By David Loomis
INDIANA — Dan Greenstein, chancellor of the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education, committed a “gaffe” on Thursday. He was speaking remotely during a Senate Appropriations Committee hearing on the 2021-2022 budget for the public university system that includes Indiana University of Pennsylvania and 13 other campuses across the commonwealth.
“I will be recommending to the Board [of Governors] that we come back to the Senate next year with a legislative package to dissolve the system,” Greenstein said.
The remark made headlines.
They were misleading and lacked context.
The supposed gaffe came about an hour into a two-and-a-half-hour hearing, about halfway through a seven-minute colloquy with state Sen. Joe Pittman, R-Indiana, whose district includes IUP.
The senator had asked the chancellor about “cross-subsidies” that have aided the system’s smaller campuses at the expense of the biggest, including IUP. The senator said the budgetary arrangement is costing IUP dearly and frustrating him greatly.
“I’m concerned that the pain is not being shared equally,” Mr. Pittman said.
The senator lauded IUP President Michael Driscoll for struggling with cross-subsidies, a struggle made harder, the senator said, by “a collective bargaining agreement that he didn’t negotiate” — a gratuitous swipe at public-sector unions that have helped IUP succeed and have sustained college towns statewide.
[Mr. Driscoll’s spokeswoman did not respond to a March 20 email seeking reaction.]
GREENSTEIN’S RESPONSE cited “sustainability,” avoided boxing himself in on a life-or-death budgetary issue and walked a thin line between challenging entrenched conservative orthodoxy and supporting his own academic constituency.
“This is where sustainability planning came from,” Mr. Greenstein said. “It came out of a conversation with our presidents, who recognize that they are part of a system, and we are interdependent. And the decisions and actions of one university have a real and often profound impact on another. And so we have to not just work as our presidents do, to do the best they can for their universities. We also have to co-invest and work together for the benefit of one another.”
Mr. Pittman, leaning casually on a podium, responded to one element – the subsidies bogeyman.
“I’m wondering what the value added of being in the state system even is at this point,” the senator said.
Greenstein responded with the “gaffe.” The full quote, emphasis added:
“So, senator, unless we figure this out, I will be recommending … a legislative package to dissolve the system….”
The chancellor continued, in a tone of exasperation, emphasizing the collective plural pronoun:
“… Because if we continue to go down this path, what you’re going to see is that cross-subsidization is gonna drain … all of us. And then what does that mean for public higher education in this state? I mean … (lifting his hands, lowering his head). Sorry.”
It meant for Mr. Pittman an opportunity to dissolve public higher education in Pennsylvania.
“I’ll be more than happy to be the sponsor of that bill,” the senator said, repeating, “I just don’t see the value added by the state system at this point.”
Neither did Mr. Greenstein initiate budgetary cross-subsidies among PASSHE campuses. They are a stress response to a parsimonious Republican-led legislature that has parked Pennsylvania in the nation’s basement of state investment in higher education.
And cross-subsidies are not a budgetary bogeyman. They are ubiquitous – found in the Affordable Care Act, local telephone service, tort law, net neutrality, paid family leave, postal delivery and higher-education finance.
“Lawmakers have chosen to use cross-subsidies rather than general tax revenues as a way to underwrite their chosen policy goals,” wrote the authors of a 2018 law journal article.
IUP cross-subsidizes internally, too. Its academic unit receives allocations from such auxiliary units as the Foundation for IUP and the Research Institute, according to a Dec. 1 auditor’s letter to the IUP Council of Trustees. The auxiliaries, including the foundation, the institute, the Residential Revival, the Student Cooperative Association and dining, accounted for 39.4 percent of IUP revenue in fiscal year 2019-2020 consolidated financial statements.
Chancellor Greenstein’s remark about dissolving PASSHE is one of several public policy options he has floated for months. They include increasing the state’s investment in the system.
Meanwhile, if Mr. Pittman assumes that PASSHE will continue to milk IUP as a cross-subsidy cash cow, how now? The university’s enrollment slipped below 10,000 in January, a number not seen since its 1971-72 academic year.
THE FUTURE of public higher education across Pennsylvania ultimately rests with lawmakers like Mr. Pittman, not with administrators like Mr. Greenstein. The senator’s casual and admitted “parochial” embrace of PASSHE-cide is a bigger gaffe than the chancellor’s.
David Loomis, Ph.D., emeritus professor of journalism at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, is editor of The HawkEye.
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