To “Rearrange the deck chairs on the Titanic” is, metaphorically speaking, “To do something pointless or insignificant that will soon be overtaken by events, or that contributes nothing to the solution of a current problem.” It is a metaphor for all sorts of sinking enterprises, and not just ships on the ocean.The Titanic metaphor came to mind after reading a September 28, 2014 Pittsburgh Post-Gazette article¹ entitled: “State university system gets more nimble in face of fiscal stress.” A careful look at the measures PASSHE is now taking—compared to what actually needs to be done—shows those measures to be pointless, insignificant, soon to be overtaken by events, and contributing nothing to the solution of the current problem. For details see Privatization Without a Plan.²
The state university system which is the subject of the article is the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education (PASSHE)—the 14-University system of taxpayer-supported institutions of higher education that includes Bloomsburg, California, Cheyney, Clarion, East Stroudsburg, Edinboro, Indiana, Kutztown, Lock Haven, Mansfield, Millersville, Shippensburg, Slippery Rock and West Chester Universities.The article is a “puff piece,” defined by Wiktionary as “a journalistic form of puffery; an article or story of exaggerating praise that often ignores or downplays opposing viewpoints or evidence to the contrary.”
A Puff Piece with an Edge
While much of the article reads like a PASSHE news release, with its list of hopeful future outcomes in overcoming various challenges, a small portion of the article singles out just one of the 14 PASSHE universities—West Chester University and its campus leadership—for harsh public treatment.
The Post-Gazette takes credit for publicizing West Chester University campus emails obtained through the state’s Right to Know Law. These emails reportedly showed that “top West Chester leaders engaged in what amounted to a stealth campaign to promote introduction and passage of Senate Bill 1275, the controversial secession legislation that the system leadership opposed.”Based on my 20 years of experience as a university president in the PASSHE system, the leadership of PASSHE is not above—and in fact has made it a frequent practice—to tip off the media to “inside information” in an effort to publicly embarrass and thereby punish and intimidate presidents who would dare to cross PASSHE’s increasingly dictatorial and paranoid Board of Governors.
A citizen or reporter seeking negative or damaging information about a campus will get no response to a generic or non-specific RTK request. To successfully negotiate the RTK law, one must be able to cite a specific document that is known to exist and was created with the use of taxpayer funds.For that reason, it is unlikely that a reporter will know what to ask for—without inside help.
The labor-friendly Post-Gazette is well known to reflexively support the faculty union position on various issues. What makes the West Chester secession situation different is that, in this case, the interests of the faculty union and the interests of the PASSHE leadership happen to coincide—that is, both the faculty union and the PASSHE leadership have publicly declared strong opposition to the West Chester secession plan, and as the Post-Gazette article clearly suggests, any PASSHE president who supports a plan strongly opposed by both entities is likely to incur the wrath of both entities.One measure of that wrath may be seen in the following quotes from the Post-Gazette article:
‘Mr. Brogan said he has contacted West Chester officials about the matter. “I was told that it was not the administration at West Chester. It was the supporters of West Chester,” Mr. Brogan said.Asked if he believed that explanation, the chancellor replied: “Not for a minute.”’
PASSHE’s chancellor is quoted in this article as basically calling the West Chester president a liar.
PASSHE’s Attack on West Chester University Administrators
In addition to publicly questioning the veracity of West Chester administrators, PASSHE may also have foolishly opens Pandora’s Box with the following quote:“Mr. Brogan said the system has told some member schools they need to spend down more of their unrestricted net assets.”
“He cited as an example West Chester, which alone has $109 million out of the systemwide $598 million total. State System officials say that West Chester’s sum exceeds system guidelines and that while reserves in general are necessary, most of the school’s assets do not appear to be earmarked.”
PASSHE Hypocrisy Revealed
As shown in detail in my Blog Post of September 1, 2014 entitled “The PASSHE Story - Part 8:”“PASSHE’s total fund balance is the sum of fifteen (15) different fund balances, including one for each of the 14 universities, plus a fifteenth entity known as “the Board of Governors plus the Office of the Chancellor,” or the (BOG+OOC) fund balance for short. Between 1993 and 2013, PASSHE’s total fund balance grew exponentially from a low of $120 million in 1995 to a high of $597 million in 2013, corresponding to an average annual growth rate of 9.32%/year for 18 years, a rate which if continued, would cause PASSHE’s total fund balance to double to $1.2 billion in just seven and one-half more years.
“Despite BOG Policy 2011-01 which purportedly restricts individual PASSHE universities to fund balances between 5% and 10% of annual revenue, official PASSHE data show that not a single PASSHE university in FY 2013 had a fund balance that fell in the required range! One university had a fund balance below the 5% minimum, and 13 other universities had fund balances in excess of the 10% maximum. The data show that the fund balances for those 13 PASSHE universities range from a low of 12.2% to a high of 59.3%, with a PASSHE 14-university average of 36.4%.
“The fund balance history for the entity known as (BOG+OOC) is even more telling since, unlike the 14 universities, the maximum annual revenue permitted to that cost center is limited by law (Act 188) to one-half of one percent of PASSHE’s total operating budget, which is currently about $1.5 billion. One-half of one percent of that figure is about $7.5 million most of which—one would expect—is needed to pay for PASSHE’s many employees in Harrisburg, with little left over each year to put in a fund balance.
“But official PASSHE data show since 1998, the (BOG+OOC) fund balance has routinely reached levels higher than PASSHE’s legally-permitted annual revenue. In fact, in 2005, the (BOG+OOC) fund balance reached the astronomical figure of $68 million. That 2005 fund balance figure is nine times higher, and the 2013 figure is 4.5 times higher, than the maximum permitted annual revenue to (BOG+OOC).”
As Lucy once said to Desi on I Love Lucy, “You have some splainin’ to do!”
¹ http://www.post-gazette.com/news/education/2014/09/28/PA-state-university-system-gets-more-nimble-in-face-of-fiscal-stress/stories/201409280074.² http://www.amazon.com/Privatization-Without-Plan-Leadership-Pennsylvania/dp/1491295244/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1408368767&sr=8-1&keywords=angelo+armenti.