PITTSBURGH (TNS) — Combining six Pennsylvania state universities into two is supposed to expand student choice and opportunity. But is that likely if majors such as physics, philosophy and art history are going away?
The question is on the table now that California, Clarion and Edinboro universities in the west and Bloomsburg, Lock Haven and Mansfield universities in the northeast have published combined program arrays that exclude those majors and others.
State System of Higher Education leaders are making a prediction that — if it holds true — suggests they can. Others have doubts.
Daniel Greenstein, the system’s chancellor, put it this way, speaking to a Harrisburg audience last week. He cited Mansfield, smallest of the six campuses, with 1,800 students.
”A student at Mansfield University on its current enrollment will probably — if Mansfield were standing on its own — be able to enjoy about 20 academic programs,” he said. “In an integrated entity, they are looking at 100.”
In reality, the answer may be more nuanced.
Asked to identify the 20 specific programs before mergers that Greenstein referenced, and the 100 to be available afterward, State System officials instead offered approximate totals. It depends, for instance, on whether turning three similar English majors into a single major with two concentrations is a net plus or minus, and if more areas for specialization represent greater choice.
”Simply counting up majors does not give a true picture of the academic offerings that will be available to students,” said Christine Kindl, a spokeswoman for Cal U. “In some cases, programs that are now listed as majors will become concentrations within a broader major at the new “PennWest.”
In October 2020, Greenstein told the state Legislature that mergers could mean that mechatronics engineering technology, a degree program within engineering offered only at Cal U, would become available to students at all three merged universities in the west.
But this week, Kindl said the program will be taught only to those on Cal U’s campus — more than 100 miles from both Clarion and Edinboro.
In the west, two- and four-year programs that will no longer accept new students effective fall 2022 include: the AET Manufacturing Engineering Technology; AS Radiologic Technology; BA Art History; BA Global Studies; BA Philosophy; BS Medical Technology; BS Physics; BS Technology Leadership/Management; and the BSBA Commercial Real Estate, she said.
}Eliminating a major does not mean the subject is going away, said Cody Jones, a state system spokesman. “We’re not going to stop teaching philosophy.”
But Wendy Lee, a Bloomsburg philosophy professor, contends that something crucial is being lost. She wrote to the school’s provost, Diana Rogers-Adkinson.
Bloomsburg has “sold its proverbial soul” by opting for short-term revenue and “butts in seats” at the expense of “departments, faculty and courses “that are the beating heart of any university, namely, the humanities and the sciences,” Ms. Lee wrote.
”History without the history of ideas — Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, Kant, Sartre, de Beauvoir, Arendt, and so many others — is inevitably a grey and flattened enterprise,” she wrote. “Chemistry and biology without physics — distorted and incomplete. So too, the social sciences without anthropology.”
State Rep. Peter Schweyer, D-Allentown, whose question last year elicited the mechatronics response from Greenstein said he is not surprised that the reality is different. He’s been skeptical of the state system’s program claims.
”You are going to hear a lot more of these stories, unfortunately,” he said Wednesday.
For decades, regional comprehensive universities such as those belonging to the Pennsylvania’s state system have helped propel first-generation and other college students into the middle class.
But across the nation, falling high school graduate numbers and a market shift away from 18- to 22-year-old residential students have sent enrollments tumbling, including those at state system schools. They enrolled almost 120,000 students in 2010, but now have less than 89,000, leaving partially empty dorms whose construction financing depends on student occupancy.
Pennsylvania’s situation is compounded by its near-dead-last financial support from the state Legislature — 47th among the 50 states per-capita, less than what Louisiana, Mississippi and North Dakota invest in their campuses.
Faculty argue that offering fewer majors hinders efforts to recruit and retain talented faculty to universities where their disciplines are no longer primary ones, eroding quality over time.
Swarndeep Gill, who chairs Cal U’s Department of Mathematics and Physical Sciences, said recent faculty retirements have left physics without a dedicated faculty or majors, but that does not diminish the importance of a discipline devoted to the study of matter and its manifestations.
”We are eliminating a fundamental degree option for kids in Western Pennsylvania. That is very concerning,” Mr. Gill said.
That is true, he said, not only for majors, but for others who want to explore a subject that could become their calling.
”A lot of students come in not knowing what they want,” he said. “They can get a taste of physics but they can’t pursue it here.”
The combined universities are to enroll their first class in fall 2022, but program arrays are being phased in over three years and are subject to change. Details about how programs will be delivered at the new PennWest University are due out later in the spring, Ms. Kindl said.
Jamie Martin, president of the 5,000-member Association of Pennsylvania State College and University Faculties, said it all contributes to a sense of uncertainty as details that she said students need to make decisions are not available. It’s “like flying a plane while they are building it” and the physics program is an example.
”They are planning a new science building at Cal U. It begs the question of what are we trying to accomplish?” she asked.
Even before the six campus mergers were proposed, state system administrators had envisioned sharing academic programs across the 14 universities. That way, in theory, a student at East Stroudsburg could enroll not just in courses there, but at Slippery Rock, Millersville and Edinboro.
It would require a large investment in infrastructure for remote delivery — no small “ask.”
But state system leaders say it’s important, not only to blunt enrollment losses but to position the campuses to better compete against other public, private and for-profit schools offering programs in growing demand.
”I encourage people to think, ‘Imagine if,” the chancellor told a Legislative hearing last fall.
”Bloomsburg ... has a business school with the highest level of accreditation you can achieve,” he said. “All of a sudden students at Lock Haven and Mansfield have access to a program that neither individually could develop alone.”
He said Lock Haven has a strong program in physician assistance and a strong relationship with Pittsburgh-based health system UPMC, while Bloomsburg has a health professions program with Geisinger Medical System.
”Imagine the opportunity to bring those two together to serve the health professions across the region working with two of the several largest health care providers in the state,” he said.
In her letter to the Bloomsburg provost, Ms. Lee rued a decision that the philosophy professor said is detrimental to fully educating students and, perhaps more important, one that may not be the last major to face extinction in the name of money. Her decades of employment at Bloomsburg have brought highs and lows, but not this.
”What I have never seen — and never thought I would see — is an institution so hell-bent on its own short term survival that it resorts to destroying its mission as a university,” she said. “Yet over the course of many mercenary decisions executed in a fashion callous as well as disingenuous, BU has not only lost its way but sold its proverbial soul.
”The dissolution of the philosophy major — along with physics, anthropology, and whatever programs are selected for extinction next — is not, I think, a cause of Bloomsburg’s death as a university, but rather the effect of the decision to value the generation of revenue over education,” she said.
Greenstein put it differently in testimony before the Legislature last year. “If we get this right, we are growing jobs. If we continue what we are doing, we are losing jobs.”