Some on the campuses called it “The Big Reveal.”
On Thursday, students, employees and alumni at three Western Pennsylvania state-owned universities learned what their schools’ new name will be as a combined institution after the State System of Higher Education board of governors met in Lancaster, voting on pivotal matters including the unified identity
Introducing Pennsylvania Western University — or PennWest for short — and its three locations, California, Clarion and Edinboro, which will be represented prominently in the name at each location, officials said.
California, Clarion and Edinboro — each of them proud institutions with a century and a half of history — will now begin recruiting and marketing as a single university under a unified name in a process the State System is betting will enable the schools and the system alike to better navigate financial woes and enrollment losses and thrive.
It is one of two mergers across the 14-university system. Bloomsburg, Lock Haven and Mansfield universities in the northeast are also being combined, though a decision on what to call them is not expected until later.
It’s not the only big-ticket item before the system board, which is meeting Thursday at Millersville University.
October is traditionally the month in which the State System submits its appropriation request to Harrisburg for the next fiscal year. The system has been stuck at $477.5 million, and its leaders including Chancellor Daniel Greenstein have made it clear that real success will depend on the state Legislature and governor’s ability and willingness to move the Commonwealth from its 47th position among states in funding for higher education.
On Thursday morning, Greenstein unveiled a proposal to boost funding by 15% the state appropriation to $550 million — a potentially hard sell to the Legislature, though the chancellor said that amount would greatly aid the system’s goals, including avoiding a tuition increase for a fourth consecutive year, boosting workforce development, and better serving underrepresented populations, including first-generation, low-income and minority students.
He also proposed a debt relief program for schools saddled with debt.
But on campuses to be merged, as much if not more discussion in dorms, faculty lounges and elsewhere has focused on what their diploma will say and how much of their traditions will be preserved under combined leadership. One school, Cal U, sought to fuel enthusiasm with a page on its website titled “New Integrated University Name Reveal.”
It read, “640 years of history. 3 legendary universities. 1 major announcement. On October 14, we’ll be unveiling the name of our new combined university. Stay tuned.”
But the process, if anything, has been a controversial one.
The State System’s founding in 1983 combined former teachers colleges dating to the Civil War era that have long prided themselves on their individual identities. In a series of hearings, students, faculty and others savaged the lack of specificity in the plan that could alter their view of the institutions where they work or study.
There are the Edinboro Fighting Scots, Cal U’s Vulcans and the Clarion Golden Eagles. Those names, school colors and mascots are pointers to traditions at those universities where for generations, students have graduated, met their future spouses and paid it forward through donations in later years as alumni to their alma mater.
The urgency of the situation facing the State System was driven home once again by dismal new enrollment numbers for this fall, released this week, putting the system’s total enrollment at under 89,000 — a level not seen in more than 30 years and approximately 30,000 students below the system peak in 2010.
Still, the head of the 5,000-member State System faculty union — which has warned the many questions remain about the merger, including what the combined course array will look like and how majors will be shared on the merged campuses — struck a conciliatory note as the first of a two-day board meeting commenced Wednesday.
”What we are seeing here is similar to what we are seeing nationally, and I expect the trend to reverse in the next academic year. I’m asking all of us collectively to not push the panic button,” said Jamie Martin, president of the Association of Pennsylvania State College and University Faculties.
”If our current and prospective students and their families see us panic, it could have a deleterious effect on next year’s enrollments,” she added.