New Castle News

October 18, 2013

Faculty seeking more state support for universities

John Finnerty
New Castle News

NEW CASTLE — The union representing the faculty at the state system of higher education organized a rally Wednesday on the steps of the rotunda in the state capital, calling for greater state support of the publicly funded universities.

At the rally, Sen. Mike Stack, D-Philadelphia, said Gov. Tom Corbett’s 18 percent slash of the State System of Higher Education budget two years ago, and his subsequent orders to hold funding steady, are forcing state-owned universities to cut professors, phase-out programs, and fire managers and staff members who are being punished for bad state budgeting decisions.

“Ever since this governor has been in Harrisburg, he’s targeted Pennsylvania’s 14 great universities as the place to balance his budget at the expense of families,” Stack said. “It is wrong. It has always been wrong.”

State Rep. Jaret Gibbons, D-Lawrence County, was among the lawmakers who attended. Gibbons’ district includes Slippery Rock University.

The dire straits facing the public universities mirror the problems facing public schools, Gibbons said. Years ago, all levels of education had far more state support. As the state dollars have dried up, the public schools have leaned more heavily on local property taxes. Universities have used tuition increases to cope.

The dependence on property tax for school revenue has contributed to inequities between rich and poor school districts. And the diminished state support is now contributing to similar winners and losers within the State System of Higher Education.

The budget crises have largely been driven by dwindling enrollments. Eleven of the universities in the system have seen declines in enrollment since 2009.

Edinboro’s enrollment peaked in 2010 at 8,642. In 2012-13, the university had 7,464 students. With tuition at $6,622 this year, that decline in enrollment translates into a loss of $7.8 million in revenue.

The universities with stable or increasing enrollment — including Indiana University of Pennsylvania and Bloomsburg University — have managed to escape without making painful cost-cutting. But the universities with the greatest enrollment losses have been forced to take more drastic action.

Clarion furloughed 22 faculty members while leaving six positions vacant. Mansfield will eliminate 29 professor positions. Edinboro will lay off 42 professors and eliminate foreign language and music programs. Slippery Rock has announced it is eliminating 25 positions by not filling vacancies.

While those universities are asked to operate with diminished support they must still abide by the terms of the statewide labor contract that covers faculty at all universities in the state system.

That contract would bar Edinboro from seeking the kind of concessions a state lawmaker has suggested could be used to stave off those job cuts, Edinboro University spokesman Jeff Hileman said.

“We appreciate what Rep. (Brad) Roae is saying, but those negotiations are centralized in Harrisburg,” Hileman said.

Roae, R-Crawford County, represents a district neighboring Edinboro.

Roae is pitching a plan that would include requiring professors to increase the hours they spend teaching from 12 to 15, while eliminating paid sabbaticals.

“Rather than paying overtime like they do now to professors who teach 15 hours a week rather than 12, consider it the new regular course load,” Roae said. “High school teachers teach about 30 hours a week in the classroom, so I am confident professors can handle 15.”

Even if those concessions were an option, they would face stiff resistance from the union.

Roae’s comparison to high school teachers is “comparing apples to oranges,” said Jean Jones president of faculty union local at Edinboro.

College professors typically invest more time in designing the classes they teach and they are expected to conduct research. Professors in the state system are already expected to teach more classes than professors at many other universities, Jones said.

Sabbaticals are worthwhile because they provide professors with the opportunity to focus on research, Jones noted. Often, professors will use the time for writing.

Jones said she has an upcoming sabbatical planned. She intends to spend her time revising a textbook she authored and by traveling to Spain to visit a university there.

(Email: jfinnerty@cnhi.com)