By Amy Majani, APSCUF Intern, ESU Student
Last week, Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education (PASSHE) Chancellor Frank Brogan, along with Slippery Rock University President Cheryl Norton and Indiana University of Pennsylvania Student Government President Marissa Olean, testified before the State House and Senate Appropriations Committees. While PASSHE did submit an official appropriation request in October 2013 for a $35 million increase in its E&G Apporpriation and $18 million for a new High Priority Occupation Program line item, most of the hearings focused not on the cuts of 2011-12 or the need for increased state funding, but on a myriad of issues including the future of the system in an era of declining state support.
House Appropriations Hearing
The House hearing covered a wide array issues; from student enrollment trends and weapons on campus policies to university separation/privatization and retrenchment .When asked about the process of administering faculty layoffs and their relationship to existing finances, Chancellor Brogan explained that retrenchment involved looking at enrollment rates in individual programs as well as the level of demand for them on top of the current fiscal environment.
When asked about the current state of PASSHE’s Weapon Policy, Brogan noted that half of PASSHE campuses ban weapons completely and half have internal policies that provided limited carrying in designated areas. The Board of Governors has the current draft weapons policy on hold, according to Brogan, while they watch trends in other states and the development of case law surrounding the issue.
In response to Rep. Jake Wheatley’s question about what exactly PASSHE’s mission is in the current multi-layered landscape of hundreds of colleges in Pennsylvania, Brogan pointed out that while the setting translated to heightened competition, to survive in such a system PASSHE schools needed to organize as well as work on finding a niche area that responds to the regional nature of each institution. Emphasis was placed on avoiding duplication of programs or redundancy at PASSHE’s 14 universities.
Rep. Mike Carroll asked what affect there would be if some PASSHE universities separate from the system, alluding to rumors that the Senate will soon introduce legislation allowing some universities to opt out. Brogan said that he had not seen legislation on the issue but indicated that there have been discussions about concerns regarding bonding capacity, contracts and collective bargaining and facilities if some of the universities became state-related or private institutions. However, draft language for the rumored legislation has yet to be seen, making it difficult to outline specific responses.
Senate Appropriations Hearing
In contrast to the largely varied questions in the House hearing, the Senate Appropriations Committee hearing focused more heavily on the future composition of the State System, including discussion of the ideas of allowing universities to separate from the State System or even closing for good. In this vain, discussion centered on the need for local flexibility–especially in setting tuition rates—and less centralization from the Office of the Chancellor. Members also commented on the need to “right-size” PASSHE to meet the demands of changing financial and demographic realities.
Senator Andrew Dinniman remarked, “The system has engaged in a one-size-fits-all approach, and we know that doesn’t work. It doesn’t work when you see the budget and it doesn’t work when you see the demographics.”
Following up on the issue of changing demographics, Senator Tomlinson asked how PASSHE could provide greater flexibility to individual institutions, as well as if closure of some institutions was an option. In response, Brogan acknowledged the need for local flexibility and a re-evaluation of the current centralized system.
“It is increasingly becoming economically and organizationally unsustainable for every university to offer the same program. We need to make sure that each university is offering an academic program array that’s not only right for that institution but also the region that it’s in and the state of Pennsylvania.” Brogan opined.
Chairman Vincent Hughes was one of the only Senators to bring up the biggest issue impacting PASSHE—substantial lack of state funding–by noting that the proposed $412 million allocation for PASSHE was the lowest it had been since 1997. He raised concern about the need for PASSHE to be successfully equipped to achieve its mission of providing quality education to low- and middle-income families in an era of stustained cuts. The Chairman made the point that talking about cutting, right-sizing, and university separation as solutions to PASSHE’s current issues is a false conversation in the context of drastically reduced state funding.
Chairman Jake Corman closed the hearing by remarking on the difficult, uphill battle that higher education faces in future budgets as “the last to be funded and the first to be cut.” “Affordable higher education is essential for the future of the commonwealth,” stated Chairman Corman.
Assuming that the Governor’s proposed budget for PASSHE is approved, Brogan pointed out that the 2014-15 deficit for PASSHE would be 60 million , tuition would rise by at least 3 percent and millions of dollars in cuts would have to be enforced.
The rhetoric on right-sizing PASSHE to meet changing realities not only erodes the past successes of the system, it excuses the state for disinvesting in the State System and ignores the subsequent impacts state cuts have had on the System. In essence, it reinforces the idea of a “new normal.” APSCUF is actively lobbying the legislature to begin restoring the cuts from 2011-12 by increasing the E&G appropriation by $16.5 million; reinstating the Programs Initiative Line Item (which historically provided funding for performance funding) at $18 million; and restore funding to the Cheyney Keystone Honors Academy.
It’s vital for APSCUF members to discuss the PASSHE budget concerns with their legislators. Go to www.legis.state.pa.us for legislator contact information.