Millersville University is one of the 14 state-owned universities that are part of Pennsylvania's State System of Higher Education.


In an op-ed published last week in LNP and on LancasterOnline, the chair of the board of governors and the chancellor for Pennsylvania’s State System of Higher Education wrote that the system was undergoing a top-to-bottom examination of the operations of its 14 universities, as well as of the Office of the Chancellor. Those universities are Millersville, West Chester, Bloomsburg, Cheyney, Indiana, California, Mansfield, East Stroudsburg, Edinboro, Kutztown, Slippery Rock, Shippensburg, Lock Haven and Clarion. “The status quo is unsustainable,” wrote Chancellor Frank T. Brogan and board chair Cynthia D. Shapira.

“The numbers tell the story,” Brogan and Shapira asserted.

“Overall enrollment across the system has declined by more than 12 percent — or by nearly 15,000 students — over the last six years,” they wrote.

And the system “is receiving about $60 million less from the state this year than it did in 2008 ... an amount essentially equal to what it received in 1999.”

The numbers don’t so much tell the story as they do sketch the broad outlines of the challenge before the state system. They don’t completely explain why the system is facing that challenge.

We hope the long-overdue strategic review paints a crystal-clear picture of what the state system needs to do to remedy its problems.

They are daunting.

Cheyney, the nation’s oldest historically black college or university, is mired in debt and leadership struggles. As a recent article in Inside Higher Ed noted, its accreditation is in peril and it has “the lowest four-year graduation rate in the state system.”

Yet closing it, and consolidating it with nearby West Chester University, would be politically fraught.

Millersville is at the other end of the spectrum.

As Brogan and Shapira noted in their op-ed, MU has a nationally recognized meteorology program, and a new multidisciplinary studies major “that allows students to tailor studies to better meet their academic strengths and career goals.” And MU “consistently ranks within the Top 30 public schools in the North by U.S. News & World Report.”

How other universities in the state system might adapt as MU has will be part of the strategic review. “Every university in the system can learn from each other through this process,” Brogan and Shapira wrote.

If only that’s all that is needed here — a little share and tell (that’s the gentler, modern version of “show and tell”).

But the Inside Higher Ed article lays out some of the deeper issues facing the state system, beyond Cheyney’s woes.

There’s the competition its universities face from Penn State and that state-related university’s network of branch campuses.

There’s what some see as PASSHE’s focus on new high school graduates, rather than on adult education (we wonder if there’s been adequate attention paid to retaining students as opposed to merely enrolling them).

There’s the Association of Pennsylvania State College and University Faculties — the union — which may resist seismic changes at the state-owned universities.

There’s the difficulty of “bringing everyone to the table in a decentralized system,” Inside Higher Ed noted. “PASSHE’s Board of Governors is made up of politically appointed members. Individual universities’ trustees tend to be alumni or local leaders. Then there are the politicians with interest, and the university presidents themselves.”

And there’s this: The vice president of the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems — the consultant hired by PASSHE to conduct the strategic review — told Inside Higher Ed that action will be needed “among many players in Pennsylvania: the Board of Governors, the Legislature, the governor’s office and the institutions.”

Consider those players. Then rate the chances for any meaningful change.

Perhaps we’re letting our cynicism cloud our judgment. Brogan and Shapira seem genuinely invested in this strategic review; indeed, Brogan declared in January that it would do more than simply “tinker around the edges.”

We hope it is comprehensive and unflinching, and we hope it yields some real answers.

And, for the sake of students across the commonwealth, we hope the state-owned universities can adapt to deliver the education those students need, at a price they can afford.