CLARION, Pa. -- Retrenchment among the universities of the State System of Higher Education is a necessary evil required to refocus the system and make it competitive.
That was the clear message delivered by Frank T. Brogan, who became system chancellor on Oct. 1, in his first meeting with reporters during a visit to Clarion University. It was his first visit to a system campus.
Flanked by the presidents of most of the 14 universities in the system, Mr. Brogan on Thursday presented some of his early vision of how to retool the system in the face of rising costs and declining enrollment and funding.
Mr. Brogan referred to retrenchment as "the elephant in the living room." He said he understood that some of the cuts and program changes will be painful for students, faculty and campus communities but that the system cannot operate efficiently in its current form.
Three universities, including Clarion, already have announced program and staff cuts for the end of the academic year and several others have sent notices to faculty that there could be furloughs.
Mr. Brogan said every university in the system and the central administration need to review programs and staff and the universities should identify their strongest programs and market themselves by those programs.
Mr. Brogan said the idea of having 14 independent universities that offer largely the same thing is an idea of the past and that campuses should put their resources toward their "unique" strengths and consider cutting or closing programs with low enrollment.
He said because 90 percent of the system's students come from Pennsylvania and 80 percent remain in the state, the programs offered at the state universities must produce graduates needed in the state's economy. Any new programs added should address those needs.
He acknowledged that could mean a change in the "complement of faculty" at the various schools.
He cited new and existing programs in science, technology, mathematics, business and finance and allied health as enrolling more students than the system's more traditional strengths in education and other public service programs.
In the past five years, the system has placed a moratorium on 158 "low enrollment" programs, among which 40 had no students enrolled. Another 90 programs were reorganized to make them "productive and efficient for the future."
During the same time, the system has added 56 new programs in areas including software engineering, applied science, safety management and allied health fields. He said some of these new programs are operating at schools that have announced cuts in other programs, including Clarion, Edinboro and Mansfield universities.
Mr. Brogan said it is difficult to draw more students at a time when there are fewer high school graduates in the state. One plan he has in mind to increase enrollment is to make it easier for students to matriculate from community colleges.
In Florida, where Mr. Brogan previously served as chancellor of the state university system, community college courses carried the same course number as similar courses at the state schools so students credits automatically transferred with them. He would like to see such a "seamless" system implemented here.
He also wants to provide easier access and better supports to those who seek online education.
Mr. Brogan also wants to seek cost efficiency by having universities share services.
As for reduced state aid to the system -- which is down about 18 percent in recent years -- Mr. Brogan said Pennsylvania is like a number of other states where governors and legislatures have chosen to reduce education funding during tough economic times.
But he said he believes he will have a chance to lobby for increased funding if the system is retrenched into one that is efficient and designed to best serve the students and economy of the state.
Mr. Brogan's comments did not sit well with faculty union leaders.
Elizabeth McDaniel, head of the Clarion faculty union, said she had hoped Mr. Brogan would come with ideas on how to avoid cuts at the universities. She said his idea not to have 14 comprehensive universities around the state will be a hardship for students.
"A lot of our students live at home or do not have the ability to go to school far away. This would be a serious disservice to students," Ms. McDaniel said.
Lauren Gutshall, spokeswoman for the Association of Pennsylvania State College and University Faculties, said Mr. Brogan's view that retrenchment is unfortunate offers "at least a good starting point" for his upcoming meetings with APSCUF President Steve Hicks.
"We're certain that there are other areas that the universities can look at to avoid the faculty and staff cuts being looked at," she said.
She said the union finds it troubling that academic programs such as music and foreign languages have been singled out for cuts on multiple campuses.
"I think we're wary of anything that would kind of turn the university experience into a more technical type vocational training," she said. "As public institutions we have a duty and an obligation to provide a full, well-rounded quality education."
First Published October 9, 2013 8:26 PM