HARRISBURG — The highly anticipated report on restructuring Pennsylvania's struggling state university system perhaps was more noteworthy for what it didn't recommend than what it did.
Pennsylvania should keep all 14 state universities rather than close or merge institutions to solve ongoing financial and enrollment woes, a national consultant told the system's governing body Wednesday.
But schools with the largest enrollment declines and budget gaps should face consolidation and staff cuts while keeping core programs, the National Center on Higher Education Management Systems report recommended.
The report was presented at a meeting of the board's finance committee at which it recommended a 3.5 percent tuition hike for 2017-18. If approved by the full board on Thursday, tuition at all 14 state universities would rise from $7,238 a year to $7,492.
State board members said they need the tuition hike to cut half of a projected $71 million shortfall next year, as the 105,000-student system – which lost 12 percent of its enrollment since 2010 – expects another decline for the fall.
"I'm sure that we disappointed folks that we didn't get more radical," said Dennis Jones, emeritus president of the Boulder, Colo.-based consultant, which was paid nearly $400,000 for the study. "The reality is … you don't have silver bullets in higher education."
The firm also called for an overhaul of the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education's governance system, replacing its board of governors – which hired the consultant to study the system — with a board of regents who have no political ties or obligations to other entities. The 20-member board of governors currently includes four legislators, the governor or his designee, the secretary of education, three students, and 11 gubernatorial appointees.
"I think the board of governors needs to have fewer direct ties to the political structure of this state," Jones said. "Members of the board ought to be folks who are not in elected office, haven't been for five years at least, aren't employees of institutions, aren't on the councils of trustees of institutions, and essentially don't represent one of the stakeholders directly."
That recommendation would require a change in state law.
Financial and enrollment health varies by institution. West Chester University is the system's largest campus, with more than 17,000 students, and the one that has seen the most growth. Also part of the system is Cheyney, a historically black university in Delaware and Chester Counties that has lost more than half of its enrollment in six years.
Other universities in the system are: Bloomsburg, Indiana, California, Mansfield, Millersville, East Stroudsburg, Edinboro, Kutztown, Slippery Rock, Shippensburg, Lock Haven, and Clarion.
In addressing action for the weaker universities, Jones did not name them during his presentation but later said Mansfield in north central Pennsylvania, Clarion in the west, and Cheyney need change. Cheyney is in the process of restructuring under an appointed task force.
All three schools have notified staff that layoffs may occur for 2018-19; California and Edinboro also have given notification of possible staff cuts as enrollment declines.
Under the consultant's recommendation, the universities would keep their own presidents and identities but import many of their programs from other institutions and as a result be able to reduce staff and costs, Jones said.
"They've got more staff than they can sustain, but you still want to provide service to the regions they serve, and the way you do that is to provide student services at those institutions and programs from somewhere else," he said.
To help with staff reduction, he said, the state should allow the system to offer retirement incentives to employees.
Board chairwoman Cynthia D. Shapira said she and her colleagues would study the report and come up with an action plan. She offered no comment on it after the presentation and went into a private workshop with the consultant and the board.
System chancellor Frank T. Brogan said he was encouraged by the findings.
"I was comfortable that it took on very candidly some of the key issues that I personally believe and professionally believe need to be dealt with to create a more sustainable system," said Brogan, who heard the findings for the first time along with the public.
But Kenneth M. Mash, president of the Association of Pennsylvania State College and University Faculties labor union, while heartened that no closures were recommended, was underwhelmed by the findings.
"I don't think you wound up with anything earth-shattering here," Mash said.
Better funding for the state's higher education system is needed, he said. The state's 2017-18 budget calls for a 2 percent or $9 million increase for the state system.
Also in the report was a recommendation for Pennsylvania to establish an entity to coordinate various higher education institutions across the state, something that Brogan agreed is sorely needed.
"Missing in this state is any kind of an entity where you can have a conversation about statewide goals, how you allocate state monies to the entirety of the enterprise," Jones said. "You're not going to have enough money in higher education to be nonstrategic about how you spend it."
Jones also said the system should offer more support and guidance to its university presidents and honor existing collective bargaining agreements, but going forward should allow some variation by institution in work assignments.