CLARION - The plan to merge six Pennsylvania universities into two schools has raised several concerns from Clarion University's faculty union.
The integration plan, proposed by Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education Chancellor Daniel Greenstein, combines Clarion with California and Edinboro universities, and Bloomsburg, Lock Haven and Mansfield universities in fall 2022.
Clarion APSCUF President Joyce Overly said the plan proposed by PASSHE could result in "numerous employee layoffs, devastating the local economy and social fabric of Clarion and surrounding communities."
She said "dozens" of Clarion-area professors, custodians, secretaries and maintenance workers could lose their jobs.
"We're talking about local families who purchase their homes and cars here, shop at small businesses, and attend local school districts and churches in the Clarion area," Overly said.
"If we lose these good-paying jobs, it will devastate our local communities and the people who live here. This is not just about providing education to rural Pennsylvanians - it is about the economic survival of small communities and their families.
Overly said the proposal in its present state is not a "well-structured plan." Rather, it is a "loose collection of ideas not yet fully formed," which puts local communities in a dangerous situation.
"If PASSHE's proposal does not save Pennsylvania taxpayers any money, what's the hurry to finalize it so quickly?" she said.
Earlier this year when the plan was announced, APSCUF did not respond. "We weren't sure what the plan was going to say," Overly said. "We didn't feel like we could push back against something that didn't exist.
"Now that it is out there and they are pushing it really hard, we felt it was time to speak up and raise questions."
PASSHE has promoted the merger plan as a way to save money. Overly said that would not be the case.
"It is stated very clearly in the plan that in the first five years the plan will cost more than it will save," she said. "It will cost about $11 million more than it's going to save.
"I know they will have to develop a curriculum and invest in the online component. That will require an investment in technology and software. I really don't know what goes into those figures."
Union: Change is needed
APSCUF recognizes the need for change in the PASSHE system.
"We don't deny that things need to change," Overly said. "Clarion is not on good financial footing; so there need to be changes, but this just doesn't seem like it is well thought out.
"Maybe with some more work it can turn into something good, but right now it is not there."
Part of the problem has been a drop in enrollment across the PASSHE system. "I think they are assuming that the virtual component will grow independently," Overly said. "They expect to grow the virtual component without losing students from the on-the-ground population we have now. Whether that will happen, I don't know.
She said the drop in enrollment across PASSHE has been larger, on a percentage basis, than the drop in high school graduates, and that the loss of students to other schools is because "we are not as financially competitive as we used to be."
"If you are looking at some place like Clarion, a nice little school but not a big name, and you could go to Penn State or Pitt for only a little bit more money, who is going to pick Clarion?" Overly said.
"When the price differential was bigger, it was more of an incentive to go to someplace like Clarion. We, who are at the school, know the education is just as good at a small school like Clarion. Names matter to a lot to some people."
The future of the Venango Campus also is a concern to APSCUF.
"The Venango Campus has hardly been mentioned," Overly said.
"A lot of the programs that were originally at Venango, like nursing, have been transferred, at least in part, to the main campus. The Venango Campus is really shrinking. We don't know what will happen to it."
She said there is so much uncertainty and upheaval with so little payoff that "at the end of this that we can't understand why it is being pursued."
The top concern remains the economic effect of the merger.
"The plan does not fully outline economic and social impacts on local communities," Overly said. "The number of employees will go down."
She said a study at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst likened it to the loss of a shift at a major manufacturing facility in terms of impact to the community.
"They say it will be by attrition, but it doesn't conceal the fact that there will be job losses," Overly said.
In addition, she said, there is the loss of economic activity that students bring to town.
"They rent dwellings, buy products at the stores, and you lose the cultural aspects the university brings like plays and performances," Overly said.
"If you lose the faculty you lose their children in the schools. That means a loss of students, and that can lead to loss of faculty in the public school system."
APSCUF has expressed concern about the accreditation as a result of the integration.
"When a program is accredited, an exhaustive analysis is performed," Overly said. "Just because our programs are accredited in their current state doesn't mean it will qualify under a new university structure. That would be totally up to the accreditors.
"There is no guarantee. The current plan does not address how integration will impact the accreditation of educational programs."
PASSHE has asked the NCAA to allow each campus in the consolidated universities to keep its existing sports teams. However, the NCAA has not yet announced its decision.
"Athletic programs and student-athletes are a valued part of our universities, and PASSHE has no backup plan in the event that the NCAA denies the request," Overly said. "The NCAA is an independent body, and they can do anything they want. There has been no word on what will happen."
Final approval awaits
On April 28, PASSHE's Board of Governors gave preliminary approval to the two proposed integration plans. The board could give final approval as soon as July.
"There is a big push to get it done in July," Overly said. "In a recent meeting, the chancellor was asked why we couldn't wait until September, and he said that we couldn't wait because the schools are losing money and we can't go any longer without fixing it.
"At the same time he said this was not about money, but expanding opportunities. He contradicts himself. We were flabbergasted when the chancellor threatened to close down the entire system. He is supposed to be an advocate of the system and not destroy it."
Overly said that Clarion University APSCUF has not yet taken a stand for or against PASSHE's proposed plan. Rather, its members want administrators to spend more time studying the implications of the proposal and to properly plan the integration before implementing it.
A state-mandated public comment period is now open through June 30. Anyone wishing to learn more about this issue or offer comments at passhe.edu. and also visit APSCUF's Facebook page "Save our State Schools."