State cuts could force closures of some Penn State campuses
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A day after Gov. Tom Corbett proposed what's being called the biggest one-year budget cut in American public higher education history, the state's flagship university offered a grim assessment of what it could mean.
If Mr. Corbett's plan to cut subsidies to the state's public universities by 50 percent stands, some of Penn State University's two dozen campuses may have to close, Penn State President Graham Spanier said Wednesday.
The $182 million reduction facing his university is so stark it would alter the very nature of Penn State, and with it the university's ability to support outreach programs across the commonwealth in areas including the state's agriculture industry, he said.
Mr. Spanier noted that most of the state's subsidy to Penn State is used to maintain a tuition rate for Pennsylvania residents that is lower than what is charged out-of-state students. For main campus undergraduates, it's a differential of almost $12,000 a year, or a bill totaling $14,412 for in-state tuition versus $26,276 for non-residents.
Those in-state rates would inevitably go up substantially, said Mr. Spanier, but he added that students will not be asked to bear the brunt of the state cuts.
In fact, he said the university has begun eyeing an array of painful options, from layoffs and furloughs to closure of some units. He said the school received no warning of cuts this large and that planners began meeting in emergency session after the reductions became known.
"You can't take a cut of this magnitude, even half this magnitude, and retain all the employees you have," Mr. Spanier said at a news conference. "We did not have a contingency plan that wiped out half of our appropriation. We are now busy working along those lines."
He said cuts envisioned by the governor strike at the very ability of his school and 17 other public universities in the state to make higher education accessible.
"Abraham Lincoln is perhaps weeping today, wondering if a single budget proposal might undue the legacy he created," said Mr. Spanier, invoking the president who signed into law the Morrill Land Grant Act of 1862, which paved the way for land grant universities including Penn State.
Mr. Corbett's recommendation to cut university subsidies in half for 2011-12 also applies to the University of Pittsburgh, as well as Temple and Lincoln universities and the 14 state-owned universities.
Even before Mr. Spanier spoke Wednesday, there were signs those schools, their roughly 300,000 students collectively, and other supporters were mobilizing to get the governor to back off.
Molly Stieber, a Pitt junior and president of the university's undergraduate student government, said she expects a lobbying effort as potent as what Pittsburgh Mayor Luke Ravenstahl encountered in 2009 during his failed attempt to enact a tax on college tuition.
Plans for a petition drive and gatherings in Harrisburg already are under way, and Pitt debuted a new website www.progress.pitt.edu that describes cost-cutting moves already made.
"We intend to do everything that we can ourselves to resist this proposal," Pitt Chancellor Mark Nordenberg wrote to parents.
On Tuesday, Mr. Nordenberg outlined the damaging effects that $110 million in cuts would have on his school. He and others noted that most of the students served by the state's public universities are Pennsylvania residents.
National higher education groups say Mr. Corbett's proposed cuts are unprecedented, well beyond even what has been proposed this year by governors in other states hit by the economic downturn, including California, Wisconsin and Texas, among others.
"I've never seen anything remotely like it," said Terry Hartle, a senior vice president with the Washington, D.C.-based American Council on Education.
For the 14 state-owned universities in the State System of Higher Education, Mr. Corbett proposes total funding that is $2.5 million less than the system received in 1983-84, said State System spokesman Kenn Marshall.
Mr. Corbett has said budget cuts are necessary because taxpayers stretched to the brink during the recession are demanding them, and he said much of the state's deficit-ridden budget this year was based on temporary federal funds that are no longer there. "Everybody has to adjust," he said.
Asked by reporters in Chester County on Wednesday about possible Penn State campus closures, Mr. Corbett said: "We proposed cuts across the spectrum, K through higher ed. I can't respond to Mr. Spanier, I haven't seen his records, I don't know what his costs are."
In fact, that's a significant part of the problem, Mr. Spanier suggested during his news conference.
"We were not asked for our advice or to explain the consequences" of such a drastic cut, he said.
He alluded to Mr. Corbett's budget address remark that "dollars should follow students" because it's their money.
"If you follow Pennsylvania students, guess where they are? Here," Mr. Spanier said.
He said the potential harm stretches beyond Penn State's 96,000 students, its vast research enterprise and even the assistance the school provides to agriculture though the Cooperative Extension Service.
He said Penn State is the backup location for state government in an emergency; runs Centre County's backup 911 center; owns and operates a regional airport for central Pennsylvania; and provides hazmat services, among many other roles that in many states could fall to state government.
"People have no idea how dependent the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania is on Penn State," Mr. Spanier said. "I don't think, if they understood it all, that the people of Pennsylvania would want to see us go entirely private."
He was referring to what some campus leaders contend is an effort to privatize public higher education in Pennsylvania, through funding cuts year after year.
The 14 state-owned schools have seen the share of their budget operations covered by the state drop from more than two-thirds in the early 1980s to less than one third, Mr. Marshall said. As a state-related university, the state's share of funding at Penn State would fall to 4 percent if the cuts stand, the university said.
"We could go private but we don't want to," Mr. Spanier said.
First Published March 10, 2011 12:00 am