Losing Confidence: Austerity, Vampires, and Drums at ESU

For eleven of the past twelve years, Kutztown University’s president welcomed faculty and staff to the new academic year by preaching the gospel of austerity, budget crisis, and gloom. Despite the evidence showing that Kutztown’s was in a better financial shape than almost every other PASSHE university, under the leadership of former university president, Javier Cevallos, KU’s administration used all sorts of Wall Street inspired accounting schemes to present the appearance of fiscal crisis to one audience – faculty, staff, and students – while singing a song of plenty to crediting agencies and investors.

During his time at KU, Cevallos’s story of doom and gloom faced increasing resistance from faculty and staff – especially following the release of information in 2011 showing that KU was, contrary to Cevallos’s public statements, awash in cash. Sensing that it was time to hit the road before he lost all of his market value, after several failed attempts, Cevallos finally landed a job as president of Framingham State College in Massachusetts.

The process of hiring a new president is just getting underway; in the meantime, Kutztown’s former Provost, Carlos Vargas-Aburto, is now Acting President. And, for the first time since 2002, the President’s “Opening Day Celebration” message was not about crisis. As a matter of fact, the only mention of a “budget crisis,” came from the vice president of the faculty union, Dr. Helen Bieber. Bieber began her remarks saying that in many ways, Cevallos’s departure is the beginning of a “brand new era” at Kutztown. And, what she said next seemed to lend some concrete support to that possibility:

We face many challenges campus wide. We, again, have flat funding from the state, lower enrollments. Many of us here, faculty included, are in the last year of our contract with negotiations ahead and all of the concerns that go along with that. However, Paul (APSCUF-KU President) and I believe that if we all work together, we can overcome the issues that lie ahead. Faculty, if you are not already aware, please let me pass along an item that occurred a few days before the start of the month. Dr. Vargas asked for an emergency Meet and Discuss. We met and were informed by him that even though state funding was now what we had hoped; even though enrollments were slightly down, he was not going to issue a letter indicating possible retrenchments for this year. There would be no retrenchments – (vigorous applause) – Dr. Vargas, for that, APSCUF thanks you.

Contrast that with the last words of out-going President Cevallos on KU’s budget in October 2013:

On Friday, we shared with APSCUF leadership that we will not be issuing any new retrenchment letters this year. This does not mean that our financial situation is resolved. For the 2013-14 year, we used a combination of base budget cuts and one time funds to address the deficit. Current estimates project a $10.3 million deficit for 2014-15, which will be addressed through a combination of base budget cuts and one-time funds. We will continue to review all aspects of our university in the coming months to formulate a balanced budget for next year in light of these continuing serious fiscal challenges.

Or, Cevallos’s parting shot in May 2014, in which he informed the union that despite spending nearly three-quarters of a million dollars hiring a highly paid “enrollment manager” and creating an entirely new administrative division for enrollment management, the university was experiencing a greater than expected drop in enrollment. Now that’s what I call getting your money’s worth.

Yet, with the news that Acting President Vargas would not be issuing letters of retrenchment and an overall focus on the “student experience” during this year’s Opening Celebration, the halls in university buildings were filled with more cautiously optimistic voices than in years past. True, the proof will be in the pudding; but, not beginning another academic year worried about where the ax will fall, counts for something.

O Captain! My Captain? Really?

If the scene at Kutztown University is a bit more encouraging this year, the scene at East Stroudsburg University is a different story.

Last year, East Stroudsburg University president, Marcia Welsh, led what was at times nasty, at times embarrassing, austerity campaign that led to large rallies by students, faculty, staff, and community members seeking to save programs and jobs. Under the banner Believe in ESU – or simply #BelieveInESU in the Twitter world – the campaign argued that the “budget crisis” that Welsh and her administration kept referencing was a fabrication – at least when it came to understanding why ESU was concerned about its finances. In a move very similar to what former Kutztown University President, Javier Cevallos used to say, Welsh talked about the budget crunch as if it were a result of having too many faculty teaching out-dated programs. Take this little snippet from a public forum in November 2013 in which President Welsh attempts to answer a question from Ken Mash, a faculty member at ESU and then Vice President of the state-wide faculty union, APSCUF (Mash is now APSCUF’s president):

When you’re trying to retain students, how does it help to announce to the world that you are cutting programs? In fact, won’t that drive students away? And, when we are trying to attract students, when we’re trying to increase student enrollment at the university – I believe vice president Long has said that every one percent increase is worth $600,000 to our budget. So, why would we be taking a public position that will obviously drive students away?

I talk to a lot of parents, especially over the weekend, and when you explain…When you have a business, you have a business, and on your shelf in that business you have something that isn’t in high demand anymore. You take that off the shelf and you put something on the shelf that is high demand and then people want it. 99% of our students won’t notice most of what’s going on here. It’s being announced because it’s out there, the rumors are out there and we’d rather not live with rumors. We do need to structure some of our majors, we do need to condense, we do need to realign. So that’s what we’re doing.

So, by her logic – you know, the logic that says faculty, classes, programs, education are nothing but commodities like toothpaste in on a shelf in the grocery store – the problem is that consumers (that is, students) are not buying enough of the products (that is, music, science, art, English) to provide enough revenue to justify further corporate (that is, university) investment. And, unfortunately, 30 years of endless preaching of the market gospel on cable news and in state legislatures that explanation might seem plausible. Plausible, that is, if her explanation is the only information you have about the university’s finances.

As Grace Kavanah wrote in Raging Chicken Press last November, East Stroudsburg University’s budget woes have more to do with administrative incompetence and poor decision-making than anything else. For example, take the multi-million dollar “Center for Research and Economic Development” building, which administrators touted as the next big thing for ESU back in 2010:

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.”

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.

The CFRED building was not only a huge drain on the university’s budget, but it was also almost synonymous with the $6.9 million budget shortfall that President Welsh cited as the reason she “needed” to make such drastic cuts. As Kavanah explained,

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. 

And as Kavanah noted, these numbers were not coming from some pro-faculty, union think tank…they came out of the mouth of the university’s Vice President of Administration and Finance, Ken Long – the very same guy, not coincidentally, who used to work at Kutztown University and advised former KU President Cevallos through a nasty retrenchment process.

And yet, President Welsh stayed on message – “if you’re a business…”

This is Your Leader? @PresidentWelsh #DidSHeReallyJustSayTHat 

It was bad enough that Welsh led the austerity charge at ESU last year and has remounted her attack this academic year. That’s enough to keep faculty, staff, and students on edge as they finish their first week of classes today. But what made the ESU fight so nasty at times last year, was Welsh’s astonishing and at times offensive remarks in public and on social media.

While Welsh’s comments about faculty and university programs being little more than products on store shelves laid bare her market sensibilities, ESU students were outraged by her comment that “99% of our students won’t notice most of what’s going on here.” And what happened when students showed up to rallies, wrote letters to the local paper, lobbied legislators, and demonstrated in no uncertain terms that they knew full well what the hell was going on and they we’re not going to take it? What happened then?

Welsh called them vampires. On Twitter.

Welsh Twitter Vampire Crop

So relevant today, indeed, President Welsh.

Not long after this, Welsh thought best to stop pissing off the most engaged students on campus by offending a different constituency. In an attempt to draw some energy from Earth Day activities planned for that same day, President Welsh sent out an email to the campus inviting them to come and play Indian. After  providing a short history of how the “Lenni Lenape…the Shawnee and some of the Iroquois” used the “beating of their drums” as a way to demonstrate their commonalities across differences, she implored members of the ESU Campus Community to “bring anything you own that you can beat on, drums, sticks, cans, whatever” to a location on campus and “let your Warrior Spirit shine!” Seriously.

Warrior Spirit Email

It’s a testament to the faculty and student body that virtually no one showed up to Welsh’s little mistake – except, of course, all the administrators she told to be there and the few student she managed to corral on her way to her empty stage.

A wet and empty stage for Welsh's Warrior Spirit event.
A wet and empty stage for Welsh’s Warrior Spirit event, April 22, 2013.

What do Welsh’s blunders – even the most offensive ones – have to do with her call for further cuts in faculty and programs this academic year have to do with each other? Well, as the lesson from this year’s opening celebrations at Kutztown University illustrates, how a university president conducts her or himself matters. It matters if a university president thinks about the university as a place of learning as opposed to  a business  like any other; it matters if a university president praises students who are politically engaged as opposed to viewing them as vampires; it matters if a university is conscious and attentive to cultural and political traditions as opposed to using those traditions opportunistically to advance her administrative goals. And it matters if a university president chooses to work with faculty and students to preserve jobs and programs as opposed to blindly following austerity policies to cut, gut, and punish.

As the faculty union enters contraction negotiations this fall, the fight to save public higher education in Pennsylvania will certainly heat up. And we will be there.




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3 Comments on Losing Confidence: Austerity, Vampires, and Drums at ESU

  1. Does ALEC or some similar group FUND training academies for these so-called college presidents? Once these brilliant public servants pass Austerity 101, do they then go to the top of the “selection” list for openings around the country? Just wondering, because in a similar vein, I heard the Federalist Society was involved in “educating” law students for many years. A school board member I know also told me that some charter schools act as a pipeline to get their “graduates” into certain colleges who are in on the “deal.” The corporate takeover manifests itself in many ways, so I can imagine my comments are possibilities. Maybe someone has some research/info on this?

  2. Music is being particularly hard hit. There was a good number of full-time music faculty just a few years ago. Only a couple remain, and Welsh wants to eliminate them as well.

    She has talked of doing this by making all performing groups non-course “activities.” But having no faculty also means that no traditional music classes could be offered as well. Music Appreciation? Gone!

    Is this what a comprehensive, regional public university is supposed to be like? Will Welsh actually boast of this?

    Welsh and her administrative minions are wholly ignorant of the arts, yet their hubris won’t allow them to recognize it. Great leaders know their limitations – Marcia Welsh doesn’t. You do the math…..

  3. Welsh is well known for just saying whatever is convenient at the moment. In her first year at ESU, she told the faculty at a general meeting that if they wanted to receive tenure and promotions they would need to do a great deal more peer-reviewed research. She held fast to this despite being reminded that her policy was in direct violation of the APSCUF contract, which clearly specifies the ratio between teaching, scholarship and research. A faculty then stated that teaching loads are lower in colleges placing greater emphasis on research. She responded by saying that she couldn’t lower teaching loads because that would be in violation of the APSCUF contract!!

    Unfortunately, such idiotic and contradictory ideas are commonplace with other key ESU administrators as well. At a meeting last year in which the need for higher student enrollment was emphasized, a very high-ranking ESU administrator stated that with the current budget problems, new degree programs could be considered only if they could guarantee to bring in a LOT of new students IMMEDIATELY (as in first-semester-immediately!), a ridiculous notion. Then, only several minutes later, the same administrator said that they would be leery of a large influx of new students, as more faculty would have to be hired!

    There’s only two essential elements to a school: students and teachers. If Welsh truly recognized that, she would be doing everything in her power to aid faculty in teaching students. Yet all she does is threaten and harass. With morale among faculty at an all-time low, they recently gave Welsh an 85% disapproval rating.

    When will the madness end? Or is ESU destined to be perpetually cursed with inept and dysfunctional administrators?

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