A state higher education system battles to create a new model for college athletics

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A historic vote took place in Pennsylvania on Wednesday, beginning the process of integrating six stand-alone college campuses into two, positioning the system to address the significant drop in the number of college-age students in the state over the course of the next decade. Among many others, one big question remains: what does this mean for the thousands of athletes on these campuses?

Much has been written about the challenges of the PASSHE system from the academic and financial perspective of the system, but little has been covered about the future of these athletic departments. Obvious questions include: will each school be able to maintain its sports program and identity? Will the Bloomsburg Huskies stay the Huskies? And the Clarion Golden Eagles? The answer may lie in how the NCAA defines an athletics program.

The vast majority of Pennsylvania State’s 14 universities form the Division II Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference; a few campuses offer Division I sports that compete in other conferences. Home to 95,000 students, the six merger candidates in particular are grappling with declining enrollment, massive debt and decades of declining state investment. Tuition revenue has remained relatively stable, and with fewer students enrolled at some of the more rural campuses, it has become a financial drag on the remaining expanding campuses. Something has to give.

Walk in PASSHE System Chancellor Daniel Greenstein. Recruited to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in 2018, Greenstein took the annual legislative “kick in the box” event down the road and placed it squarely in the hands of state legislators, campus presidents, teachers and staff. Wednesday, a 439 page report was presented to the Pennsylvania Legislature outlining the work done to date and a proposed integration plan moving forward. Greenstein followed up that report with a virtual Q&A with state senators.

The six campuses are grouped into two modules – one for the northeastern part of the state (Lock Haven University, Mansfield University and Bloomsburg University) and another for the western part (California University, Clarion University and Edinboro University). Most have notable athletic programs and some have won national championships in multiple Division II sports. Naturally, athletic department staff, athletes and alumni are involved in the planning process. (Full disclosure: the author is a former field hockey player at the University of Lock Haven).

Traditionally, the NCAA has defined an athletics program as having a federal tax identification number. Under current rules, the NCAA would only recognize two athletic programs. Imagine the uproar around this decision – which school? What sports? Where would it be located? What would happen to other sports on other campuses? What about their traditions and their former students? Are we even considered a real college campus if we don’t have a varsity athletics program?

All of these questions will inevitably arise for other colleges as they seek to merge, acquire, or partner with institutions that have athletic programs. What can university presidents considering a partnership with another institution learn from what the Pennsylvania system is currently going through?

Behind the scenes, I was told, there were several strategies in play to allow the six campuses to retain their Division II athletics programs and brand identity, while growing the athletic programs at each campus. It is planned to maintain a core administrative team on each campus that would be responsible for NCAA and Title IX compliance, among other responsibilities. Plans include maximizing team sizes, improving facilities, and adding new sports to each campus.

It may seem counter-intuitive to add sports and facilities at this point, but sources tell me senior leaders believe in the power of athletics to do three things: add and retain more students in residence halls , strengthen campus life and vibrancy, and grow overall enrollment by 4-8% on each campus. They believe the return on investment in developing the athletics program will show significant dividends in 3-5 years.

Improvements to athletics facilities can get very expensive, very quickly. These six locations have nearly $250 million in deferred maintenance and hundreds of millions of dollars in construction debt on already underutilized campus housing stock. Will high school athletes choose to participate if other investments are not made? It’s definitely a bet. But the fact remains – in today’s volatile higher education environment, there is no one best strategy for everyone.

Board Chair Cynthia Shapira Told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, “We can’t let the perfect get in the way of the good.” There is no perfect answer for any system struggling with declining state investment. The PASSHE office is preparing a marketing campaign entitled “Better Together”; a 60-day public comment period is now open. It is entirely possible that the final plan will be slightly different.

The NCAA has been strained to adapt to the changing landscape; the potential new configuration of these six schools challenges the very definition of what a traditional athletics program looks like. Conversely, these athletic programs will need to clearly define why prospective students and alumni should focus on the rich histories and traditions that each has produced. Current plans are to maintain the physical location of each integrated campus; will this be enough to create a sense of belonging that is unique and respectful of these traditions?


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