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LOCK HAVEN — The Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education (PASSHE) Board of Governors has received more backlash of its plan to integrate six state-run universities, including Lock Haven.

A recent public hearing saw the PASSHE administration gain more public comment on the proposal to essentially consolidate Lock Haven with Bloomsburg and Mansfield universities, with Bloomsburg as the lead.

The chair of the board, Cynthia Shapira, talked about how the many comments received thus far point to the strong connection students, communities and alumni have for their schools.

She opened a June 30 meeting with a personal statement.

“The main thing I got out of the public comments is how much people love, cherish and believe in this system and in it’s mission in our students. I am grateful for the commitment that I saw for the great ideas … the desire to move this system forward … to do the best that we can with our students and enroll every single student who wants to take advantage of our education system,” she said.

However, all of the other people commenting were critical of the proposal and expressed deep opposition.

They included current students, professors and parents showing contradictions to Shapira’s statements.

As with the previous public comments made in former public hearings, the speakers were adamant in their disapproval of the plan.

Dr. Jaime Martin expressed concern for students forced to take online classes. She questioned their proposed possible distance learning with an integrated school system. With the integrated schools being miles apart, certain online classes would be required if a residing campus does not offer them. According to Martin, over 60 percent of students said that they would less likely attend a class that would be forced to be taken online. The results came from a recent student survey which involved students opinions on attending online classes. She also mentioned how much of the public, especially students/parents are not aware of the issues that would be presented with the integration or even its purpose.

“Instead of doing something, we should all strive to be certain it is the right thing to do … people deserve answers. Due to the results from the student survey — it is imperative that the student voters be heard and their questions and concerns answered,” she urged.

Chancellor Daniel Greenstein responded to questions about online learning later in the hearing, saying the reliance on online learning requirements would be “quite limited” with no further details in his statements on the topic.

The president of the State College and University Professional Association (SCUPA) gave his strict response to the proposed plan, urging for a delay and for the board to analyze the unresolved issues that are not being addressed to the public.

“When the time comes, we are asking that the board deny their final decision until there is sufficient information on their plans to address any concerns brought up by the stakeholders’ plans as they are written. There are too many unresolved issues at this time — online learning issues — they are not for every student and forced online learning presents significant online risks for students. We need to analyze the data from the past year to find solutions to those issues before we move forward – impact on students have not been fully explored and the economic impacts on communities have not been explored… and the reorganization impact has not been laid out in full in the impact on employees,” he expressed to the board.

He continued with a reflection on previous accounts of the state system causing forced change that ultimately hurt itself and caused considerable debt with examples to back up his statements.

“We are asked to have faith that these plans will work and all these debt issues will be addressed accordingly. Unfortunately, too many times we have seen changes that were supposed to help the universities … they did not work. For example, we were told for years if we built housing with all of the amenities one could imagine, they would be overflowing with new students. What did we get? Massive amounts of debt, housing we cannot fill and less students. SCUPA wants to work with the BOG to make a plan that works,” he added.

Monica Zheng, a student from West Chester University as well as a member of PASSHE Defenders and Socialism and Liberation, spoke out about the lack of information involving the NCAA and the impact it could have on schools, especially with Lock Haven University which has a considerable amount of student-athletes.

“123 people spoke (at previous public hearings) and only one person was even vaguely against the plan. You have heard all of our comments over and over, our opinions saying the same thing. It is not thought out, you do not have answers for the NCAA yet. Lock Haven University is 27 percent student athletes – you owe that 27 percent – almost 1,000 students an answer about whether or not there is going to be sports in the fall. You owe the 1,500 people who are going to be laid off and all of the other people who are being affected by budget cuts and retrenchments a clear plan forward. You owe everyone an explanation as to why this is happening while there is a $3 billion surplus in the state legislator that could easily fund the institutional debt and fill in the financial gaps that you say are the driving forces behind this plan,” she said.

Another student from WCU spoke intently on the issues being presented with the integration plan as well as questioning how anyone could partake in voting for it, urging for a delay.

“I do not understand if anyone decides to vote for this plan. How many people does it take for you all to understand at the BOG, state system, and the chancellor’s office, that this is a bad plan. It needs to be delayed. I think that it is ridiculous that there is this idea that there is this ‘transparency’ and ‘accountability’ when it has taken so long to get people’s public comments that are PUBLIC. You are giving 15 minutes for us to speak … absurd!” he exclaimed. “You owe us more than that — you owe us an actual fight for a fully funded state system — not this one time, 50 million dollars. I understand it is going to be 150 million dollars come the next how many years — that is not important. You are not actually helping to fund the day to day operations at these universities — teachers, students, staff, and parents are urging for a delay and vote no to this plan. You have heard from over 100 people during the public hearings saying that they were against the plan. It is time to vote no. It is time for Chancellor Greenstein to not be on your phone during public comment hearings … that is unprofessional and absurd. If you want to treat us with respect, please do so.”

Shapira pushed her sentiments in rebutting to the public comments, assuring that her and the rest of the BOG are listening to those speaking up everyday. Though the evidence presented by the public commentors show a different story with a unanimous opposal.

Along with her, Rep. Brad Roae, a member of the Republican House and BOG, rebutted several of the concerns given during public comment; all while speaking from his car during the hearing. There were an approximate total of around 700 comments that were made to PASSHE altogether, involving concerns over the integration as well as insightful ways to improve the implementation process.

“There are different organizations that are working against this plan and are creating a “narrative” that the public is against it. 80 percent of the people watching, work or are a part of the universities,” Raoe said as he related to Greenstein to solely distinguish comments made from the general public as opposed to the majority being involved with the universities.

“Because we were met with so much skepticism about transparency and accountability, the best way to address concerns was with the public comments,” said Greenstein. However, due to half of the comments being repeated concerns, Greenstein also proposed to throw out any duplicates despite the amount of similar concerns by at least half of the commenters that spoke up.

As public comment came to a conclusion, Greenstein took time to clarify his thoughts based off of the speakers views.

“Student engagement is the most difficult thing in higher education. We are at a critical point in time … my view, I have been clear about it, is that inaction in this stage is highly problematic,” Greenstein said in response to many of the concerns presented before the BOG. “Why did we rely so much on furloughs and retrenchments? Because despite the intemperate narrative, which is disrupting and divisive, we care about people. They are the most precious resource … universities, our communities, they are families and every employee is a member of that family. To portray reductions as mass layoffs is wrong and dangerous.”

As the public hearing came to its climax, the chancellor presented the following updated financial ratios for the Northeastern and Western integrated schools which he referred to as a “favorable budget” — despite the majority of public comments disagreeing with the budgeting process. Updates also inlcuded a results summary of specific questions that were asked from a previous student survey and current plans of retrenchements/furloughs.

“It involved our listening and all of them courageously responding to real concerns expressed by members of the general assembly and also the students, parents, employees, and community members — concerns about student affordability, responsiveness to employer needs… about our cost,” he said. “We are making progress as testified in this budget and advancing and understanding that public higher education is generally a partnership between the system and universities. On the other hand, the state through the general assembly; that partnership got strengthened significantly over the last several weeks and look forward to continuing that progress.”

The following updates and financial ratios are as follows:

Key Ratios — Northeast

— Includes additional recognition of 32.3M of Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund (HEERF) is 2 and 3 stimulus funds across fiscal year (FY) 21 and 22

— Adjustments to remove 1 percent Fall 2021 tuition increase assumption and replace with flat tuition impacts net revenue by approx. $2M annually throughout the plan time frame

— Operating margin achieves goals established by financial sustainability policy for financial health

— Primary Reserver achieves steady improvements (improved year-over-year from April)

Key Ratios — West

— Includes additional recognition of $31.6M of HEERF 2 and 3 stimulus funds across FY 21 and 22

— Adjustments to remove 1 percent Fall 2021 tuition increase assumption and replace with flat tuition impacts net revenue by approx. $2M annually throughout the plan timeframe

— Operating Margin improving through FY 26 efficiency savings address shortfalls in later years, leading to positive operating margin FY 26

— Primary Reserve stabilizing as compared to standalone prjections

Econominc Impact

Impact of proposed integrations:

— West — $758.6M in FY 2025/2026, an 8.1 percent increase over the combined 3 – university impact projected in FY 2022/23

— Northeast — $573.5M in FY 2025/26, a 1.9 percent increase over the combined 3-universities impact projected in FY 2022/23

Impact on State System

— Reduction in employee haed count contributed all modestly to total decline owing to increase in salaries

Retrenchment / Furloughs

— Faculty: 32 of the total faculty

— Non-faculty: 178 of the total non-faculty

Included in the updated presentation, Greenstein enlightened everyone on the preliminary results from the Student/Parent survey involved with the online course learning.

Preliminary Results of Online Learning Questions

— 88% are willing to take up at least up to 25 percent courses online to have access to wider range of degrees (with departments you’re cutting ironically)

— 90% are willing to take at least up to 25 percent of their courses online in order to keep the price they pay the lowest

— 91% are willing to take at least up to 25 percent of their courses online in order to earn their degrees more quickly

Current Students:

— More than 90 percent of current students are willing to take at least up to 25% of their courses online for any of three reasons tested

Parents:

— 99% are comfortable with their child talking at least up to 25% of their courses online for any of the three reasons tested

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