Crunch time for PASSHE
The encouraging news is that the beleaguered Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education finally appears to be pouring the steps of the concrete moves needed to attempt PASSHE’s revival.
But could the bad news be that it’s too little too late?
On Wednesday, the system’s governing board advanced, as the Post-Gazette reported it, “plans to recast California, Clarion and Edinboro universities as one entity” and a plan for Lock Haven, Mansfield and Bloomsburg universities to pool resources.
At the same time, the P-G reported the president of Indiana University of Pennsylvania, the largest of the 14 state-owned State System schools in Western Pennsylvania, said it would restructure six of its colleges that would eliminate some academic disciplines but expand others.
While officials have been quick to note that the coronavirus pandemic compounded its problems, declining enrollment (tanking enrollment in some cases), questionable management that led to imprudent spending and intractable unionism long have dogged PASSHE.
As Jake Haulk, president-emeritus of the Allegheny Institute detailed it earlier this year (in Policy Brief Vol. 20, No. 6), “overly generous compensation packages for employees” also have played no small role.
As has been the state Legislature’s refusal to eliminate the strike cudgel, which unionized faculty swung in a three-day 2016 walkout.
“Unions are inimical to containing costs, education excellence and management prerogatives such as hiring decisions and layoffs,” Haulk reminded.
That said, hundreds of faculty layoffs are expected as PASSHE attempts to save itself. Notices could come as soon as the end of this month. But what machinations organized labor employs in attempts to stave them off remains the kind of wild card that could stall (or even kill?) the State System plan.
As Haulk, a Ph.D. economist, further noted in that same white paper:
PASSHE liabilities more than doubled between 2010 and 2019, from $2.072 billion (not including pensions) to $5.460 billion. That latter number was based on the now-required inclusion of pension liabilities.
Other post-retirement liabilities nearly tripled, from $723 million to $1.977 billion.
Bond debt increased by 40 percent, from $825 million to $1.155 billion while other liabilities soared as well, from $404 million to $1.070 billion.
These are among the cold, hard realities that PASSHE faces. And it’s going to take more than fancy buzz words and phrases – “NextGen,” “creating something new,” “think big and go big” and “new synergy and energy,” among them – to wean the State System from decades of failings.
Colin McNickle is communications and marketing director at the Allegheny Institute for Public Policy (firstname.lastname@example.org).