The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

Local News

August 24, 2013

Why state universities are preparing for faculty layoff crises

HARRISBURG — At almost all of the universities in the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education, students moving for the start of the fall semester are arriving at campuses in crisis.

Even with a 3 percent tuition increase, eight of the universities have issued warnings that they may lay off faculty in order to stop their budgets from bleeding red ink due to dwindling enrollment and diminished state funding.

Clarion became the first of the eight to indicate which departments would be targeted as well as the number of layoffs, said Lauren Gutshall, a spokeswoman with the union representing university faculty. Clarion announced that the university will eliminate 42 jobs in addition to leaving 14 vacant posts unfilled. Among those who are losing jobs are 22 faculty members.

The other universities that may lay off faculty are: California, Clarion, East Stroudsburg, Edinboro, Kutztown, Mansfield and Slippery Rock.

The austerity measures come as 11 of the 14 schools in the system have struggled with dwindling enrollment that depletes tuition revenue. At the same time, faculty are beginning work under the terms of a new labor contract that provides a top base salary of $110,038. The PASSHE system does not include state-related universities like Penn State, Pitt and Temple.

Entry-level pay for a professor is $45,695.62. The labor agreement also provides mechanisms for faculty to get additional compensation by taking on extra duties.

The highest paid professor in the state system of higher education was Kathleen Benson, an Edinboro University education professor who retired at the end of 2012.  Benson almost doubled her base salary of  $105,239. Benson was paid $16,970 for work associated with being department chairwoman. In addition, she was paid another $28,803 for extra work. On top of that, Benson received $41,286 in compensation for unused sick time and other payments tied to her retirement.

Even as universities sort out which programs to keep and what jobs to cut, officials say it’s essential to offer competitive pay for faculty.

Edinboro President Julie Wollman said that top-notch faculty members make their final decision about where to work based on a variety of factors, but if the pay isn’t competitive they won’t even take a look at a college.

At Edinboro the cost-cutting strategy will be unveiled by the middle of September, Wollman said.

“We’ve got to get the budget balanced. We’re going to take the problem by the horns and get our workforce the right size,” Wollman said.

 Already, Edinboro has taken steps to rein in spending.

These include mothballing some dorms that simply aren’t needed because enrollment is down almost 10 percent from 2009.

With the decline in enrollment, the student-to-faculty ratio also has dwindled. In 2003, there were 18.5 students per professor. Last year, it was down to 16.7 students per faculty member. Wollman said the university hopes to get the ratio back to around 18 students per faculty member.

That means leaving some vacant positions unfilled and it could mean layoffs. Where those cuts will be made has not been announced. Wollman said administrators have made recommendations, based on enrollment data and costs of programs.

If a program is costing more than it is generating, it might be vulnerable. However, there may be cases where a program is costly but is still considered too valuable to eliminate, Wollman said. For instance, the nursing program costs a lot, but it is popular and the university is offering a valuable public service to the region by helping produce health care workers, Wollman said.

While most universities in the system are struggling, Indiana, Bloomsburg and West Chester have seen enrollment gains.

This weekend, Bloomsburg greeted its largest freshman class ever, 2,200 students, said Tom McGuire, a university spokesman.

Because of the growth, the university has largely been able to absorb budget strains without cutting programs or considering the types of layoffs being eyed at other universities in the systems, McGuire said.

On campus Friday as students moved in, students said that there have been lingering struggles with getting into classes that quickly fill up.

Senior Adam Rogers said that issues with access to classes have lingered for years. But the university is even moving to add faculty to meet the demand in his major of digital forensics, Rogers said.

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