Is Sudden Top-Down Reform For State Universities A Misdirected Play?


A hard health care lesson of the coronavirus pandemic is how pre-existing conditions greatly increase the risk of infection.  The defects in health care coverage, access, and delivery, compounded by the economic deficiencies that contributed to the health care divide, are magnified into malignancies during the pandemic.

This is a matter of political complication, in health care policy and other issue areas.  Advocates of change in Pennsylvania and commentators on the political process almost weekly lament how difficult the road to reform is, even in the absence of policy crisis and budget calamity.

So when a significant bill recently rolled through the General Assembly, with little evident controversy or partisan stir, and was signed into law by the governor, it may have seemed an unexpected example of how support could rally for a greater good.  This bill vests extraordinary authority in the hands of the chancellor and the board of governors for PASSHE.  Short of shuttering individual universities, state system officials can dramatically remake the operating landscape.  To the casual observer, this action might seem a seismic shift in a too often paralyzed political process.

Well, whoa there Nelly.  Think through the implications here, and it starts to look like a bad bit of business.

You might wonder how a measure of such high stakes educationally and economically was pushed through with less scrutiny and commentary than that given to a garden-variety game commission nominee.  Why was this whisked through when nearly everyone is distracted by pandemic response, economic devastation, and public protests over policing?  When credit-claiming is Politics 101, why were there no sterling proclamations about what a wondrous mission was launched?  Usually folks are falling over one another touting anything with a whiff of reform about it.

When we bore down into the reasoning, several questions arise immediately.  How does a group heretofore believed to be a prominent obstacle to change suddenly get license to impose a solution?  How do university administrators previously critical of the leadership from PASSHE suddenly go silent, with several issuing a strained letter of support?  How does a solution quickly get fashioned when the nature and dimension of the larger crisis are still unknown, much less the future ramifications?

Well before coronavirus, there was an emerging school of thought that the PASSHE superstructure was part of the problem, not a providential source of solution.  For too many years, the system stifled rather than promoted initiative and individuality among the campuses.  Frustration ran so high several of the universities backed a bill allowing them to go their separate way.  Thus, it is alarming this measure looks to centralize operational decisionmaking and enhance the power of the chancellor.  Based on over thirty years of field experiments and observations, it seems a mystifying mistake for Pennsylvania to subscribe to the notion that “Chancellor Knows Best.”

As you see in the robust disputes between the governor and legislators on a wide range of issues, the General Assembly does not easily cede authority, even when it is reluctant to exercise it.  Just last November, lawmakers were irate when a pledge of considerable money was made to Cheyney without notice or consultation.  At the same time, legislators have become increasingly quick to criticize controversial decisions made by unelected officials.  Yet, here they have acceded to that which they regularly denounce.  Curious, eh?

Despite the special status of the public universities and the essential niche they hold in our state’s higher education universe, little public attention has been given to pending changes that have only been described in the most general terms.  As the legislation was moving, advocates piously said there was no plan, despite nagging suspicion there was.  Mere days after the bill was signed into law, the prospect of merging six of the universities suddenly materialized.  It is unlikely to have just dropped from the sky.  One possibility here is that the eventual plan will be so politically unpalatable that the board of governors has been picked to be cannon fodder for public wrath.

There is legitimate concern that new dictates could well nullify recent moves to give the individual universities latitude to tailor their programs and costs to compete in their respective regions.  Such individual authority was hard won, and rooted in common sense, given studies showing how many students come from within a fifty mile radius and then pursue careers locally after graduating.  The competitive markets for students are very different.  For East Stroudsburg, on the periphery, the competition is more against New Jersey and New York than Harrisburg and Philadelphia.

After years of study and argument, a new community college in Erie is likely forthcoming.  Some will see this as further weakening the position of Edinboro.  Not necessarily.  Articulation agreements have been drawn between community colleges and state universities to help make a four-year degree more accessible and affordable.  An affordable continuum toward a degree will become a more attractive calculation for students and their families in the coming years.

There is speculation that the new direction does not portend well for Shippensburg University, my alma mater.  For those who have followed closely the changes on campus over the past decade, it is inconceivable that the university is considered on the bubble for sustainability.  To devalue or dismember SU is to disregard the development of a school of engineering in response to employer needs, the transformation of general education to make it more relevant and accountable, the thoughtful student acclimation and retention programs put in place, a teaching force that is remarkably enthusiastic and hands-on in helping students go beyond survive to thrive, in conjunction with other transforming aspects.  SU plays far above its weight class in terms of encouraging and securing alumni support, in financial contributions and volunteer time.  I expect that SU is not alone in its attention to attracting students and ensuring they receive the education they are paying for and will need to flourish in our competitive world.  These are not stagnant backwaters in a swamp in desperate need of draining.

There seems to be collective amnesia on how years of declining state funding has driven up student debt and undermined efforts to attract students from disadvantaged families.  Merge and shuffle and recalibrate as you will, and lack of money remains the negative difference maker.

A hugely positive development has been the track record of foundations established at each institution.  These entities have generated large increases in funding from alumni, foundations, and others to fund worthwhile projects ranging from on-campus housing to scholarships.  There is tremendous value added.  However, as the old saying goes, no good deed goes unpunished.  Those in tough budget straits covet this money mightily.  There is growing suspicion that PASSHE wants to grab these assets as part of their power expansion.  While the chancellor and the governors deny any such designs, they vigorously opposed protective language in the legislation.  Again, this points to the legislation as much less than a consensus document.

There is a good argument against making precipitous decisions based on the circumstances before the economy shut down.  Following the Great Recession, the state universities experienced an upsurge in applications.  The reason was simple.  After so many families sustained a significant financial hit, they began considering more affordable options.  No one at this point can say for sure how it will play out this time, but there are many families and institutions who have suffered serious losses.  With realignments playing out across the economy, our public universities could prove a substantial asset rather than a liability.

Every institution of higher learning must confront the shrinking demographic.  Institutions will not be affected equally.  Presumably, many students will again be checking down on the schools they apply to or transfer to.  Students who otherwise might have headed to private or state-related universities and colleges will now look at the state universities.  That will be a gain, but will be offset somewhat by students who check down to community colleges or technical institutes.  Anecdotal evidence suggests a lot of students are considering a gap year until the pandemic runs its course.  Some of these could decide to access online offerings at the state universities.  This underscores the hazards of premature conclusions when traditional assumptions have gone by the boards, and the new normal is far from settled.

There are possibilities for picking up applications, with some judicious policy changes.  Now that we have regained our senses about letting foreign students and scholars continue their endeavors here, maybe we can tear down the financial barriers to allow the Dreamers to attend state universities.  Because of the many individuals who have lost jobs and the many businesses still deciding to close permanently, there is the possibility of returning students, if there are practical and affordable courses available.  Moves made to reduce tuition will help compensate for the loss of the traditional college experience that returning students, especially those attending online only, will suffer.

Going back at least a decade, many decisionmakers have attempted to blame supposedly intransigent faculty as major obstacles to reform.  This may be winning politics in pockets of the state, but it is losing policy for our commonwealth.  Whatever the new structure looks like, whatever the number of institutions listed on the new scorecard, the faculty will determine the success or failure of the new approach.  So they need to be pivotal players in the development and implementation of the changes.  Reductions in personnel are likely for each institution, but they should not begin with or concentrate on the qualified and energetic instructors occupying the majority of classrooms.

This debate is taking place during a time when imperial state government is running into increasing local and regional resistance.  Not coincidently, the sort of areas that are home to most of the state universities.

It naturally would be quite inconvenient for any of the players to own up to the years of declining state support that drove up tuition and escalated student debt.  Instead of trying to repair finances, some legislators chose to concentrate on breaking the faculty union and closing down what they portrayed as underperforming campuses that time passed by.  That these are public, state-owned universities did not factor into their political calculations.

Some will say the ship has sailed and it is too late to do anything.  Not sure why anyone would concede such in the post pay raise repeal era.  Citizens have demonstrated the capacity to force correction when a bad deal is rammed through without public consideration.  The many alumni who contribute to the state universities can be a potent force in objecting to this power grab and scrutinizing the motives of system officials and insisting on much greater transparency and disclosure, which up to now is close to zilch.

There is no contention here that drastic changes are unneeded in our public universities.  The present path is unsustainable, with the changes demanded by the coronavirus piled atop already daunting challenges.  But it is patently unfair to turn a blind eye to the changes the universities are making sans a prod or edict from PASSHE.  There is the lingering concern that the responsibility for system-wide change has been placed in the wrong hands.  The original reasons for the creation of PASSHE were valid.  But many observers see it as a bureaucracy that came to value its powers and prerogatives above the interests of the universities.

Every contention these days is qualified by the word uncertain.  Of course, as Mark Twain noted long ago, “Predicting is never easy, especially about the future.”  But even contemporary understanding and commentary is off the mark.  One newspaper titled their editorial: “Beginning of change for higher education.”  It is not a beginning by any means, and not necessarily the solution being anticipated or expected.

This situation reminds me of a long ago observation by Groucho Marx: “Politics is the art of looking for trouble, finding it everywhere, diagnosing it incorrectly, and misapplying the wrong remedies.”  A board of overlord governors dictating the future to vassal universities is injurious to public higher education, detrimental to student access and opportunity, and potentially damaging educationally and economically to the regions that have long hosted and supported the universities.


David A. Atkinson is a Research Associate with the Edward H. Arnold Institute for Policy Studies at The Susquehanna Valley Center for Public Policy

Nothing contained here should be considered as an attempt to aid or hinder the passage of any legislation before the General Assembly.

The views expressed here are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Susquehanna Valley Center.