The Board of Governors of the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education gave preliminary approval Wednesday for a plan to consolidate six universities into two regional universities, kicking off a 60-day comment period ahead of a planned July final vote on the proposal.

Under the plan, the system would create a Western merged university consisting of California, Clarion and Edinboro, universities, and a Northeastern merged university combining Bloomsburg, Lock Haven and Mansfield universities.

The move comes as the state system as a whole has seen its enrollment drop and the universities involved in the merger plan have seen their enrollments drop even more than the system as a whole.

Cynthia Shapira, chairwoman of the PASSHE Board of Trustees, said that Wednesday’s vote will allow the system to continue working on the plan and get the public comment needed to make any changes necessary.

“There’s a structural problem that is deep and complex. You have to address it. That’s what we’re asking to do today,” she said.

The PASSHE system’s 14 universities have seen a combined enrollment decline of 21% from 119,000 in 2010 to 93,708 in the fall of 2020. The three universities in the proposed western university saw their enrollment drop 38% from a combined 25,357 in 2010 to 15,669 in 2020. The three universities in the proposed northeastern universities saw their combined enrollment drop 29% from 18,953 in 2010 to 13,391 in 2020.

Under the plan, the merged universities would operate under one president and with one staff, though system officials say all campuses would remain open, sad PASSHE Chancellor Dan Greenstein.

Faced with reduced enrollment,  universities have cut programs. That created a “vicious cycle” as cutting programs fueled further enrollment declines, Greenstein said. The merger proposal is intended to help break that cycle by allowing the merged universities to offer students programs that each individual university wouldn’t be able to provide, he said.

If the plan is approved in July, the system would move toward launching the merged universities in the Fall of 2022.

System officials say they have been communicating with accreditors with the Middle States Commission on Higher Education, the U.S. Department of Education and the NCAA about the plan, Greenstein said.

Greenstein said there is no reason to believe the accreditation process will derail the merger plan. He added that he’s confident that athletic teams will be permitted to continue participating at each university involved in the merger.

“These organizations, they are not here to wreck higher education. They are here to help

Institutions across the country in higher ed are struggling,” he said.

Greenstein said that more than 1,000 students, faculty and staff were involved in developing the merged university plan.

Greenstein said that when he was hired in 2018, he repeatedly heard that the system needed a substantive revamp, “not modest tweaks.”

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