Layoffs and lies wither under APSCUF's unflinching gaze

Julia Scheib
News Editor

Because of Governor Corbett’s nationally recognized budget-slashing, the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education (PASSHE) is now receiving the same amount of support from the state as was provided 15 years ago; Pennsylvania has the distinction of being the one of the top five states for reduction in financial support for education.

Fortunately for students, coaches and faculty, APSCUF (the Association of Pennsylvania State College and University Faculties) is one of the strongest higher-education unions in the nation.

This union doesn’t have a traditional workers-versus-boss relationship with PASSHE because the 112,000 students served by the state system are an important factor in the equation. When professors fight for better pay and workplace standards, they are fighting to maintain the quality of education that students in the state system receive at a price that is as affordable as possible.

Dr. Barry David, department chair of Applied Engineering, Safety and Technology and vice president of the faculty union at MU, said that APSCUF’s goal is to ensure that everyone in the state, no matter what their background, has access to equally good higher education. “Do we want college education only for the elite?” he asked. “Historically, that’s what it was. We want access for everyone.”

As the funding for higher education sinks to levels not seen in years, the progress toward equal access to a quality education for everyone is in danger of reversing itself.

Members of APSCUF rallied in January 2013, before the 2011-15 contract was put into action. APSCUF was able to avoid a strike.
Members of APSCUF rallied in January 2013, before the 2011-15 contract was put into action. APSCUF was able to avoid a strike.

With the increased pressure on state schools to generate their own revenue, a new question is starting to challenge old paradigms: should education be treated as a public good, or as a product to be sold?

The union negotiates its contracts through collective bargaining: “Rather than negotiating individually for salary and benefits, workplace climate, etc., we negotiate as a unit,” said David. “There is far more power in multiple voices than with single voices.”

In 2011, when John Cavanaugh was chancellor of PASSHE and the 2011-2015 contract was first being negotiated, Cavanaugh wanted to raise the cap on the percentage of temporary faculty that could teach at state system schools from 25% to 75%. That didn’t happen, but it is an example of the cost-cutting forces that faculty are up against and administrations must cope with.

“If you start treating the university as a business, where economics take priority over the quality of education,” said David, “that’s what happens. And there are universities across the country that have a high number of adjunct faculty. This is not good for the institutions or the professors, many of whom have good credentials and would like a permanent position.” Many adjunct professors, like other temp workers, live a life of precarity. Some work at several schools every semester without benefits or any voice in the curriculum and are forced to live in or near poverty.

At Millersville, the percentage of adjunct faculty has risen since the cuts in 2011, but only a bit. Adjuncts currently make up 18-20% of the faculty at MU, David said. There are usually 80 or 90 adjuncts working at Millersville at any one time, but in the past three or four years there have been between 102 and 125.

The increase is partially because of the fact that some positions are now ‘frozen’ – a professor has left, and his or her department hasn’t been allowed to search for a replacement.

What else has happened at Millersville since the budget cuts?

“One of the things the university did to balance the budget was to reduce the number of complement,” David said. Complement essentially means ‘regular faculty’ who are full-time, have salary and benefits, advise students, serve on committees, and are generally able to be a part of the university community.

When the number of complement is reduced, there is a direct effect on students. “Two years ago, you may have had some difficulty signing up for the classes you needed,” David said. That inconvenience was due to a reduction in the number of complement at the university. Even taking away or ‘freezing’ one or two positions (that is, not searching for a new professor when one leaves the school) can have a strong negative effect on a department.

Each full-time faculty member teaches four classes per semester, so if two full-time faculty are missing, 16 classes will be missing from the department’s course offerings. Multiply this across all of the academic departments, David said, and it creates “a huge void.”

Logo for APSCUF.
Logo for APSCUF.

Millersville has done a great job of retaining full-time faculty positions in hard economic times, said David, but other schools in the state system have not handled it as well. Some schools have had to lay off faculty members and staff, claiming that their institutions could not support the number of employees.

APSCUF went to the net on this issue and, according to President Steve Hicks, was able to bring down the number of layoffs for the 2013-14 school year from 140 to 22; better, but still unacceptable. The union thought that schools didn’t do a good enough job of justifying retrenchment (layoffs).

So, last fall, APSCUF commissioned an independent audit of PASSHE schools, focusing on the half that suffered retrenchment earlier in 2013. Cheney, Clarion, East Stroudsburg, Edinboro, Kutztown, Mansfield and Slippery Rock were on the list.

They found that the retrenchment was not a financial issue. In other words, the universities did have the money and could have kept the professors and programs they lost. It was a matter of earmarking faculty and departments for elimination.

Another concern that has been raised by faculty, according to Kevin Mahoney, a professor at Kutztown and the editor of Raging Chicken Press, who has followed the issue since before the audit, is that all seven universities were found by the auditors to have diverted money from their Education and General funds (which contain money given to them by the state, and from which faculty salaries are paid) and are using it to pay off massive debts from the ill-advised and excessive construction of showy buildings on campus.

APSCUF ran this audit because PASSHE was not holding state schools accountable for the budgeting decisions that led to the retrenchments. A press release from APSCUF reads, “[PASSHE] has been allowing the fourteen state-owned universities to mismanage their budgets by hiding debt in affiliated corporations, funding new construction based on questionable assumptions, and misleading the public about their financial difficulties.”

Universities created ‘affiliated entities’ or used foundations to take on the construction debt.

Steve Hicks, president of APSCUF, said, “Every university is using a scheme to transfer debt to ‘component units,’ including the university foundations and student housing associations. Money that the public believes is dedicated to academics is instead going to their affiliates to pay for buildings.”

In the press release, Hicks went on to say: “Tuition, fees, and state support monies are regularly being transferred to these entities, both directly and indirectly – [universities’] poor budgetary decisions are forcing students to double pay because universities are using both their tuition dollars and their fees to pay off debt on buildings.”

State-owned universities want extremely nice facilities because they fear financial ruin. Increasing enrollment rates, especially of students who are perhaps wealthy and pay out-of-state tuition, is one way to stay solvent. But as the APSCUF audit proves, this competitive mindset coupled with mismanagement is instrumental in degrading the quality of education and making it less accessible to lower, working and middle class students in PA.

“APSCUF is probably the most powerful higher education union in the nation,” David said. But, like the early unions that fought for workers’ rights to tolerable conditions and the eight-hour workday, APSCUF didn’t just appear by magic, and it shouldn’t be taken for granted.

“If the union was broken,” David said, “It would have a large and negative impact on higher education in Pennsylvania.”

Believe it or not, there are many wealthy people in this country who would like it if APSCUF, and other unions, went away. Next week, we will pick up where this story leaves off.