HARRISBURG, Pa. — A consulting firm issued a bleak assessment Wednesday of Pennsylvania’s state-owned university system, recommending a series of changes but not dramatic steps such as closing or merging any of its 14 institutions.
The report by the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems said the universities need better top management, more of a spirit of cooperation and a greater focus on their educational mission, as opposed to their status as regional centers of employment.
It said the State System of Higher Education is plagued by a “climate of distrust, non-transparency, confrontation and competition” and claimed there is weak leadership capacity at all levels.
“Governance is not up to the current challenges,” said the center’s president emeritus Dennis Jones, who outlined the findings for the board. He said the system, for example, just signed a union contract it can’t pay for.
The system has sustained several years of falling enrollment, mirroring the same downward trend in the number of Pennsylvania high school graduates. Along with a period of cuts or flat state funding, that’s left the system searching for a direction forward. Also Wednesday, the board teed up a 3.5 percent tuition increase for a final vote, but even that will leave a budget deficit of about $38 million.
The report suggested an array of strategies to help turn things around, but nothing as dramatic as closing a campus.
“You don’t have silver bullets in higher education,” Jones told the board. “You’ve used all those up.”
He said closing institutions would negatively affect entire regions and leave behind lingering obligations, such as paying off construction projects. Mergers would probably not save much money, Jones said, citing a recent experience in Georgia.
The study endorsed changing state law to replace the 20-member board of governors with a different structure made up of “lay persons.” The current board consists of 11 gubernatorial picks, confirmed by the state Senate, four lawmakers chosen by caucus leaders in each chamber, three state system students, the Pennsylvania governor and the secretary of education.
Board of Governors Chairwoman Cynthia Shapira said Jones’ team made “a lot of extremely interesting suggestions” but cautioned that decisions would not be made quickly.
The report said that management decisions are often driven by union contracts, so it urged the system to better balance those factors with its educational mission.
Ken Mash, an East Stroudsburg University political science professor and president of the 5,500-member union, the Association of Pennsylvania State College and University Faculties , said he planned to get a closer look at the full written report, expected to be released in about a week.
“I think we all feel the need to be pulling the same direction,” Mash said.
Jones cautioned the system board that it should not attempt to undermine the union bargaining process.
“Making a frontal assault on that is not going to change anything,” he told them.
Some of the 14 universities are particularly struggling, including Mansfield, Cheyney and Clarion, while others such as West Chester, Bloomsburg and Slippery Rock are on much sounder footing. The report suggested the system find ways to give more decision making authority to those that are thriving, and give them incentives to work more closely with others.
The system’s other schools are California, East Stroudsburg, Edinboro, Indiana, Kutztown, Lock Haven, Millersville and Shippensburg.
The weaker schools, the consultants said, should retain their local leadership and identity, but strengthen their core of sustainable academic programs and expand student support systems to improve their performance.
The state system has a $1.7 billion budget and full-time enrollment of about 98,000, down from a peak of about 112,000 six years ago. About half of its students come from families with $48,000 or less in annual household income.
About three-quarters of the budget goes to pay personnel costs. Tuition and fees account for two-thirds of the revenue. Full-time, in-state tuition is currently about $7,200.