In the mid-1990s, leaders of Pennsylvania's 14 state-owned universities asked the Legislature to boost its dollar support for public higher education, only to be told they should rely less on taxpayers and more on themselves.
Grow campus fundraising and your foundations, those leaders were told. Don't be afraid to think outside the box.
Two decades later, one of those foundations has gone way outside the box, hiring a lobbying firm to promote legislation that would enable West Chester University and other state-owned universities to secede from the State System of Higher Education.
It's a use of campus fundraising few would have imagined back then, one that has raised questions anew about the proper use of university foundations that more typically are associated with raising scholarships than with bankrolling public opinion fights.
But the foundation's lobbying push -- like the secession legislation itself -- also illustrates how financial strains have intensified what once was little more than idle talk among the system's strongest campuses of going it alone.
By the mid-1990s, the share of the State System's operating budget covered by state appropriation already was down to 49 percent from 63 percent in 1983, when the State System was created. In the years since, the share has fallen even further -- to 26 percent this year.
In fact, its current $412.8 million total appropriation is less what it received to run the 14 universities in 1997-98.
That funding drop was compounded by recent enrollment losses, prompting faculty layoffs and a potential $60 million budget shortfall this year alone at the14 universities that include California, Clarion, Edinboro, Indiana and Slippery Rock in Western Pennsylvania.
Policy analysts who have watched similar funding declines in other states say it's no surprise some campuses have begun to view their own self interest over those of the system to which they belong.
"For the life of me, I don't know why governors and legislators think they can defund public universities and at the same time maintain their historic oversight of these institutions," said Thomas Mortenson, senior scholar at the Pell Institute in Washington, D.C. "We're privatizing higher education. We're going to have to expect public universities to act in their own interest."
He said it's not hard to see why universities through their affiliated foundations are pushing the envelope -- be it through massive campus construction projects that spur enrollment but drive up debt or through advocating law changes that would give their schools an edge.
Nor is it difficult to imagine why they do this away from public scrutiny.
"I'm not comfortable with it, but what do you expect?" Mr. Mortenson said.
Introduced this month, Senate bill 1275 immediately drew criticism from the State System, whose chancellor, Frank Brogan, warned it would weaken the remaining universities and drive up tuition prices on campuses that leave to become state-related institutions like Penn State, Temple and Lincoln universities and the University of Pittsburgh.
Mr. Brogan, in office six months, already had begun to advocate for the kind of flexibility that campuses including West Chester have said they need to better compete.
The system's board of governors granted West Chester permission in January to offer students at its Philadelphia location a 10 percent tuition cut. Other schools received greater flexibility, too. Edinboro University now can charge out-of-state students tuition nearly as low as what Pennsylvanians pay.
But the changes are not coming quickly enough for some, including members of West Chester's council of trustees, one of whom is state Sen. Robert Tomlinson, R-Bucks County, prime sponsor of Senate bill 1275.
He and trustee Eli Silberman say the State System's formula for distributing funds diverts dollars from growing campuses to prop up weaker ones and that the system's bureaucracy moves too slowly to allow rapid deployment of new programs.
They said the council should be able to appoint more alumni members, hire a campus president and pay that individual a competitive salary without the system's OK.
Both men say more power rests with the system's headquarters than was ever envisioned by its creators.
"It was not meant as a master brain, but [rather] a support system to these schools," said Fran Cleaver, counsel to Mr. Tomlinson.
Such complaints are familiar. There have been on-again, off-again tensions over campus control versus system authority ever since 13 independent colleges and one university were brought under one banner by passage three decades ago of Pennsylvania Act 188.
Back then, the schools were under the state Department of Education, and their presidents were political appointees with no authority to push for funding beyond what the governor proposed. Advocates of creating a system saw benefits that included giving the schools a unified voice and better cohesion to plan for the state's higher education needs, said former state Rep. Ron Cowell, who helped draft the legislation and now is president of the Education and Leadership Policy Center, a nonprofit group based in Harrisburg.
"The point of it was the State System would provide overall direction but implementation and a lot of latitude would be left to individual campuses," said Terry Madonna, a political analyst and professor at Franklin & Marshall College who previously taught in the State System and headed its faculty union.
To keep the bureaucracy in check, a cap was even placed on the system's central budget -- one-half of 1 percent of the system's state appropriation. Today, the system of 112,000 students has a headquarters staff of about 45, officials said.
James McCormick, the system's founding chancellor, said its potency was never just about having a central administration. Rather, it was the prospect that 14 universities, their students, employees and alumni as well as their local legislators all would speak generally with one voice.
"I thought that was powerful," he said.
Mr. McCormick, who served until 2001, said he has not followed the proposed legislation but believes generally the system would be stronger if left fully intact. But he also said it must evolve so campuses can "serve the needs of the people in their region."
West Chester is one of just two State System universities with growing enrollment, and its 15,845 students make it the largest member school. It officially has taken no position on secession, though its trustees asked the West Chester University Foundation to hire Bravo Group, a lobbying and public relations firm in Harrisburg that is advocating for the bill's passage.
The foundation is not saying what the firm is being paid.
Kenn Marshall, a State System spokesman, knew of no other similar lobbying effort by a system foundation. While at odds with the system's position, there is no rule forbidding the firm's hiring, and in fact the university itself could have legally done so provided system procurement rules were followed, he said.
West Chester's faculty union head told a trustees meeting Thursday the legislation does not have widespread faculty support. Their concerns include potential impact on tuition, said Lisa Millhous, campus president of the Association of Pennsylvania State College and University Faculties.
She agreed the State System is too bureaucratic but also said faculty initially were invited to discuss secession as a possibility and now suspect it may be a forgone conclusion.
She said she's not sure why the university itself didn't hire the lobbying firm instead of using the foundation. "It feels a little sneaky," she said.
Mr. Tomlinson and his co-sponsor, state Sen. Andy Dinniman, D-Chester County, who once taught at West Chester, said they hope the bill at least sparks needed discussion of system changes. The bill has a hearing before the Senate Education Committee tentatively set for April 8 in Harrisburg.
Asked about recent media reports quoting Gov. Tom Corbett as saying secession is a mistake, spokesman Jay Pagni said Friday the governor views the bill as "one avenue that can be discussed and explored" but also believes "there's merit to the current system."
Some observers predict the bill will face difficulty, partly because of the system potency that Mr. McCormick described. Some legislators supporting the system already have spoken out. "I think it's got a tough row to hoe legislatively," Mr. Madonna said.
Bill Schackner: email@example.com, 412-263-1977 and on Twitter: @BschacknerPG.