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Chancellor says state-owned university system 'unsustainable,' orders sweeping review

Debra Erdley
| Thursday, Jan. 26, 2017, 11:42 a.m.
A student walks across the lawn outside of the Natali Student Center at California University of Pennsylvania. (Trib photo)
Dan Speicher | Tribune-Review
A student walks across the lawn outside of the Natali Student Center at California University of Pennsylvania. (Trib photo)
Frank Brogan is chancellor of the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education.
Frank Brogan is chancellor of the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education.
Cynthia Shapira, a trustee at Brandeis University, is a vice chair on Gov.-elect Tom Wolf’s transition team.
Cynthia Shapira, a trustee at Brandeis University, is a vice chair on Gov.-elect Tom Wolf’s transition team.

Citing mounting financial challenges and declining enrollment at the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education, Chancellor Frank Brogan on Thursday announced a sweeping review of operations at Pennsylvania's 14 state-owned universities.

Brogan called the system's current operations “unsustainable.”

Noting that other state university systems have turned to mergers or even closing institutions to survive, Brogan said all options will be considered as officials plan for the future.

The state system, with total enrollment of about 105,000 students, includes California, Clarion, Edinboro, Indiana and Slippery Rock universities in Western Pennsylvania. The institutions grew out of teacher's colleges founded more than a century ago. They became state system universities in the 1980s and were tasked with providing the lowest-cost higher education possible.

A decline of nearly 15,000 students statewide since 2010 has hit the schools that are increasingly dependent upon tuition.

The blows have been especially jarring at Cheyney, the system's historically black university. Enrollment at the school, located just outside Philadelphia, plunged from 1,586 in 2010 to 746 last fall. In Western Pennsylvania, both Indiana and California universities have suffered significant enrollment declines, with Indiana dropping from 15,126 to 12,853 between 2010 and 2016 and California declining from 9,400 to 7,553 during the same time.

Only Slippery Rock and West Chester universities posted enrollment gains this fall.

“We will be taking a hard look at how we are organized today and how we need to be organized in the future in order to continue to serve our students and the Commonwealth as its public university system. We don't have the luxury of waiting for someone to do this for us,” Brogan told the system's board of governors in his annual “state of the system” address Thursday morning.

Kenneth Mash, president of the Association of Pennsylvania State College and University Faculties, the union that represents coaches and faculty members at the 14 universities, said Brogan's announcement did not come as a surprise.

“He's been talking about this for some time. Obviously, he's got something on his mind, but he's not sharing it. But I don't think it's helpful to talk about closing universities unless there is a real plan,” Mash said.

Mash said he's confident Brogan will include all stakeholders, including students, faculty and alumni, in any review of the state system.

Cynthia D. Shapira of Pittsburgh, who chairs the State System Board of Governors, supported Brogan's call to action.

Although Pennsylvania has increased subsidies to the university system for the past two years, Shapira said state support remains $60 million a year less than it was before the recession that began in 2008.

“I firmly believe that if we don't take the steps necessary to ensure a strong future for public higher education in the Commonwealth, we will regret it. The harsh reality is, we are facing enormous challenges,” Shapira said.

Last year, the universities discontinued 70 programs, while launching 30 new degrees and 200 new minors.

Debra Erdley is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at 412-320-7996 or derdley@tribweb.com.

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