State-supported universities to find out how much alma matters

| Wednesday, March 16, 2011

HARRISBURG -- Pennsylvania's public universities might benefit from school ties in the Legislature as they combat Gov. Tom Corbett's proposed 50 percent cut in state funding.

Almost 39 percent of the 253-member General Assembly attended or received degrees from state-related or state-owned universities, according to information compiled from the Legislature's website.

"I do think legislators will interject personal loyalty into the debate," said Joseph DiSarro, chairman of the political science department at Washington & Jefferson College, a private school. "They'll remember the parties and football games and the professors who changed the direction of their lives."

Steve Miskin, spokesman for House Speaker Sam Smith, R-Punxsutawney, said lawmakers' devotion to alma maters would be a factor, but "not the deciding factor." They'll judge Corbett's ideas on "the impact on communities and the impact on Pennsylvanians," said Smith, who graduated from Penn State University with a journalism degree in 1978 and serves on the board of Indiana University of Pennsylvania.

Leaders of state-related universities -- Penn State, the University of Pittsburgh, Temple and Lincoln universities -- are expected to testify today about Corbett's proposal before the Senate Appropriations Committee.

Sen. Jake Corman, R-Centre County, a Penn State alumnus whose district includes the university, chairs the committee.

School ties "may affect it a little," Corman said. "Even more compelling than that is all the constituents we have who attended these schools."

Corbett, a Shaler Republican, proposed a $27.3 billion state budget that would slash higher-education funding in half for the state-related and 14 state-owned universities such as Slippery Rock, California and IUP. Corbett graduated in 1971 from the private Lebanon Valley College in Annville with a bachelor's degree in political science, and obtained a law degree in 1975 from St. Mary's University in San Antonio, Texas.

The General Assembly's website shows 55 members of the House and Senate attended or earned degrees from state-related universities. In all, 98 attended or received degrees from state-related or state-owned universities.

"The connection of legislators to the state universities is not just a trivial factor in their decisions on the governor's proposal," said Christopher Borick, a political science professor at private Muhlenberg College in Allentown.

Penn State tops the list with 22 lawmakers who have graduate or undergraduate degrees from or attended the university. Pitt has 20.

Rep. Tim Krieger, R-Hempfield, holds a law degree from Pitt, as do Rep. Joe Petrarca, D-Vandergrift, Sen. Mary Jo White, R-Venango, House Democratic Whip Mike Hanna, D-Lock Haven, and several others.

"It does create a bias on our part, of course. They're our alma maters," said Rep. Pete Daley, D-California, who holds master's degrees from California and Pitt and did undergraduate work at California.

Legislators with campuses in their districts -- whether they attended those universities are not -- might have the biggest stake in the outcome, said Rep. Sheryl Delozier, R-Camp Hill, who earned a master's degree from Penn State.

Penn State has 24 campuses including University Park. Pitt and Temple have four each, in addition to their main campuses. The state-owned university system has 14 main campuses and four branches. In all, 53 campuses are spread throughout the state. The debate likely will center on jobs and potential economic impacts, Delozier said.

Sen. John Eichelberger, R-Altoona, who holds a degree from Penn State, said he believes lawmakers will restore some but not all of the money Corbett suggested cutting. But it's time to look at finances, he said.

"Penn State does need to look at what they're doing," Eichelberger said. "They should open their books and be very open about what they do."

Borick said alumni of state-related universities "will put pressure on the legislators to lessen the scale of the cuts." Penn State has 513,000 alumni -- 291,200 living in Pennsylvania. Pitt has 275,740 alumni, 164,141 of whom live in the state. About 500,000 alumni of state-owned schools live in Pennsylvania.

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