Legislature must focus on PASSHE

If the Legislature really has lost faith in the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education, as one prominent state lawmaker has suggested, commonwealth residents need to ask why the General Assembly hasn’t been more proactive over the past decade to try to fix things that legislators believe are wrong with the network, which comprises 14 state-owned universities.

Voicing that pessimistic viewpoint was House Appropriations Chairman Stan Saylor, R-York, during a hearing Feb. 12 that centered on PASSHE issues such as whether a struggling university should be closed, whether tuition in the system should be increased, challenges surrounding faculty union contracts and what’s regarded as an increasingly troubling low level of state financial support for the system.

Saylor said during the two-hour hearing that he believes lost faith is a big reason why state funding for the system is more anemic than it otherwise might be. He said the system’s board of trustees needs to make the right decisions, going forward, so the system can improve, rather than remain stagnant or regress.

Lawmakers who agree with Saylor need to “jump” into the dialogue and voice whatever ideas they might have, whether in agreement with Saylor or otherwise.

There might be a window for positive change and optimism, however — a window that revealed itself during the Feb. 12 session through hearing testimony presented by PASSHE’s new chancellor, Daniel Greenstein, Ph.D., who assumed his current role last fall after holding positions in the University of California system.

Greenstein, acknowledging that PASSHE is not operating from a position of strength, as it ought to be, referred to what he said was a “redesign” of the university system that’s in progress. He said an important goal would be to pave the way to a new partnership with lawmakers and other state officials.

He said PASSHE officials are not merely trying to tweak the system, but instead are working to fundamentally transform it, to address problems emanating from declining enrollment and weak state aid.

According to Greenstein, as part of the redesign to make the system more attractive to potential students, the system is considering an exodus from the traditional single-tuition policy and opting instead for flexibility, possibly even offering discounts.

A move in that direction will necessitate a well-coordinated public relations effort to explain — and emphasize — the advantages that the change will offer, not only financially, but in educational opportunities as well.

During the hearing, his willingness to say that he sees the state government as a partner, not just a funding source, probably won him and his efforts some new backers.

Admitting that the burden is on PASSHE, in front of lawmakers and others at the hearing, emphasized his desire for valuable teamwork in attacking the system’s challenges, rather than succumbing to a foolish notion that he somehow would be able to accomplish such a formidable task alone.

In an editorial last June 12, the Mirror observed that PASSHE faces tough decisions and that state taxpayers shouldn’t be expected to continue supporting colleges that are virtually a shell of what they ought to be.

Nevertheless, young people shouldn’t be deprived of the opportunities that PASSHE offers, as long as means exist for fixing its problems.

Greenstein’s encouraging attitude is an optimistic beginning.

Hopefully, Saylor agrees.

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