What does a college changemaker do, now that he’s gotten what he wanted?

Around the Independence Day weekend, Dan Greenstein, the chancellor of the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education, spent a few days reading and dissecting public comments on its proposal to consolidate six institutions into two.

A historian turned postsecondary policy guru, Greenstein hadn’t done such qualitative research for a long time. But the system was nearing a final vote with its Board of Governors to greenlight a vision he was aggressively promoting, one that would forever alter PASSHE’s course.

Backlash to the plan had been torrential. “The universities have already been stripped of just about everything they were and are already a shell. Now you are taking the very last thing they have, their identity, and getting rid of that as well,” one detractor wrote to the system. “Please do not ruin these great institutions,” another wrote. 

A few were supportive, because they believed it would help right the system’s shaky finances and create new, innovative programming options. 

When Greenstein spoke to the governing board at a meeting in July, it was his final pitch for the plan. The system is bleeding cash, and delaying further would cost it $40 million to $50 million a year, he said. 

Many of the PASSHE universities had slipped toward insolvency. The few institutions that held steady enrollments subsidized the others, a model Greenstein has said he considers financially unviable. The enrollment drop was partially attributable to Pennsylvania’s saturated higher education market. But weak state investment also drove up tuition and fee prices, boxing out those students PASSHE was designed to serve and causing its enrollment to plummet about 20% over the last decade or so. Greenstein points to the rising costs as the main culprit of the enrollment dip.

He helped devise the merger, which will pull together Bloomsburg, Lock Haven and Mansfield universities in the northeast to create a combined institution that will emphasize stackable credentials and in-demand fields in the state. California, Clarion and Edinboro universities in the west will form an institution concentrating on online education.

The governors unanimously approved the proposal on July 14. The first student cohort would enroll in the new institutions in August 2022. But in interviews with Higher Ed Dive, Greenstein and others within the system presented that vote as the start of the process, not the conclusion. 

Some instructors doubt such a feat can be accomplished on the system’s timeline. Much of the work revamping the institutions is just starting, and the coronavirus is preoccupying faculty energies.

It’s also not yet clear how much capital —  political and emotional —  the merger process has sapped from Greenstein. Bruised feelings linger among important constituencies, as students, faculty and alumni met the plan with bitter criticism. Other higher ed leaders have left their posts after such clashes.

“Morale on campuses is truly at an all-time low,” said Jamie Martin, president of the Association of Pennsylvania State College and University Faculties, the faculty union for the system.

A reconceived PASSHE

Greenstein’s plan for bolstering PASSHE is familiar for contemporary higher ed: it involves truncating the degree timeline and identifying untapped contingents of students — adult learners, those who haven’t finished a credential, or students who want short-term programs.

It will be challenging for highly traditional institutions to adopt those strategies. An enormous undertaking is beginning, including a reworking of the collective bargaining agreement that references 14 universities instead of 10, crafting curricula and academic requirements, designing departments, and selecting faculty and administrative leaders. The system is also mapping out admissions policies for all its institutions, including one that guarantees entrance to its universities to those with an associate degree from a Pennsylvania community college. It offers transfer into a parallel program with junior standing. 

This month, the governing board approved several new deals with the faculty union. One establishes an interim curriculum committee for each of the new institutions. The committees will develop policies and procedures for making changes to curricula. Another agreement preserves faculty jobs for the next three years as long as policymakers deliver on a $200 million promised investment in the system over several years. 

The mergers’ effects on jobs had been somewhat murky. PASSHE laid off 31 faculty members at the end of the 2020-21 year, though the system billed this as part of a larger restructuring rather than a consequence of consolidation. The faculty union worked to find alternatives to layoffs, and continues to, a spokesperson for the organization said. 

“Morale on campuses is truly at an all-time low.”

Jamie Martin

President of the Association of Pennsylvania State College and University Faculties

Parts of the plan, however, are incomplete.

The system’s accreditor has yet to sign off on it, though PASSHE is moving forward in the process. The NCAA hasn’t said whether the system can preserve athletics teams on all six combined campuses.

At recruitment events, faculty can’t answer some questions from prospective students because of these holes, Martin said.

Sam Claster, a professor and chair of Edinboro’s sociology department, questioned whether the system could successfully execute “real-life pragmatics” of the mergers. Some of the universities are more than 60 miles to 70 miles apart, creating a question of whether it’s practical for them to coordinate so closely. 

The proposal calls for a singular president and leadership slate at each integrated institution. But attempts elsewhere for one college president to monitor multiple campuses have often failed

Caster also gave the example of a student who needed to meet immediately with a department chair based at a different institution. 

A lack of such easily available supports clashes with PASSHE’s access mission, Caster said, worrying about the consequences for disadvantaged students. 

Greenstein in his interview acknowledged some of the challenges but responded to several of the concerns. Students won’t have to travel between campuses for their studies, he said. The combined universities will expose students to a greater breadth of academic offerings. And getting athletics right is particularly important for PASSHE’s rural institutions because they help boost student mobility, Greenstein said.

Broadly, though, the mergers and grander system redesign haven’t rectified a lack of “systemness” among PASSHE institutions, Caster said. The campuses operate with a high degree of independence but would benefit from system guidance, he said. This is evident from their coronavirus safety protocols.

“It’s good that we have freedom to make our own policies,” Caster said. “But I would have liked to see the state system lobby and push harder: for example, a vaccine mandate for all of the schools.”

Building relationships

Greenstein argues the system doesn’t have legislative authority to require a vaccine, a position that has generated some skepticism among campus officials. Taken into the larger picture, though, avoiding a fight with lawmakers would make sense.

Observers have called for Greenstein to press the state leaders for more money, and in lieu of consolidation.