The Evolution of the Legal Relationship between Penn State and the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania

Open Access
Moran, Peter L
Graduate Program:
Higher Education
Doctor of Philosophy
Document Type:
Date of Defense:
November 17, 2017
Committee Members:
  • Neal Hutchens, Special Member
  • Dorothy Evensen, Committee Chair
  • Fred Loomis, Committee Member
  • David S Guthrie, Dissertation Advisor
  • Peter Hopsicker, Outside Member
  • higher education
  • governance
  • legal
Public higher education faces a crisis in the twenty-first century. While a college education has never been more vital to individual and societal success, state governments have increasingly withdrawn their support for public colleges and universities. National trends suggest that reductions in state funding for public higher education will not subside anytime soon. Public institutions of higher education have compensated for weakening state support by increasing tuition and implementing market-responsive strategies aimed at reducing costs, diversifying revenue streams, and increasing operational efficiencies. The growing privatization of American public higher education has myriad implications for college access, affordability, and quality, and also raises questions about the future relationships between public universities and state governments. As the pressures to privatize continue to mount, public colleges and universities have been exploring policy options to provide them with the autonomy necessary to nimbly respond to market forces and pursue new sources of revenue. An understanding of the historical evolution of institution-state relationships provides the context for evaluating potential policy options. The purpose of this dissertation is to advance our understanding of the origins and subsequent development of the legal relationship between one state, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, and one public institution of higher education, the Pennsylvania State University. Through a historical legal analysis, this study traces the evolution of the legal relationship between Penn State and Pennsylvania. This study reveals that the ambiguous legal relationship between Penn State and Pennsylvania developed in a haphazard manner. This ambiguity emerged from the contested land-grant origins of the University and has been reinforced by several legal authorities throughout the years. In addition, the failure to establish a statewide strategy for the development of public higher education in Pennsylvania engendered the haphazard evolution of Penn State’s legal relationship with the Commonwealth. As a result, the University exhibits traits of both public and private universities. However, this study argues that the haphazard development of the legal relationship between Penn State and Pennsylvania has provided the University with the governance structure and flexibility to thrive in the current economic and policy context of American public higher education.