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PA State Senators Crafting Legislation to Allow Universities to Secede from State System of Higher Ed

Author’s Note: A version of this post was publish on Raging Chicken Press under the title, “Slow Train to Destruction of Public Higher Ed in PA?: Defund then Divide-and-Conquer,” on Saturday, Feb. 22. 

PASSHE Freedom to Secede SQUAREIf the fall 2013 semester saw the term “retrenchment” – the elimination of faculty, programs, and jobs – become part of daily conversations on campuses of Pennsylvania’s state-owned universities (PASSHE), during the next several months we may witness the birth of the next phase in the slow destruction of public higher education in the Commonwealth. This past fall, PA Senator Robert “Tommy” Tomlinson (R – 6th District) and Senator Andy Dinniman (D – 19th District) began working in earnest on legislation that would allow individual PASSHE universities to secede from the state system and become a state-related university – or even completely privatize. On Thursday, PASSHE’s new Chancellor, Frank Brogan, seemed to be laying similar groundwork during his testimony before the PA House Appropriations Committee. And, after three years of austerity policies stemming from Gov. Corbett’s slashing PASSHE’s funding and the System’s “shock doctrine” accounting schemes, there just might be the appetite in the legislature to begin the process of dismantling the 14 university PA State System of Higher Education.

The Tomlinson/Dinniman Alliance: 

Senator Tomlinson is by all accounts taking the initiative in drafting this legislation, but according to sources at WCU, Tomlinson said publicly that Senator Dinniman is so interested in the legislation that he will introduce it if Tomlinson does not. To understand why Senator Tomlinson, a Republican, and Senator Dinniman, a Democrat, would join forces in supporting legislation that would allow individual PASSHE universities to secede, you need only understand that both Senators have strong ties with West Chester University and that West Chester University is growing and thriving. Tomlinson serves on West Chester University’s Council of Trustees and is a WCU alumnus. Dinniman spent well over three decades as a professor at West Chester. Both Senators represent districts in which the university has a strong presence. West Chester University is the second largest PASSHE university, right behind Indiana University of Pennsylvania and is on pace to become the largest in the system in the near future.

In the late fall, West Chester University’s president, Greg Weisenstein, began holding meetings with small groups of “campus leaders” to make his case for why he thinks secession legislation is a good idea. The meetings continued at the beginning of the spring 2014 semester and the same pitch is expected to take place at WCU’s next faculty senate meeting on March 7th. According to  sources at West Chester University, the university’s Council of Trustees has asked President Weisenstein to put together proposals concerning the viability of the university breaking ties with PASSHE.  The rationale for breaking ties with PASSHE echoes attempts by Governor Corbett and the PA Republican leadership to privatize the Wine and Spirits stores, sell off the lottery, and take the first step to break public unions through Paycheck Deception legislation: it’s an argument about “burdensome regulations” and the “lack of flexibility,” especially in terms of the faculty union’s contract.

Senator Tomlinson Response

At this point, Tomlinson and Dinniman are keeping details of their draft legislation close to their chests. Over the past week and a half, I have made repeated attempts to reach Senator Tomlinson and Senator Dinniman, but they have not replied to my inquiries – unless you count the automated response from Senator Tomlinson’s office. Repeated emails to West Chester’s public relations department asking for comment on the draft legislation has been met with similar silence. Despite their refusals to respond to my inquiries, sources at West Chester and in Harrisburg have helped piece together an outline of Tomlinson’s draft legislation.

Outline of PASSHE Secession Legislation

According to sources at West Chester and in Harrisburg, the version of PASSHE secession legislation that is being shopped around includes the following:

  • Applies to PASSHE universities with 7,000 or more students
  • A university that chooses to secede would become a state-related university (presumably a part of the Commonwealth System of Higher Education – the system that includes Penn State, Temple, Pitt, and Lincoln)
  • A PASSHE university that desires to secede would have to present a business plan showing that the university would be viable as a state-related university
  • A PASSHE university that secedes would have to pay the state back for real estate and buildings; they would have 30 years to do so.
  • There are no provisions for faculty continuing their current relationship with the Association of Pennsylvania State College and University Faculties (APSCUF) or any other union. Faculty would have to conduct a new union drive IF they decided that was a direction they wanted to go.

And while Tomlinson and Dinniman have refused to respond to inquiries about their legislation, cracks in their silence are beginning to emerge.

On Friday evening, Senator Dinniman issued a press release, “Dinniman Wants to Give WCU, Other State Schools, Freedom to Succeed,” making public his alliance with Tomlinson on PASSHE secession legislation (and you’ve got to love his use of “succeed” instead of “secede” to frame the message):

Dinniman, a former West Chester University professor, also raised concerns about universities being bogged down by the system’s “centralized bureaucracy.”

Senator Robert Tomlinson, Vice Chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee, said universities need the freedom to work independently to meet their financial needs and those of potential students in their regions. He pointed out that some PASSHE universities have been forced to wait two to three years to update curriculum or institute popular new programs.

“What can we do to help schools meet these challenges, either by right-sizing or by giving schools, such as West Chester University, that are in demand the freedom to pursue these changes?,” asked Tomlinson, a West Chester University alumnus and current member of the West Chester University Council of Trustees.

“It is no secret that I have been working on some legislation to free up some of these things,” he added.

Dinniman has been working hand-in-hand with Tomlinson on such legislation, which would greatly benefit West Chester University.

That closing sentence points to the motivation for this legislation and the beginning of an open divide-and-conquer strategy for dismantling public higher education in Pennsylvania.

“I can hire one half of the working class to kill the other half”

That statement, attributed to Jay Gould, the American financier and robber baron, has long stood as one of the most brazen statement of “divide-and-conquer” in American history. It was not long ago that Gould’s statement was a reminder of what things used to be like. You know, way back in the 1880s. But the days of the robber barons are back – and they are pursuing the same divide-and-conquer strategy with much more sophisticated tools.

The overt violence of the 1880s has been replaced by billionaire funded organizations such as the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), Americans for Prosperity, Crossroads GPS, Students First, and FreedomWorks just to name a few. These organizations are united in their relatively innocuous names, their desire to privatize everything, their hatred of unions, and their seemingly endless supply of money. And if Jay Gould has become history’s symbol of the robber baron, today’s icons are the Koch Brothers. The Koch Brothers helped bankroll the assaults on working people and public sector unions in Wisconsin, Indiana, Ohio, Michigan, and Florida, but they have been relatively quiet in Pennsylvania. Until now, that is.

During the December/January legislative recess the Koch brothers brought their road show to Pennsylvania. While Pennsylvania Republicans are not seeking out the spotlight to discuss what the Kochs had to say, privately they are saying that the Kochs are promising boat loads of cash for the 2014 elections if they get behind several pieces of anti-union legislation. And if state Republicans want to say “no thanks” to the Kochs…well, the Kochs are threatening to fund primary challenges to those who won’t play ball.

So, is the point that Tomlinson and Dinniman’s legislation is a Koch funded “model bill?” No. I have no evidence that would suggest that. But to separate their proposal from our current context in which we are seeing the systematic dismantling and defunding of all things public, will ensure the slow death of affordable, high-quality higher education in Pennsylvania.

I’ve Got Mine, Screw the Rest of You

The success of Tomlinson and Dinniman’s proposal to allow individual PASSHE universities to secede hinges on getting faculty, staff, and administrators at a select number of state-owned universities to focus on their perceived immediate self-interest and disavow their commitment to the broader mission of PASSHE. The mission of PASSHE is spelled out in ACT 188, which established the State System of Higher Education:

The State System of Higher Education shall be part of the Commonwealth’s system of higher education. Its purpose shall be to provide high quality education at the lowest possible cost to students.

The importance of Act 188 for Pennsylvania citizens is that by law PASSHE is charged to make high quality education accessible for most if not all Pennsylvanians. That is not the case when it comes to “state-related” universities of Lincoln, Penn State, Pitt, and Temple. These universities are “state-related” only insofar as they receive financial appropriations from the State in exchange for providing tuition discounts for students from Pennsylvania – essentially a tax-payer funded coupon. Each of the state-related universities is, however, a separate and private entity.  So, for example, tuition at Penn State (not including housing, fees, or other costs) is just over $16,000/per year  for PA residents (for the first two years, then it goes up to $18,000+).  Out-of-state residents pay $28,000+/year.

Tuition at PASSHE universities is $6,622/academic year for Pennsylvania residents. While state-dollars go to Penn State to discount tuition for PA residents by $12,000, whether or not a student and their family find $16,000 to be “affordable” is a different kind of question. The fact is, accessibility is not the mission of the state-related universities. Their mission does not ensure working class and poor students access to higher education. By contrast, PASSHE’s mission echoes Article III, Section 14 of Pennsylvania’s constitution:

The General Assembly shall provide for the maintenance and support of a thorough and efficient system of public education to serve the needs of the Commonwealth.

PASSHE Funding 30 YearsThere is no question that Pennsylvania legislators have been abdicating their responsibilities to adequately fund PASSHE universities for year. Both Republicans and Democrats have slowly bled PASSHE dry since the 198os and shifted more and more of the burden onto the back of students and their families. That is not, for sure, a trend confined to Pennsylvania. It’s been a slow walk-away from a commitment to public higher education.

The defunding of public higher education has corresponded to a growing disdain for the work of educating the next generation. Over roughly the same period of time, we have seen a flip-flop in the percentage of higher education faculty who have tenure/tenure-track jobs versus those who work on a part-time and/or contingent basis.   According to the American Association of University Professionals (AAUP),

 In 1975, only 30.2 percent of faculty were employed part-time; by 2005, according to data compiled by the AAUP from the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS), part-time faculty represented approximately 48 percent of all faculty members in the United States.

When you include the shift away from tenure-track appointment to contingent or short-term appointments, nearly 75% of today’s faculty are working in part-time or contingent positions. Such a shift would not have been possible, were it not for the increasing tendency to portray professors as lazy, greedy, unethical, radicals…you know the drill. And that development has its own sordid history that Glenn Richardson wrote about a year ago in Raging Chicken Press. If you can get the public to demand education but hate the educator, then you’ve got yourself a recipe for turning education into an assembly line.

One response to all these developments is to organize, ban together, and demand full funding of public higher education and to hold our elected official accountable for trying to sell out our future for their short-term gain.

Another response is for faculty and university officials to look for a way to make sure they get theirs and be damned with the whole commitment to public higher education. There is a long history of more privileged faculty members willing sell out the next generation of academics as long as they get to keep their privileged positions. Just recall, for a moment, that during a graduate student union drive at Yale University in the 1990s, many faculty members – even “progressive” or “radical” faculty members – often worked to suppress the organizing efforts. In a 1996 interview, Cynthia Young, one of the graduate student organizers, recalled the response from many faculty this way:

There’s this paternal talk about how we’re going to be the best and the brightest. But the graduate student strike and everything leading up to it showed that we are thought of as an expendable labor force, convenient to have but not worth compensating adequately.

And when push came to shove, Yale faculty and administration were quite prepared to trash people’s careers over this. Graduate students’ faculty advisors warned them they wouldn’t get letters of recommendation, meaning they’d never get jobs.

One of the big arguments was: You’re not workers, you’re going to be “professionals.” Yet when we went on strike they were very willing to collapse those categories — not just take away your wages but threaten to refuse recommendations, even to expel you. That’s the biggest lesson for me from the strike.

The fact is, the cushy life of many of the “best and the brightest” faculty at Yale – just like every college and university in the U.S. – is built on the back of temporary, contingent faculty – that is,  low-wage academic workers.

If Tomlinson and Dinniman are successful, the stage will be set for an “I’ve got mine” free-for-all, in which those PASSHE universities that have so far avoided the budget-crises seen at so many of their sister institutions seek to get out while the gettin’s good.

West Chester University’s President already seems to be thinking along these lines. According to sources at the university, part of President Weisenstein’s argument for supporting secession legislation is that if the current trend of “flat-funding” of PASSHE continues – which seems likely – West Chester will deplete its reserves in about 3 years. Add that to the perception that there is too much “red tape” being part of PASSHE and that full professors at West Chester are barely making what public school teachers in the district are making, secession can seem like a way out. And it’s a convenient way out of a union contract too.

And the Adjuncts Come Marching In

If PASSHE secession legislation passes and West Chester or any other PASSHE university is successful in seceding, be prepared for the flood of ads for minimum-wage style teaching jobs to flood local newspapers. During the last contract negotiations between the faculty union, APSCUF, and the PASSHE administration, management showed their cards early on - they wanted to turn a large percentage of the faculty into part-time, low-paid workers. APSCUF’s contract sets a 25% cap on the number of “temporary” faculty – in other words, the faculty union’s contract is the only thing that ensured that the overwhelming majority of faculty are tenure-track or tenured. If you can find a way to get rid of that provision in the contract – or the contract altogether – then you can send the tenured and tenure-track faculty out to the football stadium and have them compete in Hunger Games’ style for a handful of full-time, permanent positions.

But, even more importantly for those who would like to dismantle PASSHE altogether, as the number of “financially sound” universities leave PASSHE, the remaining universities will be weakened by retrenchment, declining enrollment, and bad publicity. That will increase the power of management to impose whatever draconian measures they wish in future contract negotiatons and will provide state legislators with powerful ammunition to dismantle the state-system altogether.

So, while Tomlinson and Dinniman (and their allies in Harrisburg and PASSHE) may not be intending to destroy PASSHE and they may have little love for their Koch Brothers’ funded colleagues, they are playing their part in the slow train of destruction of public higher education in the state.

And don’t think the Koch Brothers and their allies aren’t watching with anticipation.

The Chancellor’s Hand

During the PASSHE House Appropriations Committee hearings on Thursday, the state system’s new chancellor, Frank Brogan, got his first crack at making a case for adequate funding. And while few would contest that he was smooth as silk and that he’s a good politician, his testimony should concern supporters of vibrant and accessible public higher education. It may be too soon to tell if Brogan would support the kind of legislation Tomlinson and Dinniman are drafting, but his testimony sounds like he’s had his share of lunches with the two Senators. Here’s how his testimony was reported in Capitolwire:

He [Brogan] said from an outsider, and now an insider, perspective, “although I don’t pride myself as a grenade launcher, this probably would be a good time for Pennsylvania to begin a broader look at how we are organized as a state as far as how all things higher education are concerned.

“We’re competing with ourselves, in the PASSHE system, in many ways; we are competing with the state-relateds, who not only have their obvious main campuses, but a large number of branch campuses around the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania which are clearly competing with PASSHE schools and serving students that many times – and allow me that generalization, you shouldn’t say ‘always’ and ‘never’ – are going to, say, the Penn State campus instead of the PASSHE school which is right down the road and acquiring a high-quality education there. Throw in the private institutions and the for-profit institutions and it gets very, very difficult to figure out, as they used to say in the movies, ‘who’s on first.’”

Rep. Jake Wheatley, D-Allegheny, whose questions prompted Brogan’s comments, himself expressed similar concerns about the current system.

“We have this hodgepodge, in my estimation, system of educating, or providing education: we have state-related [universities], and we have the state system, and then we have these independent colleges and community colleges.”

And it’s that system, said Brogan during PASSHE’s afternoon budget hearing before the Senate Appropriations Committee, that’s contributing to the demographics problems experienced by PASSHE’s schools, 12 of which saw their enrollments decline last year.

“Trying to treat all of those [schools] with a one-size-fits-all approach is impossible and unsustainable, that is both from a system side and state side,” said Brogan, to which he got an “amen,” from Senate Education Committee Minority Chairman Andy Dinniman, D-Chester, who asked about the growing demographic concerns, as well as the state funding situation.

The State Senate will return to session on March 10th. It is unclear whether Tomlinson and/or Dinniman will have legislation ready to introduce. We will be watching this story closely and we hope to have more details in the coming weeks.

About Kevin Mahoney

I am an Associate Professor in the English Department @ Kutztown University. I am also the founder and editor of Raging Chicken Press - www.ragingchickenpress.org.

4 comments on “PA State Senators Crafting Legislation to Allow Universities to Secede from State System of Higher Ed

  1. tony
    March 9, 2014

    Based on what your article says, the current set up is headed for disaster . I don’t think it’s more of a” I have got mine mentality”, than it is “What Can I do to survive”. You know the definition of insanity right?—– Keep doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.

  2. Pingback: PASSHE Funding Past, Present, and Future | Amy Gulino

  3. Pingback: Privatizing America's Public Universities as "Shock Doctrine" (or not) | naked capitalism

  4. Pingback: Adorno in Context: The Humanities and Social Sciences in the Neoliberal University | The Association for Adorno Studies

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