PA State System of Higher Ed Begins Academic Year Taking Ax to Jobs and Programs

Last week, Clarion University announced what it called a “bold, ambitious workforce plan” that will result in the elimination of over 40 jobs, including 22 faculty. This is only the latest blow to a Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education (PASSHE) university in a state that seems hell bent on gutting public higher education. This past May, Raging Chicken Press reported on plans to retrench – that is, fire – faculty members at East Stroudsburg University and the long battles with austerity-minded administrators at Kutztown University is a familiar story to our readers.

What sets the move at Clarion apart from previous PASSHE cuts is that it may be the lead example of “transformation” at state universities championed by the system’s Board of Governors. PASSHE’s last Chancellor, John Cavanaugh, released a new vision for PASSHE in November 2010 called simply enough, “PASSHE Transformation.” That document laid out in general terms PASSHE’s intention to take the 14 university system in a different direction:

The vision includes four major components, all grounded in the need for transformation: (a) how, when, and where learning occurs; (b) how the resources necessary to ensure learning are pursued, retained, and sustained; (c) how our universities relate to their various communities; and (d) how we partner with the Commonwealth to create and deliver a shared vision for the future. Only through transformation, grounded in a thoughtful reexamination of our historic emphasis on high quality student learning opportunities, will our success be assured during these very difficult economic times [bold in original].

In my review of Cavanaugh’s tenure as PASSHE Chancellor after he announced he was headed out the door for greener pastures in Washington, DC, I note that Cavanaugh’s vision of “transformation” was lock-in-step with what’s happening to public education at all levels across the nation:

Anyone paying attention to what was and is going on in higher education policy, especially in the wake of the 2008 economic crisis, saw the coded language consistent with those seeking to privatize and profitize education at all levels. Take, for example, language from the Broad Foundation, founded by Eli Broad – #157 on the Forbes Billionaire list with a personal net worth of $6.3 billion. Broad is a major contributor to Democratic Party candidates with close associations with Democrats favoring anti-labor, Michelle Rhee-type “reforms” to public education. At the center of the Broad Foundation agenda is, you guessed it, “transformation” of public education. Cavanaugh’s “PASSHE Transformation” memo seemed to signal the austerity to come, squeezing PAASHE’s limited resources and striking a blow to our 6,000+ member union.

While Cavanaugh’s memo was short on specifics, what it meant was not lost on the faculty union. In a scathing piece of satire, “The Great Stalin Plan for the Transformation of PASSHE,” president Steve Hicks and vice president Ken Mash of the Association of Pennsylvania State College and University Faculties (APSCUF) wrote:

Perhaps you’ve seen the Chancellor’s latest on “PASSHE Transformation?”  It’s amazing how a document so short on details can still manage to rankle.  The very notion that students and faculty will be transformed is enough to disturb, but its implicit anti-intellectual message really vexes.  It’s hard to ignore the presumptuousness that could lead some to conclude that “transformation” is necessary or, even worse, that they somehow single-handedly possess the knowledge of what that transformation ought to be and that it should be imposed from above.

Clarion University’s new “workforce plan” reads more like an accounting ledger than it does a document that helps guide the university to best serve students of the Commonwealth. Clarion’s plan is clearly situated within the growing right-wing, “market-based” proposals to “reform” everything public. Rather than putting forth a strategic plan based on an academically sound rationale, we are treated to a consumer vision of higher education: “eliminating academic programs which no longer hold the interest, based on enrollment trends, of our students.”

Anyone who has been paying attention to PA Governor Corbett’s all out assault on public education – higher ed and K-12 – knows that there has been a systematic divestment in education aided by right-wing dominated Republican majorities in the state House and Senate. But the state’s divestment in education is not the only contributing factor. Over the past decade and more PASSHE has become ruled by the same anti-teacher, anti-liberal education, and anti-working class student logic that currently dominates national debates on education. Clarion University administrators can dress up their workforce plan with as much pretty language as they want, but the material effects will tell another story.

The first year of the plan calls for the elimination of 22 APSCUF faculty jobs, 12.75 unionized AFSCME workers, 4 managers, and 2 unioned SCUPA workers. In addition, the plan calls for eliminating 6 APSCUF faculty jobs, 4 AFSCME jobs, 1 unionized OPEIU job, and 3 managers that are currently vacant. Those vacant positions represent decisions made by Clarion University and PASSHE administrators, to downsize even before the current cuts. All told, we are talking about 28 faculty positions, 19.75 staff positions, and 7 managers. The proposed cuts amount to almost a 10% cut in faculty.

The faculty cuts will be accompanied by significant cuts in programs and a reorganization of programs and departments. First, the plan calls for placing the Music Education major in moratorium and eliminating all course offerings in German and French. In the next phase, Clarion proposes to dissolve the College of Education.

Further, the Department of Academic Enrichment will be eliminated. Here’s the mission statement of the Department of Academic Enrichment:

During their collegiate experience at Clarion University of Pennsylvania, students may experience some form of academic difficulty with specific academic subjects and/or their basic learning skills. Recognizing this fact, the administration at Clarion has committed institutional resources to the development of the Center for Academic Enrichment.

The center provides comprehensive assistance in reading and study skills as well as in the content areas of specific subjects. It has two components, the Learning Skills Lab and the Tutorial Center.

The prime objective of the Learning Skills Lab is to provide students with instruction in basic learning skills to become independent learners. The Tutorial Center provides supplemental aid to classroom instruction in the content areas.

That’s right. The place where students who need help get that help is being axed. This kind of move is precisely why the rationale stated in Clarion’s new workforce plan is suspect, if not insulting. For example, take this nugget:

The actions presented in the plan will result in a Clarion University that by July 1, 2015 is positioned for the future and able to continue serving students, employers, and community partners as a public university. At the forefront of this plan is student success in terms of our determination as a public university for our students to graduate and succeed in their careers beyond the classroom thanks to the marketable skills they learn at Clarion [italics in original for some bizarre reason].

How best ensure student success? You got it. Get rid of the department whose mission is to help students when they need the help. Makes sense, right?

The Kutztown University Example: Failing Upward

That same logic certainly made sense to Kutztown University administrators when they eliminated the Advising Center and several other programs designed to assist students – especially first-generation or “at-risk” students. These decisions were especially disorienting given that in 2004 the current Vice Provost, Carole Wells, authored the report “Early Intervention Initiatives,” praising these programs. The report began:

This report identifies the best practices used for student retention at Kutztown University. According to published literature, the following strategies are recommended to enhance student retention for a variety of student populations: orientation, freshman seminar and college transition courses, early student/faculty contact, high quality teaching (e.g. improved teaching of introductory courses) and support of student learning, collaboration between academic and student affairs units, student-faculty open houses for majors, quality internship experiences, enrollment management programs, and faculty and peer mentoring and intervention programs.

Despite warnings from the Kutztown chapter of the faculty union about the impact of eliminating these programs, despite the fact that Kutztown’s Advising Center had received national recognition for best practices, and despite their own reports, administrators dropped the ax. How did that play out? Here’s Kutztown President Javier Cevallos’s  “Presidential Update” from October 2012 – a little over two years after the administration cut the Advising Center and other retention programs:

Budget Shortfall 

This fall semester, Kutztown University is facing a problem of serious magnitude.  For the second straight year, the university has experienced a drop in enrollment.

Almost 300 students have made the decision not to come back to KU to continue their education for this fall semester. While we realize many of our sister institutions and private universities within our region are facing the same situation, the drop we are experiencing this year is much larger than we have had in the past.

Upon learning of this, we immediately identified the students and called them to determine their status and/or reasons for not returning.  Although we are still evaluating the information we have gathered, it is evident that we need to become more effective at retaining our students.

As I stated at our opening day gathering, each student we lose seriously impacts our budget.  With only 20 percent of funding coming from the commonwealth, and with our operating budget based on our year-to-year enrollment, the student body is our lifeblood.

So…you cut programs that you reported to your own accreditation agencies were essential for retaining students, ignored the concerns expressed by faculty, and ignored all the academic studies and now you have failed to retain students.

Now you’ve got a good crisis on your hands. What do you do? President Cevallos’s April 2013 “Presidential Update” announced the solution:

we hired an independent company to review our enrollment practices and make suggestions for improvement.  We will be implementing their top recommendation of hiring a vice president for enrollment management.  This new position will serve on Cabinet, report directly to me and supervise areas related to enrollment.

Are you following?

  • Step 1: eliminate Academic Departments and programs staffed by faculty due to “budget” issues.
  • Step 2: watch your university fall into crisis.
  • Step 3: spend lots of money on an independent consultant to tell you that you need exactly what you had before.
  • Step 4: recreate the very thing you cut with one key difference: it will now be staffed by managers, not faculty.

This is the kind of “shock doctrine” policy I have been reporting on since my first post on Kutztown University’s austerity policies back in 2011. Turns out that Kutztown was the canary in the coal mine.

Governance by Dictate

In what has become a well-established pattern, PASSHE administration continues to govern by dictate, excluding major “stakeholders” (their favored term) from the decision-making process. Clarion’s announcement that it had a new vision for the future, was a vision concocted in the closed-door rooms of university and PASSHE administrative offices for sure.

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette story on Clarion’s announcement of their new workforce plan, shows just how excluded faculty were from the decision-making process:

A union representative who attended campus briefings Thursday described silence and disbelieving looks in the room.

“People were shocked,” said Elizabeth MacDaniel, chairwoman of Clarion’s English department and president of the campus chapter of the faculty association.

She said she understands the need to respond to shifts in enrollment and to budget woes but said the school could have approached it differently, allowing the staff to shrink through attrition. She noted that the school plans to advertise for eight new faculty positions, while other employees with as many as 20 years of service would be put out of work. The faculty cuts, she said, would be effective in May.

“It’s going to be dreadful,” she said of the likely campus reaction. “People are going to be angry. It’s going to be horrible.”

She said the reduction would represent nearly 10 percent of the faculty at Clarion.

With the classes to begin at PASSHE universities next week, many faculty and staff have more concerns than just finishing their course preparations. Faculty at 7 other PASSHE universities were also sent letters warning of retrenchment. Clarion University may be the most significant gutting of a PASSHE university to date, but all indications are that it will not be the last. And with October 1, 2013 set as the first day of work for PASSHE’s new Chancellor, Frank Brogan, the Board of Governors just may be trying to get some dirty work done before he arrives.

Raging Chicken Press will continue to follow this story.


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1 Comment on PA State System of Higher Ed Begins Academic Year Taking Ax to Jobs and Programs

  1. Starve it, then privatize it. That’s the right-wing/corporate game plan. Republican governors in most states are doing the same thing.

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