Sponsor admits State System bill's odds dim

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A controversial bill that would enable larger and financially healthy state-owned universities to secede from the State System of Higher Education may not have the votes to pass the Legislature — at least not this year, its prime sponsor now concedes.

Nevertheless, state Sen. Robert Tomlinson, R-Bucks County, said Wednesday he is heartened by overtures from the system and its chancellor Frank Brogan to grant more autonomy to individual universities. And he said state Senate bill 1275 has moved those discussions along.

“I’m greatly encouraged,” he said.

The senator and member of West Chester University’s council of trustees spoke by phone after Mr. Brogan’s “State of the System” address, in which the chancellor said the 14 member universities can expect faster approval of new academic programs, a greater voice in vetting prospective campus presidents and added tuition price flexibility.

Mr. Tomlinson said he still hopes to hold a legislative hearing on what he called “a very bold concept” but said the discussion could incorporate other ideas like those Mr. Brogan is advancing, some of which might not require a law change.

“I do not believe my legislation of just pulling out and [becoming] a state related-institution is going to succeed this year, but that doesn’t mean we can’t make improvements this year,” he said.

During his midday speech in Harrisburg, Mr. Brogan did not mention interest in seceding expressed by some at West Chester and some other member schools, nor did he cite the legislation that would allow those schools to become state-related universities like Penn State, Temple and Lincoln universities and the University of Pittsburgh.

But the chancellor acknowledged grievances that helped spawn the bill, namely that the system moves too slowly, takes money from prosperous schools to prop up weaker ones and simply holds too much power.

Speaking in the Dixon University Center, the chancellor said efforts to address those complaints are underway.

Nevertheless, he took issue with those who say the system’s future is shaky and uncertain. “They are wrong,” he said.

And he noted that collaboration among the member schools contributes to the success of their 112,000 students.

“Consider this: Most of the top-rated public universities in the nation are members of university systems,” Mr. Brogan said. “There is strength in numbers.

“And while being part of the State System means we all share the same primary mission, how we each go about achieving that mission differs. That demands flexibility rather than a one-size-fits-all approach to decision-making.”

He later added, “Fourteen universities working together can achieve a great deal.”

Mr. Brogan became chancellor in October. His remarks Wednesday were delivered just after his formal installation ceremony, and they drew heightened interest given the secession bill and recent faculty and program cuts occurring amid extraordinary enrollment and fiscal strains.

Those troubles include the loss of 7,200 students systemwide in three years — losses approaching 20 percent on some campuses — and severe state funding cuts that have lowered the system’s support to 1997 levels. The 14 universities include California, Clarion, Edinboro, Indiana and Slippery Rock in Western Pennsylvania.

The State System is undergoing an evolution “that is essential for our long-term viability,” Mr. Brogan said. Leaders, he added, already are working to strike a balance between coordination and local decision-making, rescinding policies and practices “that no longer are needed to help our 14 universities move toward greatness.”

He said fully developed proposals from member universities to roll out new academic programs can be acted on in less than 90 days, and the system is developing a fast-track approach for more urgent training needs, such as when a company arrives in a community.

He said the system’s board of governors, which began two days of meetings Wednesday, is committed to giving more local control in development of minors, certificates and letters of completion. He said a proposal will be acted on this week “to allow decisions for those programs to shift to the local level.”

By statute, the State System hires campus presidents, but Mr. Brogan said another initiative under consideration would ensure that chairs of university trustee councils and local search committees “would be included in final deliberations by the board of governors.”

He said half a dozen experiments enabling universities to alter tuition prices so they can better compete already have been approved, including one letting Edinboro University charge out-of-state students rates approaching what Pennsylvanians pay. He said more are under consideration.

Bill Schackner: bschackner@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1977 or on Twitter @BschacknerPG.

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