The April 28 Board of Governors special meeting took place via Zoom and streamed via YouTube. Below are Edinboro University faculty member Dr. Sam Claster’s comments as prepared.
Chairwoman Shapira, Chancellor Greenstein, governors, presidents and guests,
It is my absolute honor to represent APSCUF and about 5,000 of my faculty and coach colleagues across our 14 publicly funded state-owned universities.
I grew up on Fairview Street in Lock Haven, and my family owned a few small businesses which only thrived because of the university in our town. As an Edinboro alum, I’m proud to also be a current faculty member and department chairperson there. Over the past few months, I’ve led the curricular synthesis of my discipline for the Western integration and have served on two working groups. Through these roles, I’ve developed an intricate knowledge of the consolidation plan, and I am here today to share some concerns that my colleagues and I have regarding its potential implementation.
APSCUF’s first concern about the plan to consolidate six of our institutions down to two, is that while there is some brief information about community impact in the report, it is not as in-depth as we would hope for a project of this magnitude, such as the economic-impact report the State System issued in 2015. The plan briefly mentions the general economic impact of our singular institutions, but lacks any depth regarding impacts of the proposed consolidated entities.
To this end, the PERI report released this week (PERI is the Political Economy Research Institute at UMass Amherst) demonstrates that consolidation and the corresponding planned reductions, as reflected in campus financial sustainability plans, would have a devastating impact on our communities. The planned cuts at the Eastern Consolidated University totals 20% of its workforce, and the Western Consolidated University totals 26% of its workforce by 2023. Beyond the unacceptable consequences for individuals who will lose their jobs, the spillover effects will cascade through the regional economy, resulting in spikes in poverty rates. These local economies cannot sustain this level of damage. I urge board members to review this report, and very seriously consider its implications.
When Chancellor Greenstein visited Edinboro last month, I voiced a concern regarding Bloomsburg and California being designated “main” campuses, and the other four locations being designated as “branch campuses” or “other teaching locations,” as the plan describes, because of the Middle States accreditation rules regarding multi-campus designations. APSCUF understands the reasons stated for why Bloom and Cal were designated “main campuses.” They’ve gone through accreditation more recently, but that is not our concern. We need a definitive answer from Middle States about the structural and legal consequences of this designation. In other words, can these “branch campuses” be divested of and simply closed in time?
I genuinely believe the chancellor when he says that the financial and human costs of closing one of these campuses would be insufferable for our communities. If this concern is genuine, then getting this information should be a priority. I would hate for a board approval of these consolidations to have the devastating unintended consequence of closing a university and decimating a small town. This would put the board in a very bad position. Moreover, our current chancellor may not intend to close campuses, but who is to say that a future chancellor will not.
In a similar vein, the plan states that athletic programs and events will remain available at all integrating campuses. Which is then contradicted in the section titled “risk to athletics,” where the report is clear that the NCAA has not yet ruled on the proposed structure. Our athletes come to the Commonwealth from all over the country and even the world, and they often choose employment in Pennsylvania after graduation. They have the highest retention rates of all our student groups. It would be irresponsible for the board to approve this consolidation before the NCAA gives its determination as to whether individual campuses are able to retain their own athletics programs.
In fact, I would ask the board members to ask yourselves what your recommendation regarding consolidation will be if the NCAA does not permit independent athletic teams. What will you say to alumni? To donors? How will we recruit for our institutions?
To be honest, every day that passes with uncertainty surrounding consolidation increases the risk of potential damage to our individual brands and, consequently, to our enrollments. Some of our consolidating institutions are seeing a significant increase in unregistered students compared to this time last year. These are students who should be continuing their education with us next fall, and their potential departure signals an issue well beyond the impacts of COVID.
The rapid pace of the consolidation process has no doubt manifested a declining confidence in our six institutions. An unnecessary and unfounded decline in confidence as faculty like myself, who work day in and day out with our students know the truth. Many of our institutions have financial challenges, yet they continue to do what they do best: provide pathways to upward mobility for working class Pennsylvanians, even as state investment remains some of the lowest levels in the nation.
With regard to the proposed costs and projected savings of the consolidations — $29.6 million is the estimated investment cost, while the projected savings is just 18.4 million over five years, all stemming from the contraction of the upper managerial organizational structure. An organizational structure which may or may not be adequate to serve three separate communities.
The chancellor has said the consolidations are about opportunities, not savings, but if finances are a reason for increasing student/faculty ratios, (decreasing faculty), how will this increase opportunities for students? APSCUF members already saved the State System $25 million dollars in 2020–21 due to the early retirement incentive. That number would actually mean something if it weren’t for the auxiliary debt that has been the real financial burden to many of our institutions for some time. And yet the consolidation plan offers no solution for removing this albatross from our necks. Instead, the plan is quit clear that the Western integration will not result in financial savings precisely due to the auxiliary debt.
In closing, I would like to thank the board, the Office of the Chancellor, and all our colleagues across the System working on these consolidations. Not because I have confidence in the current plan, but because I know we all share a commitment to our students.
Regardless of the outcome of a vote to consolidate, I believe there will be good things that come out of this process. Even if it means that we need to change course, and rethink System redesign. Admittedly, I have been inspired by our collective desire to create a healthier PASSHE system, but a lot of questions about this current plan remain unanswered. There are simply too many to address in this venue.
I hope the right path is chosen for our students and for the future of our State System, once we’ve considered all of the data, as well as better understand the potential consequences for our communities.