Feedback on PASSHE mergers highlights extent of opposition

by Jeremy


Dive Brief:

  • Public opposition persists against the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education’s plan to merge six of its institutions into two.

  • The 14-university system published hundreds of written statements from the public ahead of virtual hearings this week to hear feedback on the proposal. The comments were largely against it.  

  • PASSHE leaders argue the consolidations are necessary to avoid financial ruin and to help attract new students amid flagging enrollment over the last decade. 

Dive Insight:

The written comments give voice to the resistance and anxiety to the PASSHE plan that has been building among students, faculty and alumni since legislation passed nearly a year ago that opened the door for potential mergers. 

The system, whose enrollment plummeted about 20% over the last decade, intends to unify California, Clarion and Edinboro universities in the western region of the state, and Bloomsburg, Lock Haven and Mansfield universities in the north and east. The former group would focus on online education and the latter on stackable credentials. 

These changes would help the system enroll new contingents of students, PASSHE leaders have said, such as those who aren’t interested in pursuing four-year degrees. 

Yet the proposal has gained little traction, particularly with the system’s vocal faculty union. A recent survey of nearly 1,000 faculty members that the group conducted found less than 8% supported the mergers.

PASSHE’s governing board voted in late April to advance the plan, despite criticism that the document outlining it was difficult to parse and lacking in detail.

Several of the comments suggest the consolidations are being done hastily. One faculty member wrote in response to the proposed northeast changes that it seemed like the plan was “pushing change for the sake of change” and would diminish one of the system’s strengths: face-to-face interactions between students and instructors. 

Another commenter on that part of the plan noted that “no one” was going to read the lengthy document detailing the proposal, which in its entirety totaled more than 400 pages. “This plan is rushed and poorly thought out,” the person wrote.

One individual, who identified as a PASSHE “alumni/donor,” pledged they “will never give another penny to PASSHE” and would recommend their family “look elsewhere, at Penn State, for their educations.” 

Some of the feedback was positive, however. 

One “alumni/donor” is an “enthusiastic supporter” of the plan, though they were concerned about the dearth of opportunities for visual and performing arts on some of the campuses. 

Some of the responses revolved around the integrated institutions getting new names. The system has stressed wanting to preserve the universities’ identities, and higher education experts have said a name change can put off students, faculty and alumni who identify with the campuses. One commenter asked if alumni would get rebranded degrees with the new monikers, and questioned how they would explain the name change to prospective employers. 

The comments were released ahead of two days of virtual public hearings on the mergers this week. The response to the plan during the first day was overwhelmingly negative, The Philadelphia Inquirer reported.

PASSHE’s governing board is due to give final approval to the mergers at its July meeting.





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