A higher standard for higher education in Pennsylvania

 

In the past 50 years, higher education in Pennsylvania has boldly moved forward to meet the changing needs of students and academic institutions. Beginning in the early 1960s, community colleges and Penn State’s branch campuses were introduced.

 

In 1966, Pitt and Temple shifted from private status to join Penn State as state-related universities. All three then possessed the same responsibility to the students of the commonwealth, although no rules evolved to define how the institutions were to relate to one another.

 

By 1983, a group of legislators and state college advocates had stealthily pushed two crucial measures through the Legislature without so much as a public hearing. One action relocated the 14 state-owned colleges out of the domain of the Department of Education and into an independent entity known as the State System of Higher Education.

 

The second magical decision converted the state colleges to state universities, without a scintilla of evidence concerning program quality.

 

As a result, diverse institutions were assembled into one unit. Under the leadership of a chancellor and staff with ill-defined functions, the State System was assigned ill-defined relations with the 13 newly minted universities. (IUP had become a university earlier.)

 

Previously, these institutions had served Pennsylvania as a series of normal schools, which became state teachers colleges and then state colleges before being declared universities. Founded in 14 rural districts of the commonwealth, these schools were located and programmed to serve the teaching profession. Society’s needs have multiplied over the years, and the sustainability of individual institutions is now in question.

 

In recent years the chancellor of the State System has reported devastating losses of revenue at these institutions. In late January, he shocked the academic community and the caring public with the revelation that some campuses may have to be subjected to mergers or closures. The crisis is so serious that the chancellor has engaged consultants to assist in capping the flow of red ink.

 

A viable solution, however, may extend beyond the capability of these consultants. It may require the involvement of other aspects of higher education that interface with the State System. Such an overall examination may be therapeutic for all of Pennsylvania higher education.

 

The best procedure to provide interrelated answers to this crisis is to set forth a template designed not only to ameliorate the problems of the State System but also to clarify other organizational problems in the state. Thus the following outline is advanced only as a guide to the system’s need for renovation.

 

• First, the chancellor of the State System and his staff should be dismissed and the Board of Governors revised. After more than 30 years, the system has not provided the institutions with forceful leadership. This failure can also be linked to the Legislature and member schools.

 

At the same time the system’s administration must be faulted for its long-term mishandling of the situation at Cheyney University, a historically black college outside of Philadelphia. After the civil rights acts of the 1960s were passed and became operable, Cheyney lost its relevance as a major state institution; but the State System ignored that change and poured multimillions into that reclamation project without success.

 

The State System also sanctioned an across-the-board faculty pay increase. Coming in the fifth consecutive year of a known need for frugality, the increase demonstrated a lack of responsibility on the part of both the State System and its faculties.

 

• Second, a small, blue-ribbon transition committee, dominated by prominent out-of-state educators, with both legislative and state faculty representation, should be created. It should define the standards for a system of undergraduate teaching colleges that emphasize the arts, sciences, and select professions and para-professions applicable to the 21st century. That committee should then establish a permanent office to oversee the member colleges.

 

• Third, the Legislature should grant state-related status to Indiana University of Pennsylvania and West Chester University, thus ranking them at the organizational level of Pitt, Penn State and Temple. Unlike the latter three, IUP and West Chester are not research-oriented institutions, but they have earned the right to pursue that distinction.

 

• Fourth, with IUP and West Chester accounted for, the proposed system of state colleges should include more than half of the remaining 12 state-owned institutions as determined by the transition committee. This new system of state colleges should also include Pitt’s Johnstown and Penn State’s Behrend campuses, plus any other branch campuses of Pitt, Penn State, and Temple that the transition committee might deem qualified. Lincoln University, a historically black college, could also be included in this group.

 

• Fifth, the remaining State System universities, except Cheyney, should become branch campuses of one of the existing state-related universities. Cheyney, because of its location and historic significance, should be recognized as a super community college, with part of its administration building set aside as a museum portraying the institution’s earlier contributions to race relations and higher education.

 

• Sixth, Pitt and Temple now share the same responsibility to the students and taxpayers of Pennsylvania as Penn State. Therefore, reasonable stewardship would dictate that branch campuses be administered by the state-related university best geographically located to serve each particular community. The transition committee should make such determinations.

 

These changes will preserve the integrity of all existing campuses and conserve financial resources. At the same time, they will bring a more realistic order to the organizational structure of higher education in Pennsylvania.

 

This outline is not up for adoption; it is up for criticism and revision. It is a document in which everyone can find several clauses to denounce or delete and then suggest more workable ones in a meaningful context. Legislators, editors, foundation directors, the universities and the general public should join in the decision-making by using this proposal as a springboard to assemble a plan that will “bite the bullet” and formulate an outline applicable to the commonwealth’s needs in 2017 and beyond.

 

The Legislature should initiate the process by appointing a transition committee, one composed of members as far removed as possible from the current state scene. The emotions and vested interests are such that the problems cannot be resolved within.

 

 

By James A. Kehl

Source: post-gazette.com

 

James A. Kehl is a professor emeritus of history at the University of Pittsburgh, where he served as dean of the College of Arts and Sciences.