Clarion University integration plan clears first step

Founders Hall on the Clarion University campus hasn't seen many students the past 12 months, but with a full re-opening slated for this fall and a proposed integration plan approved by the state board of governors, university officials hope to see students all over campus soon. The integration plan incorporates Clarion, California and Edinboro into one administrative entity.

CLARION - The board of governors of the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education (PASSHE) April 28 approved an integration plan involving Clarion, Edinboro and California universities in the west and Bloomsburg, Mansfield and Lock Haven universities in the northeastern part of the state by a 17-2 vote.

Dr. Dale-Elizabeth Pehrsson, the president of the Clarion, Edinboro and Cal union, said the next step in the process will be a public comment period.

Public comments may be addressed to the PASSHE website. Virtual public hearings are planned for June 9 and 10. Additional details will be forthcoming.

Pehrsson said in the meantime the transition team will be working on variety of issues throughout the public comment period.

Pehrsson said one of the unresolved issues is athletics.

Pehrsson said the proposal is for each of the universities to maintain the current programs and team identities. She said the NCAA is looking at the proposal.

Pehrsson said the PASSHE board of governors will take a final vote on the proposal in July. If the plan is approved the first students in the integrated system would be the fall of 2022.

"In the meantime we will continue to integrate the campuses," Pehrsson said.

In July, the PASSHE board authorized chancellor to investigate the integration of the universities.

The process for integrating State System universities is defined by law in Act 50.

It is transparent, consultative, analytical and intended to seek solutions, not implement solutions that have been predetermined. The process is conducted in partnership with the General Assembly through quarterly check-ins with House and Senate Education and Appropriations Committees.

It consists of four phases. The process is currently in Phase 3, involving a public comment period and could be completed by July 2021.Phase 4 involves implementing the plan and could be completed for the start of fall term 2022.

PASSHE said "At a time when universities are financially challenged, it's incumbent upon the State System to creativelymanage in a way to keep institutions open, vibrant, and centered on student success.

"The goals of an integrations approach would be to maintain or expand high-quality educational opportunities for students across the state; position institutions for growth; and meet regional economic and workforce needs."

A goal of the plan is to reduce the cost of a degree for students by 25 percent through things like faster degree attainment, high school dual enrollments, cost savings, stronger fundraising and grant funding and more federal work study opportunities.

Officials also said it plans to expand its post-graduate offerings and align a consolidated institution's new or expanded academic disciplines with the needs of the region.

Union opposition

AFSCME Council 13 is strongly opposed to the current plan which, the union says, includes drastic job cuts of staff and faculty at all 14 state system campuses, and aims to consolidate six of the 14 universities into two.

"We urge members of the Board of Governors to oppose this plan until more effort is put into avoiding the undue elimination of these good, unionized, family-sustaining jobs," the union said in a statement.

"Custodians, grounds-keepers food service workers, clerical staff, and other essential workers that AFSCME represents, keep these campuses running safely and efficiently, and have continued to do so despite a global pandemic. Now, their jobs are at risk," the statement reads.

"The details PASSHE has released about their consolidation plan, coupled with new findings about the economic damage of the proposed plan, confirm that more must be done to avoid such destructive job cuts," AFSCME Council 13 Executive Director David Henderson said. "Our union stands ready to work with leadership at every university to properly examine ways to avoid layoffs of represented staff."

AFSCME Council 13 believes the plan devised by PASSHE Chancellor Dan Greenstein and some members of the Board of Governors also lacks transparency and input from the affected employees; threatens economic devastation for the campuses' surrounding communities; endangers quality of service and education for students; carries negative implications for current, former, and future students; disproportionately impacts women; and generally seems to be a rushed plan that will do far-reaching harm both economically and educationally in Pennsylvania.

This plan must be halted and reconsidered," the union said.

Tuition freeze

Meanwhile April 28, on the Clarion University campus was announcing its own news.

Clarion University students won't see increases in several areas of their educational expenses after the university and Pennsylvania's State System of Higher Education took action to keep costs flat.

The Board of Governors for the State System took the historic step of freezing basic in-state tuition for a third consecutive year, affirming its commitment to keeping public higher education at its 14 universities affordable for students.

The board's unanimous vote keeps basic in-state tuition for undergraduate students in the 2021-22 academic year at $7,716.

Also remaining the same will be the system's technology fee for students, which stands at $478 for the academic year.

Clarion also is reining in costs.

"We are happy to announce that, for the third year in a row, housing rates will remain the same," said Dr. Susanne Fenske, vice president for student affairs.

Fenske said a dining contract with bid-winning Aramark will take effect June 1 and will also keep costs in line with this year's meal plans.

"As we are transitioning to new dining vendor this summer, we are happy to let our students and their families know that the new contact features updated services and meal plan structures for our students," she said.

"We have heard the students' requests for affordability and flexibility, and we are excited to enter into this new partnership that provides for both," Fenske said.

The rate will remain the same for the popular 19-meal plan. Meal plan structures have changed slightly as they cascade down from there, according to Fenske, but students will find them to be right in line with this year's fees.