Steps to avoid letting universities exit state system

Posted: April 11, 2014

The chancellor of Pennsylvania's higher education system on Wednesday promised more autonomy for its 14 universities, giving two state senators hope that their proposed legislation to break up the system won't be necessary.

"I'm very optimistic that we can accomplish the bill's aim without having to do it," said Sen. Andrew Dinniman (D., Chester), who, along with Sen. Robert "Tommy" Tomlinson (R., Bucks), proposed a bill that would allow some state universities to exit the system.

Frank T. Brogan, who six months ago became chancellor of the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education, used his formal installation speech in Harrisburg to tout a range of plans, including a "fast-track approval process" for new programs and more say at the local levels on selecting presidents.

Although search committees are formed at the local level, the Board of Governors makes the final selection. Under Brogan's proposal, the search committee chair and the chair of the university's Council of Trustees would sit in on final deliberations by the board.

"If approved, enhancements such as this would be utilized almost immediately by three of our universities - California, Kutztown, and Shippensburg - which are preparing for presidential searches," Brogan said.

His comments came about six weeks after Dinniman and Tomlinson unveiled their push for legislation that would allow West Chester and some of the other larger and financially stronger schools to leave.

Tomlinson, a West Chester trustee, said the Senate will have a hearing on the bill, but he will hold off on pushing the legislation for now.

"I am very encouraged by the chancellor's attitude and how quickly he has grasped this problem," Tomlinson said.

West Chester officials have said they want more autonomy in implementing programs and choosing a president, and fear that their school, which is growing, will be used to prop up those with shrinking populations.

Brogan has spoken against the legislation, fearing it would weaken the 112,000-student system and cause increases in tuition. The system, he said, is better off staying intact but adapting to challenging conditions, including lower overall enrollment and waning state funding.

"We're reviewing our policies and practices to reinforce those that serve us well," he said, "and to revise or rescind those that are no longer needed."

The Board of Governors is scheduled to meet Thursday to consider Brogan's proposals. The board also will consider a proposal to allow schools to set their own tuition rates for certain programs.

Brogan noted that the system previously approved new tuition rates as a pilot at five universities - California, Clarion, East Stroudsburg, Edinboro, and West Chester.

The other schools in the system are Bloomsburg, Cheyney, Indiana, Kutztown, Lock Haven, Mansfield, Millersville, Shippensburg, and Slippery Rock.

Another request West Chester and other schools have made is for the board to fast-track approval of requests to establish programs.

The board, Brogan said, acts on proposals for new programs within 90 days, but will consider a way to do it even faster at the July meeting.

"Our presidents and chief academic officers are working with us to develop a 'fast-track approval process' for those occasions when a university needs to start a new degree program in response to a specific, immediate need in its community, such as an expansion or relocation of a business," he said.

ssnyder@phillynews.com215-854-4693 @ssnyderinq

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