Cal U faculty: Cuts hurt academic quality

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In a further sign of financial stress at California University of Pennsylvania, a group representing academic department chairs has written to State System of Higher Education leaders saying funding cuts are seriously eroding academic quality.

The letter written by the group's leader and an accompanying report outline impacts in departments from chemistry and English to the campus library and were sent amid rising concerns about campus debt and spending decisions.

The complaints include claims of bulging class sizes, of difficulty purchasing items as basic as toner cartridges or chemicals for lab instruction, and of students who are stuck without courses they need.

The letter says temporary faculty now covers 40 percent of the courses, or more, in some areas and that the number of credit hours a year generated on average by CalU faculty, 758, is highest of the 14 State System universities, more than 100 hours ahead of the next closest campus.

"The persistent prioritization of instructional productivity and athletics over academic quality and program integrity has taken a toll on academic and student support services," Thomas Wickham, chair of the 29-member Chairs' Forum, wrote in the letter, a copy of which was obtained Friday by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

"This raises questions about the resulting caliber of the education product students are purchasing," he said.

The letter dated Thursday and the report were sent to Guido Pichini, chair of the State System's board of governors, State System Chancellor John Cavanaugh and Robert Irey, chair of CalU's council of trustees. "We've seen the letter, but we're not responding to it at this point," State System spokesman Kenn Marshall said.

CalU president Angelo Armenti Jr. was copied in on the letter.

Mr. Armenti was not available for comment Friday. However, in a written response to the letter dated Thursday and confirmed by the university Friday, he said faculty who are unhappy can seek relief through campus governance channels and that his administration adheres to the faculty union contract in areas including use of temporary faculty, which he said is at levels below the campuswide limit.

"I must say to you as a friend and colleague that the outside world may not be very sympathetic to those concerns," he wrote. "At a time when many Pennsylvanians are either out of work or working multiple part-time jobs just to stay afloat, there are those who believe that I, you and your colleagues are seriously overpaid and/or underworked."

In recent months, faculty leaders have expressed concern that impacts on CalU from the economic downturn and deep state aid cuts are being exacerbated by expenditures and debt payment for projects including the new $59 million convocation center and some $20 million in parking improvements. Staff cuts and potential faculty reductions in 2013 have added to the unease.

The new convocation center with its arena for up to 6,000 people could see expenses outpace income by $3.2 million this fiscal year, the school has said.

Complaints, mostly anonymous, about spending on the campus of 9,500 students prompted the State System to conduct an audit at CalU in February. Results have not yet been released.

Mr. Wickham's letter said the department chairs appreciate the many physical infrastructure improvements on campus over the years but are "alarmed" by a perceived "prioritization of nonacademic enhancements over academic quality."

The report attached to the letter says that in the Department of Health Science, some classes whose enrollments once were capped at 25 students have grown to 30- or 40-plus students.

In English, composition classes that used to be capped at 25 students now can be even larger since the cap has been raised to 30, according to the report.

The portion of the report covering chemistry and physics programs says budget cuts are making it harder to maintain supplies of chemicals for labs and even paper and toner cartridges.

The engineering and technology portion of the report said some of the labs are covered by tech fees, but have waited two years for updated computers and software. "Where did the money go?" the report asked.

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Bill Schackner: or 412-263-1977. First Published May 12, 2012 4:00 AM


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