The Return of #SLASSHE – New Chancellor Leads the Charge for New Round of Cuts at PA State Universities

#SLASSHE – Keep that hashtag at the ready because it’s déjà vu all over again for faculty, staff, and students of the 14 university PA State System of Higher Education (PASSHE). Yesterday, five PASSHE universities learned that the are being targeted for additional deep cuts – Cheney, Clarion, East Stroudsburg, Edinboro, and Mansfield. Call it “retrenchment,” “realignment,” or any other choice MBA jargon you want, it amounts to one thing: the elimination of faculty and staff and degraded educational opportunities for the 100,000+ students that attend a PASSHE university.

At about the same time last year, 8 of the 14 PASSHE universities received letters of possible layoffs and program elimination – California, Cheney, Clarion, East Stroudsburg, Edinboro, Kutztown, Mansfield, and Slippery Rock. Not all 8 universities experienced the full force of cuts, however. For example, Kutztown University decided to put off additional cuts until its former president, Javier Cevallos, found himself gainful employment elsewhere. Slippery Rock chose to pursue a “Third Way” to austerity. California University, following the firing of its controversial and legally embroiled president Angelo Armenti, miraculously found that is did not have an $11.8 million budget deficit. Nope. The university was sitting comfortably on a $5.8 million surplus. In the end, it was Clarion, East Stroudsburg, Edinboro, and Mansfield who were targeted for PASSHE’s cut, gut, and punish approach to “transforming” public higher education in Pennsylvania.

Yesterday, the Patriot-News recalled last year’s round of cuts this way:

Last year, 45 faculty received notification that their jobs were being eliminated but ultimately, system officials said 14 ended up being left without jobs in the system. The faculty union, however, puts the number of faculty who ultimately were forced out of the system at six.

The others later found out their positions were being retained, they retired, or moved into positions elsewhere in the university or at another system school, system and union spokespeople said.

While this reporting is factually accurate, it represents only a small glimpse of what actually took place last year. While “only” 45 faculty received notification that their jobs were being eliminated, that is not where discussions began. Last August, Clarion University released its new “workforce plan” that called for the elimination of 40 jobs, including 22 faculty. On September 13 – a Friday the 13th – Edinboro University, not to be outdone, released a workforce plan axing at least 55 jobs, including 40 faculty members. A couple of weeks later, Mansfield University issued a workforce plan seeking a 17% cut in faculty – 29 out of 170 permanent faculty members. The same day, East Stroudsburg also called for the elimination of 29 faculty members in its sparkly new workforce plan. In short, PASSHE was seeking to cut 120 faculty positions and dozens of additional jobs on campuses.

StopCuts Slasshe FEATUREDSo, while “only” 45 faculty ultimately received notification that their jobs were being eliminated, more than 120 faculty members were on the chopping block until each university sent official letters at the end of October. And, yes, 14 (or six) faculty members may have been “left without jobs in the system” by the end of the 2013-2014 academic year, the great reduction in the numbers of jobs lost only happened because faculty, students, staff, and community members fought back against the cuts. Clarion University faculty launched a “Faces of Retrenchment” facebook page that became a rallying point against deep cuts. East Stroudsburg University faculty and students stages multiple rallies and protests under the banner “Believe in ESU.” Mansfield University faculty and students staged a raucous protest against the cuts prior to PASSHE Chancellor Brogan’s visit to campus. And while the fight was being taken to the streets, faculty union leaders on each campus and in Harrisburg were working around the clock to stave of the worst of PASSHE’s austerity plans.

As faculty, staff, students, and community members were building a movement against the cuts, new light was being shed on PASSHE’s creative accounting practices that were magically turning significant surpluses into crisis-level debts. As I reported in “Wall Street on the Susquehanna,” in Raging Chicken Press last October, PASSHE has been bleeding its education budget in order to build pretty new buildings. Using an Enron-esque accounting scheme called “off-balance sheet financing,” PASSHE universities were taking out bonds to fund fancy new dorms, rec centers, and food courts through its Foundation or other third-party non-profits. The “costs” did not appear on the universities official books. Instead, universities made cleverly disguised transfers from their education budgets to these third parties in order to pay down their bond debt. Even the credit rating agencies caught on to the scheme saying that such practices may lead to a downgrading of PASSHE’s credit rating. And it did.

The “scandal” here is that universities were spending lavishly on new buildings while claiming poverty. University presidents were saying the money for new buildings could not be used for educational costs, that the two funds – Educational General Fund and Facilities – were separate and could not be transferred from one to the other. Turns out, that’s exactly what they were doing. I concluded “Wall Street on the Susquehanna” this way:

Remember the backdrop we’re all working with here. PASSHE university presidents across the state are screaming about budget shortfalls and the need to make deep cuts to faculty, staff and academic programs – and not just at the universities that are most immediately under the budget ax. The new PASSHE Chancellor, Frank Brogan, had made it clear that the cuts will continue, remarking In October 10 during a media briefing, “Make no doubt about it, retrenchment is here.” And the story from PASSHE’s administration continues to be that the “problem” comes from “rising costs” from faculty and staff salaries – no matter how clear the data is disproving that claim.

In reality, the costs of more than a decade of irresponsible building projects and sketchy oversight will be borne by faculty, staff and students. And, like the Wall Street fraud that led to the Great Recession of 2009, the people who gambled with our money – with the money that we expected to be responsibly invested in our future and the future of our children – will walk away, pointing their fingers at all of us.

Thus far, we do not have detailed “work force plans” from each of the 5 universities pursuing additional cuts this year. We will report on them as soon as we have that information. However, it is clear that PASSHE administrators are going to keep the austerity train fueled and moving forward.

Last April, Steve Hicks, outgoing president of APSCUF, the faculty union, visited faculty union members at Kutztown University. At the meeting, Hicks said that there were indications that PASSHE was prepared to issue multiple retrenchment letters for the 2014-2015 academic year. He said that from his perspective, PASSHE administrators seem to have a new strategy after faculty won a fair contract after almost two years of strained negotiations. As I reported at the time,

Hicks made it clear that the possibility of retrenchment has little to nothing to do with the universities’ actual financial health. Hicks said he believed that PASSHE university presidents had figured out that by screaming “We’re broke!” and then threatening to gut faculty and academic programs, they can get things they want without having to negotiate. It’s about power.

Ken Mash, APSCUF’s new president and former VP under Hicks, seems to agree with the Hicks’s assessment. In yesterday’s article in the Patriot-News, Mash seemed to be echoing Hicks’s believe that PASSHE administrators are looking for ways to get what they want by going around the contract:

He [Mash] said he suspects system officials are using program realignment as the excuse to avoid directly pointing the finger at the system’s fiscal challenges that arise from   having its state funding cut by 18 percent in 2011-12 and not going up since. Brogan said in the news release that declining resources is not solely the reason behind the potential layoffs.

Mash claims that many of the layoff notices that went out last year were based on flawed reasoning and ended up damaging the universities’ reputation and demoralizing students. Much of that could have been avoided had system officials done more to reach out to the 4,200 faculty.

And PASSHE administrators may be looking to use its ongoing austerity measures as a bargaining chip at the table as well. Faculty will sit down with PASSHE in the next several weeks to begin contract negotiations. The faculty contract expires June 30, 2015.

Stay tuned and follow/tweet with hashtag #SLASSHE

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