CLARION -- One might think, given the view, that the campus here is flush.
Inside Clarion University's Grunenwald Center for Science and Technology, students intent on jobs in high-demand fields study in sleek, glass-walled conference rooms and well-appointed combination lecture hall/labs.
The spacious $31 million center that opened in 2009 seems to have its pulse on higher education's future, both in the disciplines it encourages and its energy-efficient design.
Yet as impressive as it is with its sweeping views of campus and its high-tech focus, the center belies something else: the sharp spending cuts occurring on this campus and elsewhere across Pennsylvania's 14 state-owned universities.
First a recession, then an 18 percent drop in state funding and now a third consecutive year of projected enrollment losses have created a new and unpleasant norm for the schools belonging to the State System of Higher Education.
It is a fact that awaits Frank T. Brogan, chancellor of the State University System of Florida, who will begin as this system's chancellor in October.
Fall classes start Aug. 26 across the 14 schools that enroll 115,000 students. Along with Clarion, the schools include California, Edinboro, Indiana and Slippery Rock universities in Western Pennsylvania.
On Thursday, Clarion leaders unveiled what some have called the most sweeping cuts yet. The school that was once a teachers college plans to dissolve its college of education and let go up to 40 employees campuswide -- including 22 faculty -- under a reorganization intended to stem what Clarion president Karen Whitney said is a worrisome budget shortfall. Faculty cuts begin in May 2014.
The university with 6,500 students saw a nearly 7 percent enrollment decline last fall and projects it could lose another 9 percent this year.
It is scrambling to shift resources into growing student demand areas, such as science and technology, while reducing or refocusing other areas with shrinking enrollment, including traditional teacher training programs.
Programs and departments within Clarion's College of Education and Human Services would be blended into other schools, and officials have discussed pairing those programs with disciplines like science to increase demand.
Clarion, 80 miles northeast of Pittsburgh, is in a part of the state with a shrinking population. It must cut $8 million this year alone to meet a mandate that it stay within its $90 million budget -- a sum already 22 percent less than was available to run the campus five years ago, Ms. Whitney said.
"Right now we're spending more than we are earning," she said, explaining that Clarion's two-year workforce plan is essential if the school is to position itself for future growth.
"We have no choice," she said.
But Elizabeth MacDaniel, chairwoman of Clarion's English department and head of the faculty union's campus chapter, said the plan is so laden with job cuts (almost 10 percent of the current faculty, she asserts) that she questions how Clarion can grow its enrollment. She used blunt words to describe what her campus is undergoing.
"It is very bleak here at Clarion," she said.
The university said it intends to advertise for eight new faculty positions in growing areas.
It's not as if the strains now felt across the State System built up overnight. Even before the economy slumped, administrators expressed worry over rapidly escalating employee pay costs, pension obligations and other expenses. Faculty at some schools, in turn, have bemoaned the spending and debt incurred over non-classroom ventures from trendy student centers to upscale suite-style housing.
Shoring up this year's budgets through sharp tuition increases was not an option, either politically or economically because the schools must compete based on affordability for a shrinking pool of high school graduates in Pennsylvania that is not expected to rebound until 2020.
So the campuses instead are scrambling this summer to erase budget shortfalls that could total $50 million across the system, even after counting revenue from a 3 percent tuition increase this fall.
Over the past four years, 160 programs unable to meet enrollment targets were placed in moratorium or discontinued, with the number of unfilled employee positions over 600, said Karen Ball, a State System spokeswoman.
Job losses among professors have been limited to date, but notifications delivered to the Association of Pennsylvania State College and University Faculties about the potential for retrenchment have become a yearly fact of life at some schools.
Ms. Whitney said it's not just Clarion, or the State System, facing stresses so serious she predicts there will be revolutionary changes.
"All the forces have come to bear that are fundamentally forcing American higher education to rethink what we're doing and how we're doing it," she said.
As goes the workplace ...
Part of the State System's problems simply reflect what has happened over time in the workplace.
Ten years ago, education was by far the most popular State System major, enrolling more than one in four students -- more than twice the number of business majors, the next most popular choice at the time, according to State System data.
But education enrollment has dropped as job openings for teachers in Pennsylvania declined and legislation suspended a requirement for continuing studies.
Education remains the third most popular major at State System schools, but the number studying it plunged from 29,221 in 2003 to 14,232 by last fall, with most of the drop occurring the last couple years, according to the data.
At Cal U, for instance, education enrollment is down to 1,445 from 2,225 in 2003. It's down to 1,050 from 2,276 at Slippery Rock; to 1,177 from 2,962 at IUP; to 855 from 2,603 at Clarion; and to 1,454 from 2,182 at Edinboro, according to system data.
Business management is now the most popular major, followed by what are known as the STEM disciplines of science, technology, engineering and math.
Demographics have hurt the State System, too.
About 90 percent of its enrollment comes from in-state, making it vulnerable to a decline in high school graduates that has been especially pronounced in Western Pennsylvania.
Having peaked at 150,000 in 2009-10, the number of high school graduates statewide is expected to bottom out at 136,000 in 2019-20 before any rebound occurs, according to a forecast by the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education.
State System enrollment already is down nearly 5,000 students from its peak of almost 120,000 in 2010.
The largest loss by percentage last fall occurred at Edinboro, down 9.7 percent to 7,462 students, followed by Cal U, down 9.2 percent to 8,608 students.
Among other Western Pennsylvania schools, Clarion was down 6.7 percent to 6,520 students and Slippery Rock declined by 1.8 percent to 8,559 students. Enrollment at IUP bucked the trend, up 3.5 percent to 15,668 students.
Tuition and fee increases also may have proven a drag on enrollment.
A March report by Maguire Associates commissioned by the State System noted slippage in the number of returning students and said "increases in tuition and fees assessed during the fall 2012 semester may have contributed to this decline."
The State System's annual in-state tuition for 2013-14 is $6,622, not counting room, board and other fees that vary by campus and as of last year brought total costs to anywhere from $14,687 at West Chester to $19,138 at IUP.
At Clarion, Ms. Whitney said the goal is helping the school direct its resources toward where they are needed most.
The workforce plan says, in part:
"By simultaneously investing in growth and growth-supporting areas; eliminating areas of declining enrollment and activities that have not yielded desired results; and, increasing enrollment through retention, the university will correct the current budget problem and position the university to meet its mission."
But getting there could produce substantial pain.
Ms. MacDaniel saw that firsthand Thursday as she returned to her office after being briefed by administrators on the employee cuts. An English professor who has the least seniority stopped her with an uneasy question.
"She looked at me and said, 'Well?' " Ms. MacDaniel recalled. "I told her, 'Three in English.' All the expression left her face. She was just ashen."
Bill Schackner: email@example.com, 412-263-1977 and on Twitter: @BschacknerPG. First Published August 18, 2013 4:00 AM