Pennsylvania state senators Robert “Tommy” Tomlinson (R-6) and Andy Dinniman (D-19) proposed the controversial Senate Bill 1275 on March 11 that would permit schools in the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education (PASSHE) to become “state-related” and leave PASSHE if the school meets the required criteria.
If the bill passes, West Chester University will be the school of choice for Tomlinson and Dinniman. Aside from WCU being the largest school in PASSHE, both senators have close ties to the university. Dinniman spent nearly 35 years as a professor at WCU before becoming a senator, and Tomlinson is both an alumnus of the university and currently serves on the WCU Council of Trustees.
On March 13 Tomlinson and Dinniman appeared before students and faculty to discuss the legislation. The senators argued that regulations imposed by the PASSHE system financially cripple the schools within it and prevent any of them from exerting independence. Furthermore, that these regulations and the diminishing appropriation funding from PASSHE have caused an overall decline in enrollment in PASSHE schools in recent years. Dinniman described the legislation in his press release as a “Transformation in the sense of ending the centralized bureaucracy which has prevented flexibility and agility in our institutions.”
In the last two years, Dinniman must have had a change of heart regarding PASSHE and privatization of public universities. In 2012, when Pa. Governor Tom Corbett proposed an additional 20 percent cut to PASSHE’s funding, Dinniman spoke out against the Governor in a rally in Harrisburg: “We’re not going to stand by and let the Commonwealth’s state system of higher education be dismantled,” the senator said. However, he is now the one doing the dismantling.
The percentage of revenue that PASSHE receives from appropriating funding versus the amount of funding from tuition and fees has been almost completely reversed in the last three decades, whereas once appropriation consisted of nearly 65 percent of PASSHE’s funding. Nearly 75 percent now comes from tuition and fees paid by students. Add that to Governor Tom Corbett’s 18 percent cut to PASSHE’s funding in 2011, and 20 percent cut in 2012, which severely depleted PASSHE’s budget.
In his Town Hall meeting on March 26, West Chester University President Greg Weisenstein presented the struggles staying with PASSHE would pose to the university and its faculty and staff: “The System [PASSHE] is expected to continue to take funding from healthy institutions to prop-up those that are struggling through formula changes and/or out-right fund transfers. If current trends continue, all reserves could be gone within five years and WCU will be facing multi-million dollar deficits.”
President Weisenstein added that the university has not already decided to leave PASSHE, but by making West Chester University independent from the system, the University will thrive due to local control of costs and tuition, eliminating regulations, and the ability to expand WCU’s influence through multiple branch campuses.
It is the implementation of this laissez-faire business model in a public education system that has created opposition. Opponents of the legislation argue that it undermines the purpose of public education and its role in upholding democracy by replacing a public service model with a model that makes public education another product to be bought by consumers.
However, many opponents of the legislation, especially faculty, are also highly critical of PASSHE. In his March 16 letter to Raging Chicken Press, Dr. John Elmore, Department Chair of the Professional and Secondary Education Department, noted that defending public education does not mean defending PASSHE’s actions: “While this destructive bill may have forced us into the immediate position of defending PASSHE in order to defend the concept of the public, accessible higher education, this should not distract us from the clear need to critique, challenge, and demand significant and substantial changes to PASSHE – perhaps even its replacement.”
Dr. Elmore also argued that this legislation was born as the result of neo-liberal policies such as “the continuous budget cuts, draconian systems of oversight, marginalization of students and faculty, [which] have all served as a cattle prod driving us to the point where we might be willing to abandon the promise of public education.” In other words, this legislation was born out of necessity due to the policies of PASSHE, the state legislature, he Governor, and the fear of impending doom within the PASSHE system that has forced schools like West Chester to compete with other schools for survival. Self-preservation has replaced the idea of education as a public service with the idea of education as a product that will either survive or die in the free market.
Privatization is not exclusively about higher education, either. The West Chester University Foundation, which oversees WCU’s fundraising, donations, and promoting the university to “prospective contributors,” recently hired the lobbying firm Bravo Group after the legislation was announced. Bravo Group specializes in “public relations, government relations, creative services and audience research” and will use resources provided by the Foundation to promote, educate, and lobby for SB1275 to be passed. CEO of Bravo Group, Chris Bravacos, is also a founding member of the Philadelphia School Partnership, which funds Philadelphia Secondary schools based on competency and competition between them. Essentially ,the Partnership seeks to apply the free market model to secondary schools, as Bravo Group is now promoting the same for PASSHE and WCU. Richard Przywara, executive director of the Foundation, declined to comment on how much it hired the Bravo Group for.
Although hearings are not supposed to commence until sometime in April, let’s consider the impact on West Chester University given that SB1275 is passed. President Weisenstein said that the university has not already decided to secede from PASSHE, but before any action is taken, “the Council of Trustees will authorize a feasibility study to assess the impact of transfer on students and enrollment potential, faculty and staff, institutional operations…” as well as impact on finance, research, fundraising, etc. After conducting the study and collecting feedback and recommendations from governance structures within the university as well as the university community, the results are shared with the Council of Trustees, who then make the final decision whether or not WCU becomes privatized.
The university is giving an untold amount of money to a lobbying firm to promote SB1275, which was drafted by a senator who just so happens to sit on the Council of Trustees that gets final approval after conducting a study authorized by the same Council. The move to push education into the free market capitalist environment is being exemplified by West Chester University.
Collin Heatley is a third-year student majoring in history. He can be reached at CH761384@wcupa.edu.