PASSHE acts (but more action needed)

PASSHE acts (but more action needed)

How troubling are the words and mindset of Jamie Martin.

Martin is president of the Association of Pennsylvania State College and University Faculties (APSCUF). It’s the labor union that represents 5,000 faculty and coaches at the 14-member school Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education (PASSHE).

More on her in a minute. First, the background:

PASSHE announced Friday last that, as expected and sorely needed, it will begin to right-size the long financially moribund State System by, at the end of the spring 2021 semester, eliminating more than 100 tenured and tenure-track faculty members.

Simply put, the moves are needed to begin corralling a woefully out-of-whack cost structure at the institutions, many of which have seen a precipitous drop in student counts over the last few years. Several of the schools have announced plans to combine their offerings.

Or as State System spokesman David Pidgeon correctly assesses the situation:

“A quality public higher education goes hand in hand with affordability, and on behalf of our more than 93,000 students, the State System is committed to both of those values.

“We have been challenging the status quo and will continue to do so as we look to reshape public higher education in Pennsylvania and recapture our affordability edge in a competitive marketplace.

“We must do this to remain accessible to any Pennsylvanian who wishes to pursue a post-secondary education, regardless of zip code,” Pidgeon says.

But as the union’s Martin sees it, the institutions’ financial problems are largely due to underfunding by the state, which has been organized labor’s battle cry for years. As if throwing more taxpayer dollars down the cost-inefficiency rathole of bloat is some magic elixir.

Martin also claims that the pending layoffs will take opportunities away from students. That would be students whose count at far too many PASSHE schools keeps dropping. Since when is giving “opportunities” to ghosts sound public policy?

But while these long overdue cuts and consolidations are welcome, the president-emeritus of the Allegheny Institute for Public Policy maintains it is simply not enough.

“There needs to be a reduction in non-faculty staff as well,” says Jake Haulk.

The Pittsburgh think tank warned two years ago and again last year that this restructuring was necessary for the survival of PASSHE.

“The State System needs to rid itself of unions, especially the faculty union,” the Ph.D. economist reiterated. He reminds that it has an outsized influence on costs that is inimical to the cost-effective delivery of higher education.

But he also ruefully concedes that eliminating the faculty union is unlikely to happen in the Keystone State. More is the pity.

Additionally, “Shedding degree programs will be a major problem as well but it must happen in the mergers” to eliminate duplication and to better size student-teacher ratios, he added.

That ratio, at just over 21 students per teacher a decade ago, was just over 17 students per instructor in 2018.

As Haulk predicted (in Policy Brief Vol. 20, No. 32), “Efforts to deal effectually with the problems will meet great resistance. It’s always the case when there are so many stakeholders with strong objections to meaningful changes.”

But sans those changes, the future of the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education would be no future at all.

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