The Slippery Rock University Council of Trustees met Wednesday morning in Old Main to discuss proposed legislative initiatives that will impact the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education.
Three bills that would ultimately impact PASSHE were discussed and trustees voiced their concerns about specific items in each bill. Jeffrey Smith, the Council of Trustees chair, said several questions and concerns were raised when all of the Council of Trustees’ chairs were called to discuss the legislative initiatives.
“One of the things we’ve really tried to focus on this past year is trustee advocacy and working toward being better advocates for our schools and for the system,” Smith said. “What I don’t want to see is 14 universities going in 14 different directions.”
The purpose of the Council of Trustees’ meeting to discuss the proposed legislative initiatives, Smith said, is to formulate an opinion on key points. Following these meetings, all of the trustee chairs will meet in Pittsburgh on March 3 to speak on behalf of their councils.
“We want all councils to have a chance to speak,” Smith said. “We don’t want to take away anybody’s individual right to advocate however they want, but at least this way, we will have a consensus.”
House Bill 2171 — otherwise known as the “Sonney” Bill — would reform the governance and accountability of PASSHE’s Board of Governors. It would authorize the board to create, consolidate or close universities or institutions without legislative approval.
One trustee who participated in the meeting via telecom call questioned whether legislators would be willing to give up their power to open or close universities. Smith said it’s not a question of what they are willing to do, but what they should do.
“I don’t think they want to give up much of any power,” Smith said. “What they need to do, though, is think about what would make the system better and more efficient.”
SRU President William Behre said the matter is dependent on whether the system will ever need to close or consolidate universities in order for it to survive.
“I don’t believe the legislature will ever vote to close a university,” Behre said. “They don’t have the political will. If you believe that it’s necessary to close or consolidate, then you should be in favor of this because it’s more likely that the Board of Governors will consolidate than the legislature.”
The Sonney Bill also provides minimum qualifications for Board members and the Council of Trustees. According to section 2004-A, subsection 7 of the Sonney Bill, members appointed to the Board of Governors are required to have “expertise or substantial experience in one or more areas, including post-secondary education, finance, business, nonprofit management, law or public administration.”
SRU trustee Matthew Lautman said he strongly disagrees with the qualifications. He stated that these qualifications could potentially exclude professionals in the arts, healthcare, architecture or engineering who otherwise have the necessary skills, training or experience.
Behre said there may be a relatively simple solution to this problem — offering a “catch-all” or an elastic clause that specifically says “or otherwise qualified,” so that no one is excluded.
House Bill 2171 would also grant unrestricted plenary power to the Board of Governors. Smith elaborated on this section of the bill, stating that the Board would be enabled to set system-wide policies, approve or create new programs, expand or close institutions, require universities to participate in shared services and appoint student trustees.
Behre said he is conflicted by this section of the bill because of the “two hats” he wears as president of SRU and as a member of the system’s executive leadership group.
“As president of Slippery Rock, we would be losing autonomy, and we’ve handled that autonomy incredibly responsibly, so the president of SRU doesn’t like this,” Behre said. “The guy that sits on the ELG at the system level, who frankly believes that some of the other schools have not exercised good judgment, understands the reasons for this.”
Smith added that despite the more negative aspects of this section of the bill, this could be a positive change for the system as a whole.
“After 37 years, this truly is changing the state system from a federation to a system,” Smith said. “I get why individually we don’t like it, but I also understand the system’s standpoint. I don’t know how you can keep the others afloat unless you take control of them.”
In response, Behre clarified and voiced his worries about the proposed and current model.
“Because of the nature of the system, it would be a regression to the median,” Behre said. “The median is the number seven school, and the number seven school is not solvent. That’s my concern.
“I don’t want to get pulled down,” Behre continued, “but in our current model, I don’t know how we’re not pulled down anyway.”
Behre suggested a third alternative, but stated that it was “unpalatable” for several reasons — closing some universities in order to allow the system to fully thrive.
“There is an analysis that states, with our student population and our general size, we could go down to nine institutions and be a thriving system,” Behre said.
The rest of the bill includes topics such as shortening trustee terms to four years, which is the same length of time that a member of the Board of Governors currently serves; defining the duties of trustees; and allowing university presidents to make policy changes regarding academic programs without first consulting the Council of Trustees.
When discussing shortening trustee terms, Smith said he was “really proud of this council of trustees” for not having an issue with the possibility.
“During the call [with the trustee chairs], this was the hot-button issue,” Smith said. “I tried to convince them that we should be more concerned with having good trustees reappointed than how long their terms are, but this is like a birth right to some of the people on that call.”
The “Topper” Bill, formally known as House Bill 2172, would make financial and legal reforms to PASSHE, such as “reforming the bidding process for construction contracts as it applies to the System and its institutions” and “allowing police or university investigative record sharing.”
Smith elaborated different sections of the Topper Bill. He explained that municipalities are working toward charging storm water management fees. The Topper Bill is essentially an attempt to protect universities and colleges from paying this fee. Lautman added that West Chester University is fighting against the new municipality fee in the court of common pleas.
The Topper Bill also gives campus police authorization to disseminate and share investigative information to university officials for matters relating to student conduct. According to Cody Jones, PASSHE’s chief strategic relations officer, this section of the bill will ease the process of police investigations and student conduct processes without information being muddled.
“There’s a Criminal Record Investigation Act, or CRIA, in Pennsylvania,” Jones said. “A serious offense — sexual assault, for example — may happen on campus, but police can’t share their investigative file with student conduct or provide them with any information. At the same time, student conduct is required to follow through with its Title IX obligations. You have two sort of separate investigations going on.
“If I were a district attorney,” Jones continued, “I wouldn’t want my client, the victim, to give a statement to the university that may unintentionally be contradictory to their police statement because both of them would potentially be used.”
House Bill 2173, or the “Schroeder” Bill, would make reforms to simplify reporting and clarify and update statutory language. Along with removing outdated terminology and streamlining the reporting process, the Schroeder Bill would also exempt student records and emails from the Right to Know Law.