Militant Journalism

Why is Pennsylvania considering mass layoffs in public higher education?

Photo: Map showing location of PASSHE school

The Chancellor of the Pennsylvania System of Higher Education, Daniel Greenstein, is attempting to ram through a plan to consolidate six of the state system’s 14 universities into two as a so-called solution to the system’s financial crisis. On April 28, the Board of Governors (BOG) voted 17-2 in favor of consolidation. We are now in the 60-day public comment period before the final vote in mid-July. 

In the western part of the state, Edinboro, Clarion and California universities will be consolidated. In the northeast, Bloomsburg, Lock Haven and Mansfield are slated to be integrated. These universities are located in some of the most impoverished rural areas of the state. 

The Chancellor has framed his consolidation plan as a way to not only save the system from financial ruin but to make it better. But there is no evidence that consolidation will do anything to improve the financial situation. The evidence suggests that it will only make an already cash-starved, depleted system worse.  

While all the physical universities would remain open, at its core the consolidation plan is a budget cut focused almost exclusively on reducing personnel. The plan would reduce PASSHE’s overall employment by roughly 14%. In other words, 1,500 jobs in the system would be eliminated, and an additional 700 indirect jobs would be lost from reduced supply-chain purchases. Due to the gender composition within the State System, women will bear the brunt of these burdens. For example, non-tenured faculty positions will be the first to be cut and women account for 57% non-tenured faculty. The fallout from this plan will resemble the devastation of industrial plant closings.

A legacy of budget cuts and bad investments 

The Chancellor has focused on falling enrollments as the source of the problem. However, what is given far less attention is the fact that the system’s budget has been cut by 30% since 2000. In 2010 alone then-governor Tom Corbett cut PASSHE’s budget by 18%.  In January 2020 Chancellor Greenstein requested a 2% increase to the State System budget to $487 million. Governor Wolf, however, in his 2020-21 budget appropriated just $477 million to the State System. Community organizers are calling for a fully-funded state system restoring and exceeding previous levels making public higher education free. 

The implications of the legacy of these cuts on per student state appropriations have been dramatic, decreasing by 52% since 2001. During the same period, tuition and student debt have increased significantly. Since 2010 tuition has increased by 16% in state schools. We can only expect that budget cuts associated with the consolidation plan will lead to additional increases in tuition, leaving many working class and oppressed students unable to access public higher education in PA. 

As a result, the system is funded more and more by tuition. In a desperate yet unsuccessful attempt to attract out-of-state students, universities in the system and across the country have invested in new dorms and high-end facilities. As a result, the system’s universities are saddled with crushing institutional debt sucking up more and more increasingly limited resources to service those debts. 

The consolidation plan is supposed to be a solution to this crisis, but a 2.9% cut to the overall budget of $1.55 billion will hardly be enough to impact the system. The money is there. For example, an excess of $500 million in sales and revenue was generated by the state government during the pandemic.  

If it is not the money that is lacking, then what is? What is missing is the political will amongst the body charged with coordinating and approving the system’s operating budget, PASSHE’s Board of Governors. However, political will can be changed, and many students, workers and community members intend to change it.

What is the class character of the Board of Governors? 

While 4 legislators and 3 students are selected to be on the Board, the core of the Board are the 11 members appointed to four-year terms by the governor and confirmed by the state senate. The 20-member BOG is “responsible for planning and coordinating development and operation” of PASSHE. The Board “establishes broad educational, fiscal, and personnel policies, and oversees the efficient management of the State System.” Does the Board oversee the State System as a neutral entity responding to the will of the people, or does it represent the interests of a particular class? 

Looking at the experiences and qualifications of the current appointed members highlighted by PASSHE is telling. For example, the family of the current BOG Chair, Cynthia Shapira, is one of the five families who own and operate the Giant grocery store chain with annual revenue of nearly $10 billion.  

Other examples include Thomas S. Muller, who “served as President and Chief Operating Officer of Binney and Smith, which later became Crayola, and Marian Moskowitz, Chester County Commissioner and who “has been involved in businesses both locally and internationally in the areas of cosmetics, trucking, and retail.” 

Contributing to this understanding, PASSHE Defenders, a group of students, faculty and staff from across the State System created to stop consolidation, recently commented on their social media platforms that “we recently learned the Chancellor is currently on the board of Ridge Lane Limited Partners. And during his time as Chancellor has been a “Venture Partner” and “Senior Advisor” with Ridge Lane. This is outrageous!!!” 

RIdge Lane boasts how their “team serve as a fiduciary advisor to companies looking for strategic ways to accelerate growth, providing an integrated offering of Advisory, Capital and Business Development — aligning the commercial interests of private business, with the needs of society and out future civilization — where our knowledge and networks are leveraged to create maximum value for all stakeholders.” The Chancellor’s consolidation plan sounds a lot like a Ridge Lane corporate concoction where the maximization of value is at the expense of working-class communities.

There are of course no union leaders or community organization leaders among the list of Board members. The Chancellor and the BOG clearly do not represent the interests of working people, but the ultra-rich who rule society. The BOG’s nearly unanimous support for the PASSHE chancellor’s consolidation plan, from this perspective, therefore makes perfect sense. 

On May 26th the Chancellor and the Board of Governors gave an update on the public feedback they have received, which they called an Integrations Update Workshop. They gave no indication that they have any intention of really addressing the people’s core concerns or not moving forward with consolidation. Again, that can be changed! 

We can fight and win!

Since all the evidence suggests that the plan will be devastating for students, faculty, staff, and many working-class communities, we can only conclude that their plans are based on a political calculation that they can get away with consolidation without major pushback. But the people are starting to fight back more and more. We have seen what mass movements can accomplish on the national stage with the conviction of Derek Chauvin. 

The Party for Socialism and Liberation and PASSHE Defenders are planning a rally tour June 12 and June 26-27 to contribute to the building of a mass movement against consolidation. Find more information here. The chancellor and the Board of Governors should know that their political calculations are wrong. The people will not stand by quietly while students and working people are under attack. 

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