Elephants in the PASSHE’s room

Elephants in the PASSHE’s room

Consider this old scrivener skeptical.

As the Post-Gazette reports it:

“The chancellor of Pennsylvania’s State System of Higher Education (PASSHE) on Thursday recommended that the board of governors explore the idea of integrating California and Clarion universities to focus on online education; combining academic programs at Edinboro and Slippery Rock universities and placing emphasis at Lock Haven and Mansfield for adults seeking non-degree-earning educational pursuits.”

Chancellor Daniel Greenstein says there will continue to be on-campus instruction at the universities under consideration. But he believes studying potential mergers is the best way to address continually increasing costs in a system with declining enrollment.

“We cannot cut our way out of this situation,” he told the board, which unanimously accepted the recommendation. “We have to find a way to grow.”

It sounds like a first and right step to begin salvaging the moribund university system. But the term “half-measures” immediately comes to mind. So, too, does phrase “wearing blinders.”

As the Allegheny Institute repeatedly has documented, the State System is in a world of hurt. That is evidenced by an overall 20 percent enrollment drop over the last decade. While some system schools have seen modest student census gains, others have experienced dramatic declines.

But, and simply put, the system’s problems cannot be solved by “integrating” and “combining” alone.

As Jake Haulk, president of the Pittsburgh think tank, noted in February (in Policy Brief Vol. 20, No. No. 6), a number of elephants in the room are being ignored.

“Most of the other actions being developed or approved will do little to deal with the problems created by faculty unions whose powers cripple management prerogatives and, with the threat of strikes, push contractual compensation costs upward continuously in the face of the system enrollment declines and very large declines at half the schools.”

Haulk also says the state Legislature must recognize the surplus of state-supported university capacity.

“With Penn State’s enrollment of over 74,000—not including professional schools or online students—Temple at nearly 40,000 and Pitt and its affiliated campuses at 34,000 students, these three state-related schools have more enrollment than all the PASSHE schools combined.

“And all push hard to sustain enrollment in an environment that is increasingly competitive because of falling high school graduate counts,” Haulk reminds.

He also notes the many private schools, large and small, competing for many of the same students, not to mention schools in other states.

And then there’s the largest elephant:

“The Legislature also must recognize the importance of union-free faculties,” Haulk stresses. “Unions are inimical to containing costs, education excellence and management prerogatives such as hiring decisions and layoffs.”

Consider this, from the February white paper:

“Bear in mind that enrollment is down 20 percent while salaries and benefit payments are up 11 percent and liabilities for pensions and OPEB (other post-retirement benefits) are up 53 percent and 174 percent, respectively.”

Chancellor Greenstein, noting last week that the stakes are high, recognizes that “time is not our friend.”

Neither is a unionized faculty.

Colin McNickle is communications and marketing director at the Allegheny Institute for Public Policy (cmcnickle@alleghenyinstitute.org).