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Mansfield University president speaks on PASSHE integration plan

MANSFIELD — When the proposed integration of Mansfield University and two other area schools is completed, opportunities for students should expand without the loss of what makes each institution unique, according to Dr. Charles Patterson, Mansfield’s president.

“University integration is meant to provide additional opportunities for Mansfield students to earn a degree or credential,” Patterson stated

Noting that 75 percent of the enrollment comes from eight or nine different disciplines that are available at all three campuses, Patterson said, “Because these areas account for the majority of our current combined undergraduate enrollment and these programs will remain accessible and available to students at all three campuses.”

“It’s not like we’re going to cut disciplines from any one campus to the detriment of others,” he added.

Programs that are unique to any one of the schools, such as music performance at Mansfield, will continue to be marque programs that attract students based on their desired pursuit and campus experience, he stated.

Patterson also feels it’s important that the institutions are cognizant of the needs of the community where they are located.

“We need to ensure that we are supporting the students where we have high need enrollments. Where we have those programs that tie to regional industry needs and growth opportunities and job opportunities,” he said.

“Institutions aren’t in the business to not serve their region. We are anchor institutions within our regions so we need to make sure we can sustainably serve that need,” he asserted.

Sustainability was behind the push by PASSHE to explore the possibility of integrating some of the universities in the system. The plan calls for Lock Haven, Bloomsburg and Mansfield universities in the northeast and California, Clarion and Edinboro universities in the western part of the state to be integrated into two entities. Each would have a single leadership team, a single faculty and staff, a single program array and a single, combined budget, while each university would maintain its own identity. Once the integrations are completed, the Integrated University will hold the accreditation for the three campuses.

“University integrations will build upon an existing foundation of collaboration and partnership to efficiently expand and deliver undergraduate and graduate programs across the region and beyond,” Patterson said.

“This can be accomplished through expanding student access while supporting enrollment growth enhanced by a flexible delivery model that will expand access to specialized courses and faculty expertise,” he added.

Fiscal sustainability

Following a decline in enrollment, universities in the PASSHE system were tasked with attaining fiscal sustainability. For about a decade Mansfield tried to address budget issues coupled with the decline in enrollment, and although Mansfield’s enrollment had started to grow after Patterson arrived, it was not at a pace to overcome budget challenges. Because of having to deal with those issues, Patterson believes his staff has experience with budget reductions and not refilling positions.

“I think the challenges here at Mansfield at nothing new to Mansfield faculty, staff and to some extent students. They have seen it first hand as well,” he said.

“Our fiscal sustainability planning is focused on balancing the overall annual budget. While the majority of our costs are related to personnel, we are more acutely focused on overall cost reductions of approximately $4 million by the end of fiscal year 2023,” he said.

Patterson added that personnel costs will be addressed through early sick leave plan incentives, attrition of vacancies and possible outsourcing if necessary.

For critics who argue that integration will mean a loss in academic offerings, Patterson stated that if the universities involved had sought to achieve financial sustainability on their own in order to balance budgets, costs would need to be controlled by other measures.

“You’re going to need to control costs to the point at which some services are going to be in jeopardy because you’re a single institution without the resources and the support and collaboration of other entities,” he stated.

Linked to financial sustainability is the cost of maintaining out-dated or unused facilities on campuses. According to Patterson, although Mansfield has three traditional-style residence halls that have reached end-of-life and are no longer used to house students, utility connections, except for power for egress lighting, were severed two years ago and the buildings are not maintained.

Each of the buildings is scheduled for demolition with the cost being provided from the state’s Department of General Services and not coming from the university’s budget.

Enrollment

In Fall 2020, there were 1,792 students enrolled at Mansfield, which reflects an increase in undergraduate enrollment of 7.8 percent over the number of students attending prior to the university’s efforts to increase enrollment which began two years ago.

Patterson noted that increase was the largest percentage among all the PASSHE universities and was accomplished by the developing and implementing plans as part of the university’s strategic priorities and accompanying enrollment management plan.

“By employing diversified, data-driven recruitment and tuition optimization strategies we were also able to attract higher quality, low financial need students. These efforts allowed us to significantly decrease the amount of institutional aide while simultaneously growing the institutional enrollment,” he said.

During the current academic year Mansfield transition the majority of instruction online with approximate one-third of classes being offered in-person on campus, Plans are to return to face-to-face instruction in fall 2021, dependent on the increase of availability of vaccines.

University Identity

One of the fears expressed by opponents of the integration process is that the identity of the individual universities will be lost. That what makes Mansfield or Lock Haven or Bloomsburg unique will disappear behind a monolithic institution.

While Patterson agreed that it will be one institution, he compared it to a three-legged stool.

“If you think of the seat as the integrated university and you have three campuses. Each campus maintains its name, its brand, its identity, its historic nature. They’re all very different campuses that were founded in the 1800’s. They carry our communities’ names. In the case of Mansfield, the borough came into existence at the same time the university did, so we’re really tied at the hip,” he said.

Although it is often referred to as consolidation, Patterson, who had experienced that process at his former employment with the University of Georgia systems, was quick to note that integration is different in that it seeks to maintain the identities and names of the individual institutions.

“It’s the important nature that we maintain the name, the brand, the identity, the ability to field our current complement of athletics. Those types of characteristics don’t exist under a traditional consolidation model,” he said.

“So, I think the use of this term, consolidation, is in some circles intention to kind of drive this idea that this is a bad thing, when really we have to reconfigure the way we deliver higher education in Pennsylvania because of the lack of state investment that we’ve seen over the years,” Patterson said.

He added that even though there may be some organizational changes behind the bricks of Mansfield, it will continue to serve students in the state “in ways that alumni will recognize and our local and regional communities have come to expect.”

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