When word leaked out in February about a plan to let prosperous state-owned universities leave the State System of Higher Education, West Chester University — arguably the most robust — chose its words carefully.
Talking points crafted with help from a consultant cast the fast-growing university near Philadelphia as a bystander, and staff were told to stick to that script if students or parents called.
“We do understand that several legislators are planning to introduce a bill that would allow State System universities to become more independent,” read the approved language forwarded by a West Chester vice president in a Feb. 27 email. “If the bill were to pass, WCU would need to engage in a comprehensive assessment of this opportunity before making any decisions about its status.”
What the script did not mention was that for months, top university leaders had engaged in what amounted to a stealth campaign both to support introduction of that controversial legislation — Senate Bill 1275 — and to encourage its passage, enlisting financial help from the school’s foundation, which was able to hire a lobbyist without a public vote.
Emails obtained by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette through the state’s Right-to-Know law suggest an active effort even before the bill’s introduction to recruit representatives of other member universities willing to back a law change that would allow partial dismantling of the system, the state’s lowest-price option for obtaining a university degree.
Once the bill was introduced on March 11, the university did even more to help promote the legislation whose prime sponsor, state Sen. Robert “Tommy” Tomlinson, R-Montgomery, also is a member of West Chester’s council of trustees.
On March 13, a day after the governor expressed opposition to the bill, a university vice president forwarded to Mr. Tomlinson a prepared response crafted by Bravo Group, the Harrisburg lobbying firm hired by West Chester University Foundation at the request of school trustees.
“The folks from Bravo wondered if the following statement might be helpful to you for today and going forward,” wrote Mark Pavlovich, West Chester’s vice president for advancement and sponsored research.
SB 1275 would give schools wealthy enough to buy their way out of the system the option of becoming a state-related university like the University of Pittsburgh, Penn State, Temple and Lincoln universities, a tier of schools that face less state regulation and are higher priced.
It’s no secret there is sympathy for the idea on a campus that long has chafed about system control and has grown tired of funds being siphoned away by the system to shore up weaker member schools.
But records turned over by West Chester suggest a university administration far more directly involved in shepherding the bill than was previously acknowledged. Administrators participated in strategy sessions and brainstormed potential responses to critics of the idea.
When the Post-Gazette reported March 15 that the foundation had hired Bravo at the request of university trustees, an email exchange shows the school did not dispute the connection. In fact, Mr. Pavlovich told trustee Eli Silberman in an email that day, “In many ways, it allows us to be more open about what’s going on.”
Mr. Pavlovich, who is involved in many of the correspondences, dating back to October, did not return calls seeking comment. Nor did university president Greg Weisenstein, his executive deputy, the provost or the vice president for administration and finance, among those who wrote or were copied in on the emails.
‘Clearly a scare tactic’
The day after the legislation was introduced, the president wrote Mr. Pavlovich about the need to address points raised by the bill’s critics — namely that schools allowed to become state-related universities would be less accountable to the taxpayer and would charge higher tuition.
“Until we begin talking specifically about what our tuition is likely to be, we can’t answer the naysayer(s) who want to associate transitioning institutions with Penn State tuition. Clearly a scare tactic,” he wrote. Read his email below.
Many of the 553 pages of emails and supporting records are heavily redacted, and the university withheld others, saying they are not public records. The Post-Gazette is appealing the withholding of those records and the redactions.
Pam Sheridan, a West Chester spokeswoman, said the university would answer no questions about the records while that appeal is pending.
The whole issue reflects a growing rift between financially strapped public university systems and their wealthier campuses, a trend exacerbated in Pennsylvania, where state-owned universities have seen their appropriation cut by nearly 20 percent.
West Chester, the largest and fastest-growing system school, is located in an expanding part of the state about 25 miles west of Philadelphia near its affluent Main Line suburbs The school’s enrollment of 15,845 has increased by more than 9 percent since 2010 at a time when most of the 14 member universities are in decline, some by double digits.
That surge has blunted effects of those deep state funding cuts that, combined with a drop in high school graduates, have led to layoffs at other campuses. West Chester, though, says it needs more autonomy to respond to changing student markets and is unhappy with the $1.6 million taken by the system annually to funnel to other schools.
In his state-of-the-university address last fall, Mr. Weisenstein said those on his campus empathize with campuses “adjusting to declining enrollments simultaneous with diminishing state support” but also said the redistribution of funds across the system “is a disincentive to those institutions that have worked hard to achieve a solid financial future.”
Some backers of the bill put it more bluntly.
They say the system can no longer fill seats at its 14 universities given population losses that are especially pronounced in Western Pennsylvania. They note the system’s enrollment of 112,300 students this year is down by 7,200 students from 2010 — equal to an entire campus — and that its bureaucracy has been slow to confront rising pension obligations, construction debt and other mounting pressures.
“It’s a house of cards,” said state Sen. Andrew Dinniman, D-Chester, a co-sponsor of the bill.
But system leaders including chancellor Frank Brogan say defections would drive up tuition prices and weaken the remaining universities. He said buying back campus land and buildings as required by the legislation would be a major obstacle, and even if breakaway schools could afford it, taxpayers might object to such use of public funds.
“They believe that money is being used to provide them the professors, the support staff, the opportunity today to better their educational experience,” Mr. Brogan said in response to the bill’s introduction. “They sure don’t believe it’s going to be squirreled away in part by those institutions [to] buy their way to quasi-private status.”
Mr. Brogan declined comment on e-mails obtained by the newspaper. It could not be immediately determined how much money and employee time were spent on efforts promoting the legislation, which remains in the Senate Education Committee.
A phone message left for Guido Pichini, chairman of the State System’s board of governors, was not returned. But in interviews, two state legislators who serve on that panel said they had no inkling of any West Chester staff or administrative involvement and expressed concern.
State Sen. John Yudichak, D-Luzerne, said such a major change to the State System is a conversation best driven by the Legislature and system leaders in a comprehensive way, rather than by individuals at a member school looking to break away. “After all, it is a state system,’’ he said.
“I’m a little concerned about using foundation dollars that could go to much better use at West Chester,” he said. “And I’m also concerned with knowing how deeply involved administrators may have been in advancing the idea of leaving the system.”
Mr. Yudichak said he believes the chancellor “will certainly become more engaged in trying to find out what role the administration played.”
State Rep. Matthew Baker, R-Tioga, said there certainly is a role for university employees in such a discussion, but their use for advocacy would be another matter.
“I’m not comfortable with that,” he said.
In its Right-to-Know request, the newspaper sought correspondences pertaining to SB 1275, secession and attempts by West Chester to gain more autonomy. Records released included references to a string of “informal” trustee meetings, one of which referenced “our Harrisburg project” and another that was expected to draw a majority of the board on Nov. 18 for “an informal budget presentation and discussion.”
The invitation to that unadvertised Nov. 18 meeting prompted trustee and Delaware County Common Pleas Judge Barry Dozor to ask that the president’s office make sure “any Sunshine [Act] public meeting advertising, notice and posting requirements” are followed.
‘PLEASE run this by counsel’
Lawrence Dowdy, executive deputy to the president, told Mr. Dozor by email on Nov. 14 that the session was an extension of an earlier informal board meeting on Oct. 24 at Tanglewood, the president’s official residence, “to address questions about the information shared.” Mr. Dowdy said members would be reminded that no decisions are to be made but also said informal meetings are typically not advertised.
The explanation apparently did not assuage Mr. Dozor.
“PLEASE run this by your counsel,” he wrote back. “I no longer practice law, but I am uncomfortable with the rational [sic] … Have them confirm that no notice or advertisement is required for such a meeting.”
Mr. Dozor was told that Mr. Dowdy would speak with counsel, but the released records do not reflect the outcome of that discussion, and the informal meetings continued.
Mr. Dowdy did not return a call seeking comment last week.
Reached by phone, Mr. Dozor said he simply was expressing his general interest in transparency and is confident counsel was consulted. Mr. Dozor said that while individual trustees may have views, neither the trustees board nor the university have taken any position on SB 1275.
He said at most, the informal meetings included a status update on the potential legislation.
Records turned over by West Chester also indicate involvement of an “Assessment of Future Opportunities Sub-Committee,” a trustee panel created six months ago that has met several times, though a check of West Chester’s website turned up no minutes to suggest any session was open to the public.
In a Nov. 27 email, trustees chairman Tom Fillippo thanked its new members — Mr. Silberman, Marian Moskowitz, Christine Costello and Chris Franklin — for serving and urged them to mobilize quickly. “In the interest of time and the upcoming holidays, it’s important that we meet as soon as possible to flesh out the numbers and strategy and vet this significant change to the university,” he wrote.
Records show Mr. Tomlinson was expected to attend at least one subcommittee meeting. Neither he, Mr. Fillippo, Ms. Moskowitz, Ms. Costello or Mr. Franklin could be reached for comment.
Reached by phone, Mr. Silberman initially said he did not recall the subcommittee or his membership on it. He speculated that it may have dealt with redistribution of funds from West Chester to other universities but could not recall specifics.
Asked what triggered university leaders to begin activities related to the legislation, Mr. Silberman said, “I don’t recall a specific start point, but you can take any university issue and say ‘Where was the specific start point?’ You live your live. Things evolve.”
Said Mr. Silberman, “I wasn’t aware of any subterfuge or any specific desire to be secretive.”
Records released by West Chester suggest an initiative that paid attention to details, from counting reporters who attended a news conference introducing the bill, to planning a luncheon afterward for the Chester County delegation.
Some records cast West Chester as being in excellent financial health, including a chart showing nearly $98 million in unrestricted net assets, up by 144 percent from 2009; an operating margin of better than 9 percent and a presentation slide showing that West Chester has $5.90 for every $1 in liabilities.
But a PowerPoint prepared for alumni and other audiences warned that the State System was bent on centralization and said all reserves could be gone in five years if things including state funding levels do not change.
In an email to a campus union leader on Feb. 7, a month before the bill’s introduction, Mr. Weisenstein said that “mass layoffs” might be in store if the financial challenges are ignored. Even if the bill does not pass, the president wrote, “We are very pleased to see that the threat of Tommy’s bill has already stimulated conversations” about system finances and regulation.
During the fall and early winter, minutes from public trustee meetings made no mention of secession, Mr. Tomlinson’s legislation or campus efforts to support it. But there were hints as to where the university’s aspirations lie.
In the midst of an upbeat president’s report on Sept. 26, Mr. Weisenstein told trustees that West Chester had entered into a merchandising agreement to sell shirts, hats and other gear in area stores.
Said Mr. Weisenstein: “People are proud to be affiliated with West Chester University and to have that gear sitting next to Penn State, Temple and other major universities in this area is where West Chester University belongs.”
Bill Schackner: firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-1977 and on Twitter: @BschacknerPG.