ESU Grad Student Takes on President Marcia Welsh’s OpEd, “Recent Changes to Steer ESU in the Right Direction”

Editor’s note: On November 13, 2013, ESU President Marcia Welsh wrote a Pocono Record Op-Ed responding to growing resistance to her decision to slash faculty and gut academic programs. Welsh claimed that “While the recent decisions made at ESU are unpopular with some, they are necessary.” ESU graduate student, Grace Kavanah, has become one of the most outspoken critics of Welsh’s policies and claims. This is Kavanah’s critical assessment of Welsh’s argument. You can follow all of Raging Chicken Press’s coverage of the PA State System of Education right here. If you have news to report about PASSHE’s austerity measures, make sure to tweet it out using the hashtag #slasshe and send us a note at ragingchickenpress@gmail.com

  In her recent address to the community, East Stroudsburg University President Marcia Welsh starts with:

“I believe that our friends, colleagues and neighbors would support initiatives to make the Pocono community stronger, even if it meant making changes.”

I think the Pocono community might be resistant to any person coming here from out-of-town and, in just over a year, demanding that she knew better about what needs changing than the community itself. Aside from her presumptions about what the Pocono community wants and believes, Welsh’s statement begs the question of whether retrenchment is, in fact, making ESU stronger. Welsh simply assumes the truth of her argument without first demonstrating it. Welsh follows her initial sentence with, “If you put East Stroudsburg University in the same context…” But ESU isn’t in the “same context.” ESU shares a context with other academic institutions, particularly those of similar size—for example the other PASSHE institutions impacted by retrenchment—and not much of a context to the severely economically depressed Monroe County in which ESU finds itself. It is clear that Welsh’s analogy is an attempt to make a connection to those in the general community who may not actually understand this difference. Welsh continues,

“…then perhaps you’ll understand why the program assessment and reduction of faculty positions were necessary to strengthen and sustain our local university, which has served the community since 1893.”

Throughout this first paragraph, Welsh repeatedly asserts the idea of  “strengthening- through-cutting,” but she never actually demonstrates that this is true. Welsh uses this rhetorical trick, which she thinks will work its magic on the average reader. However, Welsh’s cheap tricks should be offensive to any knowledgeable academic trained in the basics of logic.

Welsh next turns to the criticism: “While the recent decisions made at ESU are unpopular with some…” However, an earlier version of Marcia Welsh made the claim that only five percent of ESU students who would be upset by retrenchment. While the cuts may be unpopular, “they are necessary,” Welsh claims. Again, she makes another unsubstantiated claim. Welsh says,

“ESU faces a significant decline in state funding”

That is nothing new. Decreasing state funding has been going on for years now. Then:

“escalating pension and other personnel costs.”

Here she uses a common attack line against union-won wage and pension agreements. If the state cannot afford to pay the pensions, why did they agree to pay them? Answer: because professors are not (yet) indentured servants and they don’t work for free. And, in a competitive marketplace, pensions and tenure attract better professors. And let us not forget that the “pension crisis” that continues to make state headlines, stems from state legislators’ decision years ago to not make payments into the pension system, while workers – faculty members included – never failed to miss a payment. Welsh continues to list her “reasons”:

 “a decline in the number of high school students graduating”

A decline back to levels of seven or eight years ago, that is. But doesn’t that raise a question about the connection between Corbett’s cuts to secondary education  and this decline? And, yet Corbett’s response is to push the austerity regime to colleges, claiming more cuts will attract more of the shrinking pool of graduating high school seniors.

“and a 14 percent decrease in annualized budgeted enrollment.”

But that decline is WAY in excess of the 3% or so decline in high school graduation rates in PA in the last couple of years. The ESU decline is clearly about something else entirely. And the fundamental question is whether the proper response to the decline is to cut options for prospective students, or to discover what else might be causing the decline. Again, Welsh is choosing the easy way out. She goes on to say,

“These shortfalls impact our university’s revenue stream and our expenses are outpacing income. To survive, we must find ways to bridge the gap.”

“To survive”? Repeatedly, Welsh has assured people that retrenchment is not a sign of any existential crisis at ESU and that nobody’s degree is in danger of being devalued. And yet, she says here that “the gap” in enrollment/revenue plainly does represent an existential crisis –  ESU’s very survival. That kind of rhetoric, plainly stated, is a warning to students and their parents to stay away from this institution that it is barely surviving, the cuts to faculty and programs being the proof. Welsh affirms this is so by her statement (or admission). Although she is likely using alarmist rhetoric to justify the cuts, her claims have real consequences, which she seems either not to understand or care about. Further, the retrenchment cuts only represent a small portion of the alleged budget deficit. Welsh states,

“We have retrenched six faculty members”

For some reason, she neglects to mention the program cuts; perhaps, those are more concerning signs of a serious problem. And she neglects to mention the number of programs that were initially considered for cutting – all of those, including ENGLISH!, were potentially on the chopping block under the “student demand” value metric. Or, let us be explicit about this, what is essentially the retailing of study options – English, History, French – all competing for shelf space at Marcia Welsh’s Walmart University. Welsh continues,

“and will not be filling two positions that will become vacant at the end of the 2013-2014 academic year. Other cuts include 19 non-faculty positions that were eliminated and/or held open in 2013-14; all divisions of the university were asked to decrease operating budgets by 20 percent. We will continue to look for savings, given the anticipated $6.9 million deficit for 2014-2015.”

As East Stroudsburg University student Victoria Krukenkamp reported in a recent article in the Morning Call, “Ken Long, ESU’s vice president of finance, explained that this initial retrenchment will only save ESU about $1.1 million for the coming year, only 16 percent of the projected budget deficit.” And yet, Welsh doesn’t bat an eyelash when defending the need to spend more on new buildings:

“Many question the necessity of certain campus facilities with the ESU Innovation Center, and the proposed Keystone Center receiving the most attention. Both are strongly tied to the mission of our university, which is to provide “challenging and contemporary curricula” as well as “leadership and service in the educational, cultural and economic development of the region.”

Empty Innovation Center CROP
President of East Stroudsburg APSCUF, Nancy Van Arsdale, stands in the EMPTY second floor of the Innovation Center that Marcia Welsh says is central to ESU’s mission.

Welsh spends most of her article defending these two buildings, the Innovation Center, and the Keystone Center. Welsh writes,

“ESU’s Innovation Center serves as a hub for entrepreneurship and for ESU’s economic development initiatives. These initiatives, including the Entrepreneurial Leadership Center, Workforce Development, Sponsored Projects and Research, and Business Accelerator Program, are managed by ESU’s Division of Research and Economic Development. Since its opening in 2010, the Innovation Center has been home to 22 early-stage companies participating in our Business Accelerator Program that created 63 new jobs in our region. Five of these companies received the Greater Pocono Chamber of Commerce BIZZY “Innovator of the Year Award.” In addition, it is the home of ESU’s Northeast Wildlife DNA Lab which created LYME-AID, a tick-testing kit for people and pets. Lyme-Aid is the first commercialization of faculty and student research in the 120 year history of ESU. The economic development efforts under way in the Innovation Center supported the first Monroe County Economic Outlook Summit, Made in the Pocono Mountains Campaign supporting 33 local businesses, student business plan competitions, 3D printing and additive manufacturing, Entrepreneurship Across the Colleges, international business collaboration, and funding opportunities. ESU students are involved with many of these initiatives, as well as serving as interns or entrepreneurs in the Business Accelerator. ESU purchased the building rather than allowing it to become vacant in light of the economic downturn that hurt many businesses in our region, including the ESU Business Accelerator.”

So, the key point in all this fabulous economic achievement for the area comes right here at the end:

“ESU purchased the building rather than allowing it to become vacant in light of the economic downturn”

WOW! That is some impressive economic development initiative, eh? As is noted in a recent article in the Pocono Record, “The 16,000- square-foot space [i.e., the second floor of the Center for Research and Economic Development, aka, the CFRED building], which has been empty since 2010, was meant to be rented by startup businesses, offsetting the cost of the CFRED building.” It’s as if Welsh is completely unaware of this fact. The Pocono Record explains that in, ” November 2012, the center, which had been set up as a nonprofit, was purchased by the university for $6.5 million…Due to a lack of tenants in the CFRED building, the university is paying $588,000 annually out of its Education and General budget fund to cover the cost of the building, [ESU’s vice president for administration and finance, Ken] Long said on Friday.”

Apple with BiteLong MUST have realized what he just confessed to, because the PR reports his next comment to be: “Would [ESU] still have the same problems we are facing right now even if we didn’t have to pay for the cost of that building? Yes.” Now, why would Long say THAT, unless he understood the implication of admitting that almost $600K per year was being drained out of the Educational and General budget fund by the CFRED boondoggle? And further, the numbers on this CFRED building purchase ($6.5 million) are almost identical to the deficit ($6.9 million). In one bad decision, the retrenchment “necessity” can be understood and clarified as utterly UNNECESSARY, just as the CFRED project itself was ill-considered, and improperly utilized in light of the hopelessly depressed economy in the Poconos. (Editor’s note: To read additional coverage on how PASSHE universities are bleeding their education budgets for big, beautiful buildings, check out “Wall Street on the Susquehanna” and “Trading Academics for Amenities” in Raging Chicken Press).

When it comes to the Keystone Center, the response from ESU’s administration has been that the money comes from “another pool”, or budget, and it has no impact on retrenchment. If the defense of the Keystone Center is that it DOES NOT impact the Education and General (E&G) budget, this does not mean that other building projects, such as the CFRED, are not directly impacting the E&G budget.  Indeed, just the debt payment per year on this one building is about 8.5% of the 2014-15 deficit. Furthermore, according to PASSHE the budget item “Capital Expenditures and Transfers’” represents  “investment in its physical resources from the E&G budget. Included in this category are purchases of items, such as equipment, furniture, and library materials, as well as land and building improvements…University transfers generally fund physical plant expenditures and debt.” The last item, DEBT, explains why the CFRED is being sucked out of the E&G, and obviously any building renovation (or say a demolition, which is planned for several buildings being replaced by the Keystone Center) is going to come from the E&G budget.

Not every building project is necessarily a bad idea, obviously. But the question is why certain projects, which now seem quite dubious in their scope and expense, should continue to be funded when ESU claims it cannot survive without firing chemistry and French professors. Welsh states,

“The Proposed Keystone Center is envisioned to be the “Heart of the Campus” with construction set to begin in June 2014. This 269,000 square foot facility will be the new home for student life, library services, information technology and communications. This building will update our campus, better equipping it to serve our more than 6,700 students with ample technology, space and amenities. Phase I includes two components. Part one is fully funded by state capital dollars, authorized by the Pennsylvania State Budget Office in 2010, and does not require any additional university funding. The other part of the construction will create the new University Center, which will be funded from dining services, the bookstore and a student approved increase in the University Center fee. It is important to understand that neither component will impact ESU’s Educational and General operating budget. State funding allocated for construction cannot be used to supplement E&G funds.”

Keep in mind, the “Heart of the Campus” is going to be super disruptive to the rest of the campus, and it is going to cost about $100 million, depending on whose numbers you accept. The argument is that the complex will consolidate and modernize critical university components, especially technology access and service, and that this will bring the students into ESU.

Ken Long argues that “70 to 80 percent of students base their final decision on the amenities a school offers.” As you see above, Welsh uses that same term, “amenities”, to note one of the three main benefits the Keystone Center is supposed to provide ESU. When Welsh says, “Part one is fully funded by state capital dollars, authorized by the Pennsylvania State Budget Office in 2010, and does not require any additional university funding”, this ignores a statement (Project No. DGS 405-58) regarding the part one portion that was issued on April 15, 2010, by the Council of Trustees. The statement notes that the

“student center portion of the new Information Commons, estimated at $36,000,000 (including design and contingency) will be funded using PASSHE bonds; the principal and interest for these bonds will be paid by student center fees and dining fees. A student referendum was held in early November 2010 to authorize the required increase in student fees.”

So, if that is true, it really isn’t right to say “Part one is fully funded by state capital dollars” because students are once again expected to pay a big chunk of the new building. And is any portion of Keystone showing up as “debt” or improvements? Again, won’t the demolitions of the old buildings, for example, be charged to the E&G budgets? Welsh writes,

“There will be light at the end of this tunnel. We have taken the first steps to address the budget deficit by making necessary modifications in academic affairs in order to re-allocate resources from programs with less student demand to those that are bursting at the seams.”

Something is “bursting at the seams” at ESU? Because I thought Welsh was saying enrollment is declining and it’s not a survivable situation. Why, if there are programs “bursting at the seams” and these are identifiable, did ESU just do an across-the-board cut of 20% from all departments? How does that serve the interest of taking pressure off those seams? It is one thing to push more resources into programs with more demand—which again note ESU did not actually do with the across-the-board cuts. But why does the expansion have to come at the expense of programs with less demand?

“We are a great university with strong academic programs. More change will follow that is intended to positively impact our students, our university and our community. I stand by the decisions we’re making and the direction we’re heading.”

So, right there Welsh is saying that she is personally accountable for what she is doing. She’s had some time – not a lot but some – to assess her choices and she’s saying cutting programs and firing professors is having a “positive impact” on students. Where is the evidence that this is true, President Welsh?

“My thanks to the students, faculty, staff and community members who already support these efforts. I hope others will join us as we continue to make ESU and our community an outstanding example of academic and economic success at its best.”

Have you actually driven around Monroe County, Pennsylvania, President Welsh? “Academic and economic success” is affirming ESU is now a privatization project.

Grace Kavanah Graduate Student in the Dept. of History at East Stroudsburg University (Views stated here are my own)

Apple photo: (c) Can Stock Photo used with permission.

 

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