Public comment period starts for proposed PA university mergers

The proposal would merge six universities into two
Edinboro University
Photo credit © JACK HANRAHAN/ERIE TIMES-NEWS via Imagn Content Services, LLC

The Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education started its public comment period Wednesday as the Board of Governors considers merging six Pennsylvania universities into two.

Should the board approve the plan, California University, Edinboro University and Clarion University would merge, while Bloomsburg University, Mansfield University and Lock Haven would also merge.

PASSHE hosted the first of four virtual public comment sessions Wednesday morning.

"The intent behind these integrations is to expand opportunities for students in the commonwealth to help us preserve the rich on-campus experiences that our 14 universities provide all the while expanding our reach to better serve new students who seek a different path," said Board of Governors Chair Cindy Shapira ahead of the first public comment session.

The plan faced overwhelming criticism in the first session Wednesday morning.

Of the 20 speakers to address the board, all but one opposed the plan.

Most speakers felt the plan was moving too quickly and had concerns it put too much emphasis on online learning, which would ultimately lead to the elimination of school programs and activities.

Cal U professor and alumna Lynne Langley raised concerns about students who have limited internet access keeping up with classes that are mostly online.

"Please, at least put the breaks on," she said. "Think what you're going to be doing to our students that don't have good access to to online.

Other speakers said they've had a difficult time getting on board with the plan with what they felt was limited communication during the pandemic.

Edinboro professor Roger Wolbert asked the board to consider slowing the process.

"It seems that so many of us had to turn our attention to consolidation, frankly, out of fear of what our jobs, curriculum and university will look like and not out of support of the plan," he said. "We were supposed to be staying focused on our current duties, on teaching remotely, maintaining our physical and metal health during the pandemic. We just haven't had enough time to get all of our ducks in a row. Are these the conditions under which we are making decisions about the future of our state system reasonable?"

Other students and staff said they felt the State System left them in the dark by not consulting a diverse or large enough group.

Marc Stempka, a Cal U grad, was the only speaker on Wednesday morning's call to back the plan.

He said he felt the plan was the most cost effective and flexible option to keep college affordable in Pennsylvania.

"The State System needs to be rightsized for the future and for online education," he said. "I've thought about this. I've read the plans to the best of my ability and right now, the best option on the table is the integration plan."

Following a nearly 90 minute session, Shapira acknowledged additional communication to students, faculty and the community about the plan is needed.

"A lot of the comments, we think we've addressed and clearly we haven't," she said. "That's on us. It's up to the board and the system office to better communicate information that I think addresses a lot of the concerns that were raised today. So, I'm going to put that on us."

Another public comment session is scheduled for Wednesday at 4:30. Two others are scheduled for Thursday.