The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

March 11, 2012

Future of UPJ is drawn into debate over funding

David Hurst
dhurst@tribdem.com

— Nestled on 650 wooded Richland Township acres, Pitt-Johnstown – by design – is somewhat secluded from the roar of the outside world.

But in recent days, a loud debate in Harrisburg over another round of Gov. Tom Corbett’s planned budget cuts has found its way onto the campus. Pitt’s chancellor, Mark Nordenberg, warned last week that if the funding trend continues, the long-term future of UPJ – as well as Pitt’s Bradford, Greensburg and Titusville branch campuses – could be at risk.

The debate caught UPJ President Jem Spectar’s attention.

But he said his focus is still on a UPJ campus that he said will grow in the years and decades to come.

“It’s easy to get disheartened by the ups and downs of Harrisburg politics,” Spectar said. “The chancellor’s statements are a reaction ... to what we all see as deep and disproportionate cuts.”

“I’m confident,” he added, “that our advocacy in Harrisburg will be successful in (fighting off) this challenge.”

That challenge comes on the heels of 19 percent cuts to state-affiliated schools such as Pitt, Penn State and Temple last year.

Corbett’s 2012-13 budget would chop another 30 percent.

The governor has toured the state to defend the plan, maintaining that the $41 million hit on Pitt is only about 2 percent of the university’s total budget.

The proposed reductions are about the same for Temple and Penn State.

Nordenberg and Penn State President Rodney Erickson countered that recent cuts are gutting the state’s annual appropriations to decades-old levels.

And if it continues, it could threaten programs, tuition rates for Pennsylvania students and even schools, they told a Senate panel last week.

“You don’t see branch campuses (at private research colleges). ... They would be the most vulnerable units of the university,” Nordenberg said, according to the Capitolwire news service, saying a private, “more compressed” Pitt would likely resemble its Carnegie Mellon neighbor.

Nordenberg has backpedaled from the comments a bit in the week since. Considering the setting and audience – senators he is hoping will stand with him against the planned cuts – it might simply be a lesson in Rhetoric 101.  

UPJ students said they expect politics are likely at play in the debate. But they agreed with faculty in saying it’s not a pretty thought that Pitt one day may have to clip its branch campuses.

“Pitt’s Chancellor Nordenberg has publicly discussed whether or not Pitt’s branch campuses are viable under a privatization scenario where the commonwealth does not fund Pitt at all,” said UPJ Faculty Senate President Ola Johansson, a geography professor.

“I feel that it is very much premature to speculate what could happen under such a long-term scenario.”

Fellow faculty declined comment or requested anonymity this week, worried that public comments could impact their jobs.

Some referred questions to UPJ spokesman Robert Knipple who, in turn, directed them to Nordenberg’s spokesman, John Fedele.

“Mr. Nordenberg doesn’t want to comment on hypotheticals ... that may never happen,” Fedele said when asked about comments made at the Senate hearing. “It would be unfair to speculate on decisions that affect so many people at this stage of the appropriations process.”

Still, on UPJ’s campus, junior Ellie Miller couldn’t help but speculate.

“I hope it doesn’t happen. I like going to school here,” said Miller, a Greensburg native.

She noted that she chose the Richland Township school over Pitt’s main campus for UPJ’s rural setting, and she expects other future students would want to do the same.

“The campus is off on its own here. It’s not part of a neighborhood or in the middle of the city,” she said. “Its unique.”

Brian Mostoller, a senior, was more skeptical about talk of shuttering branch campuses.

“I don’t think (Pitt administrators) would seriously think about closing this school,” he said, noting that UPJ stands out in engineering and other disciplines.

“Maybe there’d be a few cutbacks here and there,” Mostoller said. “But I think this school is important to (Pitt). It brings in revenue, too.”

Spectar noted the 85-year-old university has plenty more going for it – and it’s the duty of the campus and the region to make sure that message is delivered to Harrisburg.

The 3,000-student campus employs more than 500 people and boasts 19,500 alumni, Spectar pointed out.

In recent years, more than $30 million has been invested in the campus, including new degree offerings and the school’s first true nursing program – despite the toll the recession has inflicted on schools nationwide, Spectar said.

He noted that an $11 million nursing and health science building will be under construction in the months ahead.

“Despite challenging times, we’ve found ways to do a lot more with less since the recession by reallocating our resources,” he said.

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