New Academic Year Brings More Challenges for PASSHE Universities

The days of former Governor Tom Corbett’s direct attacks on the 14 universities that make up the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education (PASSHE) may be gone, but for many faculty, staff, and students this academic year may still seem like old times. The decision by Pennsylvania Republicans to block Gov. Tom Wolf’s budget has had the effect of holding PASSHE universities in a state of suspended animation waiting for the next shoe to drop.

As you may recall, Gov. Wolf called for a $45 million increase in funding to PASSHE universities in his first budget on the condition that PASSHE universities not raise tuition for the 2015-2016 academic year. After four straight years of austerity-level cuts pushed by Gov. Corbett, PASSHE universities were forced to raise tuition by almost 18 percent, according to the Morning Call. The tuition freeze was welcome news to students and their families who were already struggling to make ends meet in a lackluster economy. However, when the PASSHE Board of Governors met on April 9, 2015 to decide whether or not to agree to freeze tuition in exchange for a $45 million dollars in funding, there were already signs from Republicans on the Board and in the legislature, that they were not going to make it easy to invest in public higher education in the Commonwealth.

In his statement before the PASSHE Board of Governors, Ken Mash, President of the faculty union, APSCUF,recalled what had happened at the Board of Governor’s meetings during Gov. Corbett’s brutal cuts:

Of course, over the last 4 years the financial state of the majority of our universities has gotten progressively worse. Under the previous administration we had an 18% cut followed by three years of no increases.

Even as 42 states increased funding for public higher education, ours did not. Pennsylvania now ranks 49th in funding for public higher education…

…Last year, in the face of the $28 million gap, the Board sent the university presidents on their way thanking them in advance for the hard decisions they were forced to make. There was little if any discussion about the implications of those cuts. There was no talk of needing to raise tuition further to bridge the gap.

After the previous governor announced in 2012 that he wouldn’t cut the budget further, our then Chancellor stood at a press conference with the Governor, and thanked him for that. Instructions were given by the administration to keep tuition capped at the rate of inflation.

The Board complied, and there were no public recriminations. There was no great debate about the needs of the students and the universities. There certainly was no great concern voiced about how the Board could possibly meet any salary “demands” my association might make at the negotiations table.

Mash told this story in part because unlike any other Board of Governor’s meeting before, members of the Board were openly engaged in heated debate about whether they should be “bullied” into freezing tuition in exchange for increased state funding. Governor Wolf sent his Secretary of Planning and Policy, John Hanger, as his envoy to the meeting to make a case for the deal. The outcries from Republican members of the Board were almost comical. Board member Johnathon Mack told ABC 27, “I didn’t like the tenor yesterday…I felt like a gun was held to our head.” Board of Governor’s chair, Guido Pichini, told the Patriot-News that he going to take his ball and go home because he was offended that the Governor didn’t come and talk to him first. And Board member Marie Conley wanted the world to know that she thought Pennsylvanian’s were just too stupid to understand the idea that Wolf was promising $45 million to invest in public higher education as long as the Board did not increase tuition for students. It’s “too confusing for the public.” she told the Patriot-News

The Board of Governors ended up voting 9-8 in favor of the deal, despite the best efforts by Pichini and Board member Senator Scott “I’ve got a baseball bat” Wagner to pull Board members to the side (and out of sight of streaming cameras) and pressure them to vote against the deal. With a “non-binding” deal done, it was the legislature’s turn to put the brakes on. And they did so in a colossal fashion by rejecting Wolf’s budget, offering a repackaged version of a Tom Corbett-era austerity budget in its place.

And so, here we are. Not only does Pennsylvania not have a budget, but students arriving back on campus have the good fortune to be paying 3.5% more than they did last year. That’s right – the tuition freeze is history and students have the PASSHE Board of Governors and Republican lawmakers to thank for it.

Beyond the Tuition Hike

If increased tuition was an avoidable punch in the gut to students and their families, the effect of Republicans’ continued efforts to block a reasonable budget and keep the austerity train going, is having a ripple-effect across PASSHE campuses.

Once it was clear that PA Republicans had no interest in working with Gov. Wolf on a reasonable budget that made significant investments in education, infrastructure, and health, PASSHE administrators dusted off their austerity playbook and began the school year as they have for the previous four years: with threats of layoffs and program cuts. At the beginning of August, APSCUF chapters at Shippensburg and Cheney were given official notices that the ax was coming. PASSHE’s “cut, gut, and punish” policy under the Corbett administration resulted in some of the most severe and devastating cuts that the state system had ever seen. Clarion University, Edinboro University, East Stroudsburg University, and Mansfield University were especially hard hit (see our full coverage here). Once again, PASSHE leaders are returning to the failed strategies of the previous administration. The big difference this time around is part of the blame for the cuts rests squarely on the shoulders of the PASSHE Board of Governors Republican leaders who publicly and actively fought against increased funding because they were “offended” by the “tone” of the Wolf administration. The Board did NOT find it scandalous or offensive that Governor Corbett CUT PASSHE funding by nearly 20%. Nope. The problem this time around is that Gov. Wolf did not ask the Board “pretty please” ahead of his budget proposal. Remarkable.

Beyond the potential cuts at Shippensburg and Cheney, PASSHE universities may be facing a serious budget situation if PA Republicans follow the pattern of their colleagues in Washington and continue to block a budget deal in order to extract more cuts from the governor. While the 3.5% tuition increase will provide state universities with some additional revenue to meet their budget needs, money will start running out pretty soon if there is not a deal.

According to APSCUF president Ken Mash, “our understanding is that the universities will not really feel a pinch until October.  However, financial aid through PHEAA could be a problem for students if there is no agreement.” After October, it’s belt-tightening time once again.

Finally, current contract negotiations between PASSHE and APSCUF are increasingly caught up in budget negotiations. While the state has settled contracts with the other unions on campuses, faculty have been working without a contract since July 1. If you recall, the last round of negotiations between faculty and PASSHE was a heated fight that left faculty working without a contract for nearly two years. The bitterness of that round of negotiations was a result, in large part, of PASSHE’s attempts to fundamentally alter the composition of the faculty, turning the vast majority of professors into contingent workers, mirroring the worst higher education labor practices in the U.S. Faculty were hoping to avoid that this time around. But at this point, it’s anyone’s guess.

What’s old is new again.

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