The Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education plans to request $100 million from the state General Assembly over the next five years “to help discover new ways to save money and generate revenue — a process it calls a system redesign,” LNP’s Alex Geli reported in Monday’s edition. Spokesman Dave Pidgeon calls the request “appropriate” as the system of 14 state-owned colleges and universities aims to become more efficient in the areas of information technology, online learning, facilities management and human resources.
We did a double take when we saw this headline in LNP: “State System board wants $100M over 5 years to figure out how to save money.”
It’s like something from The Onion, the parody website that seems more alarmingly like real life with each passing day.
Perhaps LancasterOnline commenter Tom Kruschinsky summed it up best: “Only a government-run institution could come up with that.”
It could be worse. According to The Philadelphia Inquirer, some on the agency’s board of governors originally wanted to request $300 million from the state.
Are we supposed to be grateful, as taxpayers, that they’re only seeking $100 million?
We recognize that these are difficult times for the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education. As the Inquirer notes, it “continues to struggle with enrollment loss and ever-tightening finances. Earlier this month, the system announced it had sustained an additional 2.6% enrollment loss and was down to 95,802 students. Enrollment is down nearly 20% from its 2010 peak of 119,513 students.”
(Locally, Millersville University, which serves about 7,800 students, has bucked that statewide trend of declining enrollment for the past two years, Geli reported.)
The $100 million would go toward creating an infrastructure for consolidation of operations such as information technology, online learning, accounting and human resources.
“The plan mirrors what chancellor Daniel Greenstein said he envisioned for the system earlier this year: that the schools must start operating more like a system, consolidate business and administrative operations to save money, and open courses on all campuses to all students,” the Inquirer explained.
We agree that the state system must become more efficient and work to unite the operations of more than a dozen campuses. These are necessary steps toward the goal of keeping higher education affordable for Pennsylvanians.
But we don’t think it’s right to start down that path by asking Harrisburg for a staggering amount of money — to be clear, taxpayer money.
The state system’s 20-member board of governors includes women and men with business, government, management and legal experience. One is a former executive with 3M Co. Another is a policy adviser for Dominion Energy. Cynthia Shapira, the board’s chair, has served on the Allegheny County Airport Authority, the Say Yes to Education Foundation and on the boards of multiple universities. Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf and Republican state Sen. Scott Martin of Martic Township are also members of the board — and are individuals who should be especially sensitive to the need to use our tax dollars wisely.
And Greenstein, the chancellor, previously tackled higher education issues at the national level for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and was vice provost for academic planning and programs for the University of California system.
Indeed, these are bright people. The chancellor and the board of governors should be able to figure things out without asking Harrisburg for more money. It’s incumbent upon them — as it would be the leaders of any private business — to find ways to shift money and resources to help pay for these needed infrastructure changes.
This challenge must be met with austerity and bold decisions. And we realize those decisions could involve shuttering or repurposing one or more universities. Isn’t it better to consider those seismic moves now, in conjunction with other consolidation strategies? We would hate to see money — especially taxpayer dollars — spent to upgrade the infrastructure of a university that may need to be closed within a few years.
What we’re asking for is some common sense. Some good fiscal stewardship on the part of the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education chancellor and board.
Maybe that stewardship can start with not requesting an extra $100 million from the General Assembly.