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Pennsylvania's 14-university state system is feeling the burn of budget cuts and declining enrollment with little relief in sight.

In the last few years, the universities have shed 5 percent of their permanent work force and discontinued or frozen new enrollment to 198 academic programs. But that wasn’t enough to shore up their budgets. Now universities in the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education are looking to end programs, lay off dozens of full-time faculty members, and cut ties with numerous adjuncts and more staffers.

The 110,000-student system is coming to terms with budget and demographic pressures that are at once familiar to public colleges across the country and unique to Pennsylvania.

Clarion University President Karen Whitney, who made a career studying higher ed finance and administration, now watches as empty-handed lawmakers leave institutions to fend increasingly for themselves, while she is the one handing out pink slips.

“There was this really great commitment to being all things to all people as an agent of the state,” Whitney said, referring to the era after World War II and Sputnik when lawmakers ramped up investments in higher ed. “But I think what we’re seeing now going forward as a new normal in higher education is to stop that, to no longer be all things to all people and -- based on an institution’s mission -- narrowing our focus.”

For Clarion, "narrowing” means shedding programs in music education, French and German and furloughing 10 of the university's 244 faculty members by summer 2015, while reassigning others and leaving some vacancies unfilled.

PASSHE, as the Pennsylvania system is known, is no stranger to belt-tightening. But now year after year of wearying cuts are reaching new levels.

The cuts are threatening offerings at the system's regional state universities designed to provide a well-rounded education for a population of students who are not looking – or aren’t able – to travel far to go to college. About 90 percent of students at PASSHE institutions are Pennsylvanians and the vast majority made the PASSHE institution they attend their first choice, according to system documents. (PASSHE does not encompass Pennsylvania's "state related" universities, which include Lincoln, Pennsylvania State and Temple Universities as well as the University of Pittsburgh.)

PASSHE's 14 Institutions

Bloomsburg U. of Pennsylvania
U. of Pennsylvania
U. of Pennsylvania
U. of Pennsylvania
East Stroudsburg 
U. of Pennsylvania
U. of Pennsylvania
U. of Pennsylvania
U. of Pennsylvania
Lock Haven 
U. of Pennsylvania
U. of Pennsylvania
U. of Pennsylvania
U. of Pennsylvania
Slippery Rock 
U. of Pennsylvania
West Chester 
U. of Pennsylvania

Universities have said 45 tenure and tenure-track faculty positions are facing “retrenchment,” the technical term for furloughs. Administrators are attempting to save faculty jobs by playing musical chairs with professors – by moving faculty who might have to be laid off into spots left vacant by retirements, for instance.

All 14 institutions issued retrenchment letters last year, but this year’s cuts at a few PASSHE universities are deeper, said Lauren Gutshall, a spokeswoman for the Association of Pennsylvania State College and University Faculties, the faculty union.

“This is certainly the largest number of faculty layoffs we have seen in the state system’s 30-year history,” she said. “So it’s a whole different ballgame.”

The faculty union expects more efforts by administrators to cut instructional staff, but the union maintains there are still ways for universities to save faculty lines with money stowed away in their budgets.

PASSHE Chancellor Frank Brogan, who came to Pennsylvania this fall from a comparable job in Florida, said faculty layoffs are happening now because other efforts to bring in cash or reduce spending have are reaching their limit.

“The last line was the issue of instructional personnel,” he said. “And that’s my point: there are few if any places left to go after four or five years of this process.”

Brogan said faculty cuts “probably should have been discussed some time ago in terms of program alignment and program viability and not just as a cost-cutting exercise.”

Since 2008, PASSHE has shed 540 permanent employees – the vast majority were staff, according to system officials – through retirement, voluntary separations and furloughs.

But costs for existing employees continue to rise.

The faculty union represents about 4,250 tenured and tenure-track faculty and 1,900 non-tenure-track faculty members, plus thousands more staffers. PASSHE is heavily unionized – there are eight different contracts with seven different labor unions – and collective bargaining agreements are signed at a statewide level. Because of this and negotiated pay bumps, expenses for all unionized employees are expected to go up next year by $27.1 million, or 3.4 percent.

In the meantime, revenue growth is being suppressed by flat state appropriations, system officials shy of raising tuition, and enrollment declines across the state but particularly in Western Pennsylvania.

Lawmakers cut the budget 18 percent three years ago. In turn, PASSHE is now receiving the same amount of state funding it received in 1997.

The system, controlled by a 20-member board, sets tuition across the system, though individual university boards can set their own fees. The system’s board isn’t keen on raising tuition beyond the rate of inflation. There was a 7.5 percent increase for the fall 2011 year but the last two years the increases have been held at or below the rate of inflation.

So state appropriations are flat and so is tuition.

Meanwhile, systemwide enrollment this year fell by 2,400 students, or 2.2 percent, with some institutions hit harder than others.

Western Pennsylvania, in particular, is facing near-term demographic problems because of the declining number of high school graduates.

Julie Wollman, the president of Edinboro University, in western Pennsylvania, said what is happening to her university is happening elsewhere and has been predicted by demographers. But those predictions went unheeded.

“I think we have moved forward with the attitude like, ‘Yes, we understand there are going to be demographic declines, very steep demographic declines, but that’s not going to affect us – it’s going to affect everyone else,’ ” she said.

Edinboro’s enrollment is down about 18 percent in the last few years, or about 1,550 students since fall 2010, Wollman said. Now, the campus work force is larger than the student population will support.

Wollman said she was able to reduce the number of tenured and tenure-track faculty she might have to lay off from about 20 to six by planning to not renew contracts with part-time professors and holding some positions vacant.

Pointing Fingers

Blame is being directed, in part, to Harrisburg, the state capital. In 1982, when the system was created, about 67 percent of the PASSHE budget came from the state. Now it’s 25 percent – or $403 million, the same amount the universities received 15 years ago.

“I think there’s anger and disappointment and recognition that a lot of this comes back to a failure to fund public higher education as it should be funded,” Wollman said.

The budget crunch has somewhat lagged the dramatic 18 percent cut that state lawmakers made to PASSHE three years ago. Wollman said there was some cushion from President Obama’s stimulus program, though that money is now gone.

Whitney at Clarion said it took time for the state cuts to be felt, much like it takes time to turn an aircraft carrier.

“I think what we should all learn from this is it’s about a two-year lag -- you can shock the system, tremendously reduce the funding, and it doesn’t happen the next year -- there is a shift and effect that takes time to be realized,” she said.

PASSHE is now trying to figure out how to make itself sustainable in the future.

The system board recently passed a resolution asking for a 4 percent increase in the base budget and a one-time $18 million influx of cash. The one-time money is supposed to help universities begin to invest in new, high-demand programs that prepare students for business, energy and manufacturing jobs.

The chances of the state agreeing to the increase is unclear: Last year, the system asked for a 2.8 percent increase from the state – the rate of inflation – but state lawmakers didn’t go for it.

State Representative Brad Roae, who represents a county in northwestern Pennsylvania near Edinboro, has ideas of his own to stave off cuts: put a moratorium on sabbaticals, increase the time faculty spend teaching, allow local universities to negotiate their own contracts with unions rather than have statewide collective bargaining agreements, and stop investing in overly “fancy” facilities.

“They are just doing all this fancy construction and what happens is, I think, students learn from having a good professor in front of the room teaching them,” Roae said. “I don’t think buildings teach them.”

'Broader Conversations' in the Offing?

Chancellor Brogan, a former university president, university system chancellor and lieutenant governor to Jeb Bush in Florida, said he’s met with Pennsylvania lawmakers since he came to PASSHE two and a half months ago. 

“Generally, I think they understand,” he said. “Of course, they have the problem where many of these things, even if they agree with you, they will tell you they don’t have enough money.”

Part of Brogan’s pitch to get the $18 million is that universities have to retool and need the money up front. He said he’s fighting the misconception that closing a program frees up enough money to open a new one. The problem with that idea is that the programs being closed were not generating much revenue to begin with.

As he heads into next year’s budget cycle, Brogan said PASSHE needs to think more like a system, in part because of changing times.

“It no longer is necessary that every university offer every single program the way they always have,” he said. “It’s also unsustainable on the budget side. And I think the proof is sadly in the pudding here, especially in what we’ve had to deal with over the last year in the PASSHE system.”

Even though Brogan is talking up investment in science, technology, engineering and math fields, he said there still has to be balance for arts and humanities. Plus, he said, every university isn’t going to be able to save itself by opening a high-demand program in, say, nursing – because it becomes a bit of a zero sum game if everyone is competing for the same students.

That said, there are concerns that students in rural areas that have little appetite or option to move around the state will lose access to subjects because of programs that are being ended locally. Brogan said universities need to make sure there is “proximate availability” to a wide range of academic programs, which system-wide online courses from the universities can also help solve.

Brogan has not yet introduced any of the drastic ideas being considered in other states, like closing campuses or consolidating universities. But deeper conversations could come.

“We’re right now trying to deal with the immediate impact of these things,” he said. “We need to look up and have broader conversations about how we organize a system of universities.”

Whitney, the president at Clarion, said this may be the moment to, “in a thoughtful way, reevaluate and look at tenure and promotion."

“The old constructs were predicated upon significant state funding and being an agent of the state and fulfilling state needs – and it has now completely shifted,” she said.

That shift is now showing up in ways that may extend far beyond the university financial ledgers.

At Clarion, once strictly a teachers' college, enrollment in the teacher prep program has declined precipitously, something Whitney said was attributable to women having more options, Pennsylvania laying off teachers and a "chilling effect" generated by critics of public schools. Clarion’s College of Education and Human Services had over 1,900 students in 2007 but is projected to have only about 1,200 by 2016, a decline of roughly 40 percent.

The lack of interest in some liberal arts and humanities fields may also reflect the higher debt burden students face because of tuition prices driven up by the collapse in state subsidies for higher ed.

“More students would take more intellectual risks and leaps in other areas if the price were lower,” Whitney said. “Is that good or bad? It certainly has an effect on our larger society.”

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