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State universities' faculty, staff warned of possible layoffs

| Saturday, July 20, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

Stagnant state subsidies and declining enrollments are threatening jobs at several universities in Pennsylvania's State System of Higher Education.

Faculty leaders said employees of six state universities, including Clarion and California universities in Western Pennsylvania, received letters notifying them that faculty and staff positions could be cut to balance the budget this fall.

“Money is the bottom line,” said Elizabeth McDaniel, president of the faulty union at Clarion University, 80 miles northeast of Pittsburgh. She identified the other four state schools as Cheney, East Stroudsburg, Edinboro and Mansfield universities.

Systemwide, state subsidies declined from $484 million in 2007-08 to $412.7 million in 2011-12. They have remained flat since.

In a July 12 email, Clarion President Karen Whitney wrote that the school is weighing its options. It has an $8 million deficit and enrollment that declined 8.7 percent from 2008 to 2012.

University leaders are trying “to identify areas of growth, areas needed to maintain the continuity of university operations, and areas that either need to be revitalized, reduced or eliminated,” Whitney said.

McDaniel identified several mainstay programs, including English, physics, biology, psychology and education, as “programs or departments of concern,” saying they exceeded their budgets by at least 10 percent or failed to produce expected credit hours of instruction.

Neither Whitney nor Jim Kifer, president of the university's council of trustees, returned calls for comment. McDaniel said top management sought proposals from faculty leaders to reduce the deficit or boost enrollment.

Enrollment declines are a doubled-edged sword for schools, which rely on tuition money and receive state support based in part on enrollment. This month the Board of Governors, which oversees the State System of Higher Education's budget, slashed Clarion's state subsidy by $551,423 because of a 3 percent drop in enrollment in 2012.

The school expects again to record a decline in enrollment this fall, McDaniel said.

Declining enrollment is a concern for colleges across Pennsylvania. The pool of new high school graduates peaked at 131,000 in 2010 but is expected to keep shrinking through 2020.

Theater professor Michael Slavin heads the faculty union at California University, where officials are juggling a $7 million deficit. He said staffers there received notices of possible job cuts last week.

“But I'm not going to overreact to it,” Slavin said, noting that officials issued a similar letter last year, then withdrew it.

The Board of Governors cut California's state subsidy by $1.5 million, or 5.4 percent, this month to account for enrollment that dropped from 9,483 in 2011 to 8,608 in 2012.

Notifications of possible job reductions are required by contract and can have unintended consequences, Slavin said.

“They're playing a political game. It's like walking on a razor,” he said, noting that the news can prompt incoming students to reconsider enrolling this fall.

Debra Erdley is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-320-7996 or derdley@tribweb.com.

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