solving financial and enrollment woes.

“We had hoped for more detailed information,” said State Sen. David Argall, a Republican who represents Schuylkill and Berks Counties, and is chairman of the Senate majority policy committee.

“The report didn’t tell us anything we didn’t know,” echoed Sen. Andy Dinniman, a Democrat who represents Chester County, “and it never got into how you could accomplish the objectives they spoke about.”

The National Center for Higher Education Management Systems, a Boulder, Colo., consulting group hired by the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education (PASSHE) to conduct the review, did not recommend closures or mergers of campuses following a 12 percent enrollment decline among the 14 universities since 2010. But the group did suggest consolidation and staff reductions for schools with the greatest enrollment declines and budget gaps, an overhaul in the system’s governance, and more stable and stronger leadership at the universities.

“I think they were pretty tough on everybody,” said Joni Finney, director of the Institute for Research on Higher Education at the University of Pennsylvania, who praised the report.

Recommending campus closures, she said, would have been more of a distraction than a solution. People would have focused on that one campus rather than fixing the system as a whole, she said.

And, she said, consultants effectively recommended  mergers without calling them that, referring to the recommendation on consolidation. Under that recommendation, the universities would keep their own presidents and identities, but import many of their programs and services from other institutions and as a result be able to reduce staff and costs.

Consultants presented recommendations to the board of governors and public in Harrisburg on Wednesday, the same day the board signaled intentions to raise tuition 3.5 percent for 2017-18. The full report will be out next week.

Argall said he planned to review it. Earlier this year, he led an effort to get approval for the Senate’s Legislative Budget and Finance Committee to conduct its own study of the 105,000-student system. Argall said  Friday that with the system’s report finished,  he planned to launch the effort next week, with the goal of finishing by the end of the year.

Questions also were raised about how closely consultants looked at Cheyney University, the system’s historically black school, which has lost more than half of its enrollment.

“We were told, kind of, not to spend a lot of time on Cheyney because they had a separate task force dealing with that and we ought to focus on some other things,” Dennis Jones, president emeritus of the consulting firm, said Wednesday.

That didn’t sit well with Casey Long, director of policy and legislative affairs for Senate President Joe Scarnati (R. Jefferson), who said he heard a similar assertion from Jones during a legislative briefing on the report Thursday.

“It’s really troubling, given that we were assured that this would be a fully independent study and the board would have no part in swaying the recommendations,” Long said. “The concern was that the study that PASSHE commissioned would not make tough, politically unpopular decisions. That certainly appears to be the case.”

On Friday, both the consultants and Kenn Marshall, a system spokesman, sought to clarify that position. Jones said consultants were told to focus on the system as a whole, not on any one institution.

And Marshall said the consultant “was advised that analyzing [Cheyney’s] existing business operations would not be relevant to the overall study because the current institutional model would change following the task force’s work.”  Cheyney, Marshall said, was included in the overall analysis.

He also said that the system never anticipated that consultants would single out institutions to close, but rather say whether there should be fewer.

Still, Sally M. Johnstone, president of the consulting firm, asserted unequivocally Friday about Cheyney: “There was no value in closing that institution,” noting its historic mission and low-cost service to students. “There’s great value in fixing it.”

State Rep. James Roebuck, a Democrat from Philadelphia, also warned that closing campuses could be detrimental to the economic life of a region. But he acknowledged that the system is at “a point of reckoning” and that hard decisions need to be made.

System universities besides Cheyney are Bloomsburg, West Chester, Mansfield, Millersville, Kutztown, East Stroudsburg, Lock Haven, Slippery Rock, Shippensburg, Edinboro, Indiana, Clarion and California.

Consultants also recommended that the system’s board of governors be replaced by a board of regents with no ties to politics or governance at individual universities. The 20-member board of governors currently includes four legislators and others with ties.

“I’m all for it,” said Sen. Judith L. Schwank, a Berks County Democrat  on the board. “This model that we have really is out of step with the rest of the country.”

She said the report gave her hope.

“The key in terms of outcome,” she said, “will be whether we have the courage to move forward on the recommendations that they made.”