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University merger plan has raised tension

Students feel dismay, others hopeful as PASSHE governors close in on vote

The possibility of mergers between a handful of state universities has students taking sides, with some local residents outraged at their perceived loss of identity and others hopeful that mergers would help their school of choice stay academically competitive.

The issue stems from the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education Board of Governors, who approved in April two potential mergers of six state universities. The mergers, if solidified through a final vote, would go into effect in the fall of 2022.

If PASSHE goes through with the plan, California University of Pennsylvania, Clarion University and Edinboro University would be grouped into one institution, while Lock Haven University, Bloomsburg University and Mansfield University would form another.

A merger would “take away Lock Haven’s identity,” said Kyle Schlecht, a current student at the university.

The Altoona native fears a merger would be devastating.

“The biggest thing is the loss of face-to-face classes due to a retrenchment of more than 1,500 faculty members,” Schlecht said. “It’s going to kill these schools.”

The reasoning behind the possible mergers is reportedly a decreasing enrollment at the schools, but Schlecht said that isn’t the case at Lock Haven.

“Actually,” Schlecht said, “Lock Haven went up in enrollment in the past year even during the pandemic. There’s data to prove that.”

He’s correct, according to Elizabeth Arnold, Lock Haven’s executive director of strategic communications. Enrollment from the 2019-20 to the 2020-21 school year increased, even if by just one student, from 3,162 to 3,163, she said.

The final vote on the mergers is expected to be made during the board of governors’ meeting set for July 14-15.

Surveys opposed

Student survey data for the three northeastern universities, including Lock Haven, indicate that more than a quarter of respondents from each student body oppose the merger, including 68% of Lock Haven students.

If the merger goes into effect, Schlecht said, online classes would take over in-person instruction, which would jeopardize the faculty’s job security.

According to the PERI Report, which analyzes the economic impact of the potential mergers’ slew of job cuts, 14% of employees at PASSHE institutions will be let go.

The report states that percentage is “of a magnitude equivalent to the largest private-sector plant closings and mass layoffs of the previous decade in Pennsylvania.”

Schlect said the loss of faculty would also have damaging effects on students.

“With the loss of faculty will be the loss of programs,” he said. “You’re going to be losing majors.”

Taking action

Schlecht and his peers are trying to reach those in power to reverse the decision before it’s potentially finalized in July.

“We’ve had rallies on campus and in the city of Lock Haven,” Schlecht said. “I’ve written a few letters to the Lock Haven Express, I spoke at APSCUF, the union for faculty members across PASSHE (schools).”

Bellwood native and former Lock Haven professor Dr. James Mattern left the university because of the proposed mergers.

“With the merger, the retrenchment talks and everything, I made the decision to (teach) elsewhere in January,” Mattern said. “Last fall, they started talking about retrenchment of faculty members and at that point they were letting go of some individuals who were there 15 to 20 years.”

Mattern said it’s not just faculty members who are at risk. Staff, too, he said, could lose their jobs, including custodians, whose positions would be outsourced.

“Just to see the potential impact this stuff is going to have on the community, too, is saddening,” Mattern said. “The possibility of a lot of these jobs leaving the university and the community — Lock Haven depends on these jobs.”

Disconnect cited

The biggest frustration for Mattern is the disconnect between PASSHE Chancellor Dan Greenstein and the people whose jobs and academic opportunities are at risk.

“He’s not very informed,” Mattern said. “He never has answers for any of the good questions that are being asked. I don’t think he and the system have the answers.”

Mattern’s message to Greenstein is simple: “Listen.”

“Listen to the people who you’re in the meetings with,” Mattern said. “Listen to faculty at these different institutions, who are coming to you with actual research that they’ve done or that’s been shown at other universities with these same circumstances, and have answers whenever we come to you asking what’s going to happen. Have some answers.”

Mergers bring hope

One California University of Pennsylvania student from the area actually likes the idea of the mergers. Darrek Harshberger of Duncansville said he was skeptical at first but looks forward to the educational opportunities a merger could afford him. He said it would allow him to take more classes and reach his goal of graduating on time.

“I think it’s really beneficial for the students,” Harshberger said. “By merging, I’d be able to take a class at Clarion, if need be, and I think that’s really important because I’m on a four-year grad plan and (a merger) would help me stay on track.”

Harshberger added that a merger would allow him and his classmates to branch out and meet more faculty, which he said would increase research and internship opportunities.

For Harshberger, his university maintaining its identity is important, but he doesn’t anticipate that being jeopardized by a merger.

“I chose Cal-U and want to stay at Cal-U, and, with the merger, I think they’re doing a great job and everything will be the same,” he said. “We’ll still be the Vulcans and we’ll still be red and black. We’ll still hold our tradition.”

Unlike Schlecht, Harshberger thinks increased online classes will be beneficial, especially for students juggling jobs on top of academics.

Natalie Holsey, a senior at Mansfield, also supports the proposed mergers. The Altoona native said her school in particular would benefit.

“From what I’ve experienced and heard from our university, Mansfield definitely needs this merger just due to our resources and where our campus is at,” Holsey said. “It would be a really big benefit to our university.”

One of those benefits, Holsey said, would be a greater sense of connectedness.

“I definitely think it would allow us to communicate with the other schools better and we’d be a closer community,” Holsey said. “I know it would definitely help resource-wise because we’d have staff on other campuses that we could reach out to if we need.”

Holsey said a merger would also bring some stability to her school.

“From what I’ve talked to other peers about, our (financial) resources are lower, and we’ve had a lot of changes in our administration,” Holsey said. “We’ve had a different president for a couple semesters; we haven’t had a steady one here for a while, so that’s definitely been hard on our campus as well. I’m sure the merger is a means to help us secure our campus.”

‘We are struggling a bit’

Despite being hopeful of the potential benefits, Holsey said a merger would yield negative consequences as well.

“It does really suck that there are a lot of budget cuts and that we’re losing some professors,” Holsey said. “I know some of my friends at Lock Haven were talking about losing some professors that they really care about, but it’s a sacrifice I think our school has to make because we are struggling a little bit.”

Ultimately, a merger presents an opportunity, Holsey said, for a “big change” that would help Mansfield “move forward.”

“I think the (three schools) could really add something,” Holsey said. “I don’t think it’s going to take away from the individual colleges. We’re still going to be the same colleges, we’ll just have more of a network together.”

Mirror Staff Writer Andrew Mollenauer is at 814-946-7428.

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