The West Chester University Foundation is bankrolling a campaign to help win passage of state legislation that would enable that school and other state-owned universities to break away from the State System of Higher Education.
A representative of Bravo Group, a Harrisburg lobbying and public relations firm, said the foundation hired Bravo at the request of the university's council of trustees.
The arrangement appears to place the foundation -- and by extension the university itself -- actively at odds with leadership of the State System, whose chancellor Frank Brogan has expressed deep concern that the bill would harm universities that leave as well as those that remain while driving up tuition costs for Pennsylvania students.
"We are involved in an effort to educate the public about the importance of the legislation," said Jeanette Krebs, the firm's managing director of communications. "We're working through the West Chester University Foundation and there are conversations with other university foundations that also support the effort."
She said she could not discuss which ones.
Ms. Krebs declined to say how much the foundation is paying her firm. Nor would foundation executive director Richard Przywara, although he said Friday it is modest next to the millions of dollars the foundation raises for scholarships and other West Chester endeavors.
"It's not anything I'm worried about," he said.
Senate Bill 1275 was introduced Tuesday amid growing financial and enrollment strains across the 112,000-student system.
It would allow universities with enrollments of 7,000 and up that are able to reimburse the State System for land and property to secede and become state-related schools like Penn State, Temple and Lincoln universities and the University of Pittsburgh.
Its prime sponsor, state Sen. Robert Tomlinson, R-Bucks County, said the aim is to ensure that healthy campuses able to buy their way out of the system have flexibility to grow, unencumbered by what he described as a slow-moving system bureaucracy and a funding formula that extracts revenue from healthy campuses to prop up weaker system schools.
But Mr. Brogan warned that costs to schools that secede would be prohibitive and that each departure would weaken the state's most affordable tier of public universities. He said taxpayers likely would frown on 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 told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette last week. "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."
Told Friday of the foundation's lobbying effort and of West Chester trustees' request that it occur, State System spokesman Kenn Marshall said: "We really don't want to weigh in or talk about what they've done."
West Chester and Bloomsburg University are the only schools out of the 14 universities in the State System whose enrollments are not in decline. West Chester's 9 percent gain since 2010 to 15,845 students pushed it past Indiana University of Pennsylvania as the system's largest university.
Mr. Tomlinson is a West Chester trustee. He and other council members say they cannot sit by as a near 20 percent cut in state funding and population losses -- most pronounced in Western Pennsylvania -- threaten the future of some schools.
The effort to sway sentiment among families of students, legislators and others in the general public has a website and a slogan: Stronger Pennsylvania Public Universities. It also has a Twitter account and a Facebook page, where a Bravo employee in consultation with the foundation answers questions, such as one this week from a woman concerned that becoming a state-related school will mean higher tuition.
"Belinda, we understand your concern," it began. "Schools leaving the System that retain their current focus on teaching excellence and applied research will remain cost competitive. In fact, the increase for schools departing the System should be similar to what the remaining (system) universities actually need to meet their budget shortfalls."
A call to West Chester president Greg R. Weisenstein was referred to spokeswoman Pam Sheridan. She said the university has no comment and directed inquiries to West Chester trustee Eli Silberman.
Mr. Silberman said West Chester would do a feasibility study before deciding whether to secede, but he added there already is widespread support on campus, even if it counters the system's wishes.
"What we feel is in the best interests of West Chester students and the greater university community is going counter to what the State System feels is the best way to proceed. That is true," he said.
State Sen. Jay Costa, D-Forest Hills, a Pitt trustee, already had concerns about the bill. He expressed surprise Friday that the foundation was spending money to, in effect, lobby against the system's position so it can secede. "I'm disappointed that those resources are being directed there," he said.
But Mr. Przywara said his foundation's role is advancing West Chester's mission, which in this case means a bill to improve higher education in the state. Of Mr. Brogan's concerns, he said: "I think the chancellor's been here 110 days so far. He's just learning about the system and the problems we've all been facing for years."
Bill Schackner: email@example.com or 412-263-1977.