Changes ahead for state system of higher ed

Julia Scheib
News Editor

The defunding of the state system of higher education has left it in a lasting state of crisis, forcing changes on schools. Once able to rely on public money for most operational and capital spending, state schools must now partner with private entities to avoid hemorrhaging funds they don’t have. An example of this is Millersville’s partnership with Student Services, Inc. (SSI). SSI independently secured the funds to build the new complex of dorms on campus, allowing MU to avoid using state funds.

It also means that there is enormous pressure on schools to increase enrollment. This is tough, said Vice President of Finance and Administration Roger Bruszewski, because demographic data for the commonwealth shows that the number of young adults eligible for college is declining and will continue to do so.

Three weeks ago, state Sens. Tommy Tomlinson, R-Bucks, and Andrew Dinniman, D-Chester, introduced a bill that would allow the larger universities in the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education, including Millersville, to secede and become state-related schools like Temple and Penn State. Tomlinson and Dinniman are tied to West Chester University, one of the ‘best-performing’ schools in PASSHE in terms of enrollment. WCU hopes to grow, but some say that dismantling the state system is not the way to get schools to thrive while staying affordable and maintaining the quality of the education these schools offer.

More autonomy for state schools, in one form or another, seems to be desired by administrators. In an email a few weeks ago, MU President John Anderson said: “I am encouraged that Chancellor Brogan and PASSHE’s Board of Governors are working toward creating changes in the system that will allow for greater flexibility and efficiency.”

In a recent editorial for Lancaster Newspapers, President Anderson said it was too soon to make any definitive statements on whether the legislation would work to anyone’s benefit, and whether, if it is passed, Millersville should secede. He acknowledged that budgets cuts have made it imperative for schools to have more flexibility with finances so that they can make independent decisions that will help them stay afloat.

The logo for PASSHE.
The logo for PASSHE.

PASSHE chancellor Frank Brogan has said that he opposes the legislation. But, as Anderson acknowledged, he agrees with the Millersville president that more flexibility is needed, and not just flexibility with finances; he has also said that a radical restructuring of academic programs is ahead.

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According to Jan Murphy of the Harrisburg Patriot-News, on Feb. 20 Brogan made this public statement: “As we work with each university to determine what kinds of academic programs are right for that institution and therefore, for the entire system, – there will no doubt continue to be examination of programs that might over time need to be closed or expanded or moved. There will also continue to be the need to reorganize some existing programs – and as we’ve been doing, begin new programs that have (job) placement opportunities in the commonwealth.”

Murphy also reported that republican senator Don White of Indiana County voiced his opinion on this: “I think we need to do a better job redefining our education, meeting businesses’ needs,” he said. Too many “IUP graduates and master candidates and doctoral candidates are running around delivering pizzas. That’s because they are majoring in philosophy. I’m sorry I don’t know how many job opportunities are out there with degrees offered at IUP.”

Senator White’s comment demonstrates that a narrow, market-oriented view of education throws under the bus curricula necessary to develop independent thinkers crucial to a democratic and free society. By squeezing PASSHE financially, PA political leaders of the past and present have caused this kind of comment to seem justified to some.

Would cutting certain programs make for a better-functioning PASSHE, or would it simply cause students to defect from the state system?

Roger Bruszewski voiced his concern that students wouldn’t be as attracted to state schools if there was less variety in academic programs. They’re not going to move across the state to get the program they want, he thought. Many would sooner choose a private school. Lowering the diversity in programs might also detract from PASSHE schools’ ability to attract students from out of state.

But there is hope for other solutions.

“Autonomy can come in many different forms,” said Bruszewski. “[A school’s board of trustees] can control [the school’s] own tuition, rather than a board [of governors] in Harrisburg making that decision.”

The state system could also loosen restrictions regarding procurement – rules that affect the prices schools must pay for things such as labor or building materials, he said.

There seems to be a tension between making changes that draw the schools into a more cohesive statewide whole and letting them act more independently as if they were private. This tension was created by cuts to state funding and changes that spring from either side may affect things like the cost of tuition, fees, course offerings, faculty and staff salaries and benefits, and how many classes are taught online vs. in the classroom.