Shock Turning to Anger and Mobilization at Clarion University – “We’re going to be as rowdy and unpleasant as possible.”

In the wake of the devastating cuts proposed by the Clarion University administration and President Karen Whitney, it took a few days for faculty, staff, and students to shake off the initial shock and disbelief. Shock and disbelief has given way to a mobilization effort to save the three programs slated for immediate cuts and to prevent the firing of 22 faculty and 20 staff members. On August 15th, shortly after students learned of the cuts, a “Save the Clarion Department of Music” facebook page was created by students to “join music education and music business students past and present, and all who participated in performing organizations at Clarion University, so together, we can unite to Save the Department of Music.” Shortly afterwards, Clarion University alum, Jed Millard, started an on-line petition to urge Whitney to put a halt to the cuts. As of this posting, the petition already has 2,021 signatures.

Faces of Retrenchment Day 1 - Leah ChambersYesterday, faculty launched a “Faces of Retrenchment” campaign, as a way to highlight the fact that President Whitney’s “bold, ambitious workforce plan” has direct, material consequences for real people with real families. Many of the 22 faculty slated to lose their jobs have been at Clarion for years – some for decades. In the next several days and weeks, Clarion University’s campus will be bustling with activity and not just from the annual arrival of thousands of students on “Move-In Day.” Clarion University will be bustling with the sounds of organizing.

What the Hell?

If Clarion President Whitney’s slash-and-burn workforce plan shows a disdain for the academic mission of the university, the process by which this plan became known to the university community is down-right sickening. I wanted to know more about how people first learned about Clarion’s new workforce plan, so I called Beth MacDaniel, Chair of the English Department and President of Clarion’s chapter of the faculty union, APSCUF. What MacDaniel told me should set off alarm bells for anyone who gives half a damn about shared governance and democratic process.

When I asked MacDaniel if Clarion’s administration had given any indication that such drastic cuts were on their way, MacDaniel said:

Absolutely none. In fact, a couple of weeks ago we were at State APSCUF for a State meet and discuss [regular meetings between leaders of APSCUF and PASSHE administration in Harrisburg]. They didn’t give us a single clue that it was going to be anything like this. It was…it was…it blew my mind.

MacDaniel did not learn of the university’s “bold, ambitions workforce plan,” until the morning of August 15th when she and leaders from all the other unions on campus were called to special meetings with the university President and Provost ahead of a previously scheduled meeting.

The president has what she calls “university governance meetings,” where she meets with the leaders of different unions on campus. That was set for 1 o’clock this past Thursday. She was told that contractually she ought to meet with the leaders of each of the unions prior to that so they could see specifically what was happening with their bargaining unit members. And so, at 9 o’clock in the morning I met with the President, the Provost, the HR guy, and the financial guy. I had asked two other APSCUF leaders to go with me…I figured it wasn’t good for me to go by myself.

We were given copies of the workforce plan – that’s the first we saw of it. And then we were asked if we had questions.

We [APSCUF] went at 9, AFSCME went at 10, and SCUPA went at 11. At 1 o’clock in the afternoon, all of us met together with the President and Provost at the meeting that had already been set up. People who hadn’t received the workforce plan were given copies of it and then they asked for questions. People were pretty much still in a state of shock.

If you have not checked out the actual workforce plan yet, you should. It’s a 32-page document filled with charts and graphs and a fair share of inconsistencies. And, there is some rather oddly placed happy talk. For example, on page 5  just before the plan calls for the elimination of Academic Enrichment – the department that runs academic support for students who may need tutoring or mentoring – it says, “the plan is intentionally broad and shapes the workforce across all areas of the university in order to ensure the unique culture of learning at Clarion where we believe in the potential of every student, and strive to help our students achieve their academic and career goals.” Really? Really!?!?!?!?

Or, how about this gem on page 12. The administration identifies the BS in Music Entrepreneurship as a potential growth area. Clarion does not have a BS degree in Music Entrepreneurship and the “proposed program” has not made its way through the university’s curriculum bodies. That’s a BS degree for sure, just not one you can get a job with – especially given that the plan calls for cutting actually existing music classes.

“They couldn’t have come up with this overnight,” says MacDaniel. That’s not to say that the administration had not expressed concerns about “budget shortfalls.”  It was no mystery that Clarion, like most of the other 14 universities in the PA State System of Higher Education, was hit hard by deep cuts in State funding thanks to a Governor and right-wing Republican dominated state legislature seemingly hell-bent on destroying public education from kindergarten through higher ed. In an upcoming article on Raging Chicken Press, I will report on some of the root causes of PASSHE’s “budget crisis” that raise troubling questions about how seriously the Board of Governors, University Trustees, and university presidents are taking their fiduciary responsibilities. MacDaniel and other members of the union’s local meet and discuss team had been trying to have frank conversations about the President’s plans for dealing with a projected $8 million budget deficit.

Well, I think that this President and Provost have a particular idea, a vision of what they think the university should be. We kept asking at local meet and discuss, “what’s your vision. What’s your vision.” And all they did was parrot back the vision and mission statements of the university posted on the web page. They had to have had an idea all along…for several months at least…about how extensive they wanted this to be. And they didn’t give us a clue. They kept on saying, “we don’t know the numbers, we don’t know, we don’t know, we don’t know. Clearly they knew.

And it seems President Whitney was committed to keeping anyone outside of her inner circle in the dark. In an August 8 prepared statement, Clarion Provost Ronald Nowaczyk delivered the smoke-and-mirrors:

The university is still reviewing any cuts in personnel or related actions, and no decisions have been made.  President Karen Whitney confirmed the changes that will be made will not impact students who attend Clarion this fall.

While the university’s prepared statement indicated that the Provost had “met with state APSCUF leadership, along with the associate vice president for finance and administration and members of the chancellor’s Office of Labor Relations, to discuss the status of the university’s workforce plans, as required by the collective bargaining unit,” no one in that room on the faculty side left that meeting with any indication that Clarion was about to drop a bomb.

When asked whether he had any indication that Clarion was about to see a 10% cut in its faculty and over 40 jobs lost, APSCUF Vice President, Ken Mash said no way. “We were really blindsided,” he said. “We were not sure that they were going to have to retrench at all. Nobody saw 22 coming. It’s not like we’re stupid. They were at meet and discuss and they did not give any indication that they were looking at anything quite like this.”

Give credit where credit is due, however. Clarion’s president was not hiding the fact that she had no interest in hearing from faculty, staff, or students as she was preparing her “bold, ambitious workforce plan.” The administration was pretty clear in that August 8 prepared statement that it was going to issue changes by decree:

Leaders of the various employee bargaining units have not been involved in the process, but Nowaczyk said they are being advised on the status of the process via regular meetings with the president.

Presumably, “advising” means parroting back the vision and mission statements from the university’s web page.

So, is this it? (as Huey Lewis once asked)

Clarion Open Forum SchedulePresident Whitney is, however, putting on a good show. She has sent out emails to at least some students and alumni asking for feedback. She’s asked faculty and staff for questions and comments as well. This week, the Provost instructed deans to set up meetings with faculty in each of the university’s colleges to talk about the plan. The president plans a series of Open Forums with the university community beginning this Friday for questions and comments on the workforce plan. For those who cannot attend the open forum, the administration has sent out this questionaire for people to fill out and send back. They’ve even got a FAQ page. That’s pretty open, right? I mean, if they’re asking for questions and feedback, maybe they are thinking, feeling human beings after all. Maybe this workforce plan is just an initial draft that will galvanize a rich discussion of ways to improve the university together in a time of budget pressure.

Apparently, President Whitney forgot that the people she’s seeking to send packing are the very people who teach the next generation critical thinking and reading skills. And after a two-year, contentious contract battle, Whitney must not have realized that the shine has not yet worn off of faculty’s bullshit detectors. According to Clarion-APSCUF President MacDaniel, after Whitney asked faculty for feedback and comments, an active APSCUF member from the English department asked her just what kind of questions and comments she wanted. According to MacDaniel, Whitney replied:

Oh, if I have the name of your program wrong, tell me. If you see some factual errors, tell me. I don’t want to have mistakes on it. However, if you are asking how firm this plan is, it is 95-98% a done deal.

So, faculty are granted the privilege of editing and proofreading the document that is eliminating their jobs. Pink slips need to be grammatically correct, apparently.

Roll Over, Work Harder, or Fight Back?

APSCUF Contract Protest DixonFor years, faculty and staff working at PASSHE universities have heard the mantra: you have to work harder and do more with less. Students who chose to attend a PASSHE university for small classes and the opportunity to work one-on-one with faculty members, are now finding themselves ushered into 200-300 seat classrooms as the corporate education model dictates packing more “assess in classes.”  And while there has been a consistent push-back against PASSHE’s shift to a corporate model for education, there has been a general lack of a large, organized opposition. That is, until Gov. Corbett sought a 50% cut in state funding to PASSHE in 2011 and until APSCUF won a protracted, two-year contract fight this past spring. APSCUF’s organization during that contract fight and persistent cuts advocated by Corbett and the state legislature, may prove to be a turning point in this history of the 6,000 member union. You can almost hear faculty opening their windows and shouting, “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take it anymore!” At least that seems to be the case at Clarion.

During an interview on the Rick Smith Show last night, Beth MacDaniel made it pretty clear that Clarion President Whitney may have picked a fight with the wrong group of people. MacDaniel said that the administration wants the “illusion of listening to people, but they already know what they want to do.” And the union’s not going to roll over and do tricks:

We’re going to fight it. We’re going to fight it tooth and nail here. We’re going to try and save every single one of these faculty jobs, plus the AFSCME jobs, and the SCUPA jobs, because we believe this does not have to be done … So, we’re making plans [for] in-your-face kinds of things, so the President and the Provost and the other administrators aren’t able to just hide behind their rhetoric.

From what MacDaniel told me, the launch of their “Faces of Retrenchment” campaign is just the beginning of what the university community can expect to see on campus next week when classes begin. If Clarion President Whitney doesn’t choose to cancel her open forums, those meetings just might prove to be the moment when faculty, students, and staff in the PASSHE system say, “Enough is enough!”

MacDaniel and a large number of APSCUF members certainly plan on being in attendance. According to MacDaniel, “We’re going to go to those meetings and be as rowdy and unpleasant as possible.”  The fight back begins.

If you want to lend your voice to this fight, you can do something RIGHT NOW.



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