Profs could move off campus
Negotiations later this month between the State System of Higher Education and the union representing faculty members at 14 state-owned universities could determine whether classes will resume in the spring semester.
SSHE officials and the Association of Pennsylvania State College and University Faculties are set to meet Dec. 18-19 to negotiate a new contract. The old pact expired June 30.
That session will come about a week after classes end for the semester. Classes for students at California University of Pennsylvania will wrap up Dec. 12. Commencement exercises are slated Dec. 13.
Students are scheduled to return Jan. 12. But as students are moving back into their dorms, their professors could be moving off campus. If significant progress is not made at the talks, APSCUF is prepared to move its union offices off the university campuses.
According to Dr. Burrell Brown, president of the APSCUF local at Cal U, a strike date has not been set. But he believes it could come "relatively soon" after the new semester starts - barring major progress in the negotiations.
Brown identified three main issues for APSCUF: salaries, benefits and class size.
He said SSHE wants professors to take wage freezes while paying larger co-pays for health insurance. He said the two issues are tied together.
Brown said he teaches one labor relations course in which about 50 students are enrolled. He suggested 35 students would be a more reasonable maximum for such a class.
"Class size is one of the reasons students come here," Brown said. "They expect the faculty to know who they are and interact with them."
SSHE spokesman Thomas Gluck said the System faces serious financial concerns as it attempts to avoid a strike.
"Obviously, we are eager to avoid a strike," Gluck said. "We hope to reach a settlement as soon as possible. But at the same time, that settlement must be a responsible settlement that our universities and students can afford.
"The System has been dealing with its most challenging fiscal crisis ever after multiple years of state funding cuts, and in efforts to keep tuition affordable, we had to cut $40 million from our budget just this year even after we raised tuition 5 percent."
The SSHE Board of Governors approved the tuition increase in July. As a result, undergraduate students are paying $4,598 in the 2003-04 school year, an increase of $220. Graduate students are paying $5,518 this year, up $264.
This increase came on the heels of a 9 percent tuition hike in 2002-03.
SSHE hopes to avoid what would be the first ever teachers' strike on the state-owned university campuses. But it is prepared just in case, Gluck said.
"In the unfortunate event the union chooses to call a strike, each of our universities does have a contingency plan," Gluck said. "And while I'm not going to discuss all the details of those plans, the goal of all those plans includes keeping our universities open and operational, keeping students and staff and visitors safe on our campuses during a strike, and to ensure that students do not lose time toward the completion of their degrees. Those plans are ready to go."
Gluck said the professors at state-owned colleges and universities are "in the upper tier of well paid professionals in the country."
"Strike votes and plans to move union offices off our campuses; those things do not change our fiscal reality," Gluck said. "That really is the central issue."