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Penn State faculty voice frustration with administration about campus buyout plans

  • Anne Danahy/WPSU
A side angle of Penn State's Old Main administrative building on its University Park campus.

 Sydney Roach / WPSU

A side angle of Penn State's Old Main administrative building on its University Park campus.

Penn State faculty voiced frustration during a meeting Wednesday morning, questioning President Neeli Bendapudi and other university leaders about the buyout offer to employees at the Commonwealth Campuses and criticizing how the administration is handling it.

Paul Frisch, a faculty senator from Penn State Scranton, said faculty and staff are “incredibly upset by all of this.”

“We constantly have been hearing for the past two years from your administration that the campuses are the jewel of Penn State. Then we get a massive cut in budget. And now only the campuses are getting the VSIP (voluntary separation incentive program) that could potentially devastate a lot of campuses,” Frisch said. “How is that the jewel of Penn State? Your actions and your words are not matching.”

And, he and others questioned how the university will handle it if many faculty or staff take the buyout offer. Or, some asked, if few employees take the offer.

Bendapudi said the university is looking at how to get on a path where the campuses are flourishing, and that how things are working now is unsustainable.

She said it is a challenge that the university does not know how many people will take the buyout offer.

“But there’s a whole group that’s working on how will we make sure the students we bring have that robust experience,” Bendapudi said. “And we will have to be agile. We cannot work the way we were and take a long time to fill a position.”

The Faculty Senate scheduled this special meeting following the university’s announcement that it would offer voluntary buyouts to tenure-line faculty and full-time employees at its 20 campuses. It’s part of the university’s plans to cut costs and reevaluate programs at the campuses, most of which have seen shrinking enrollment over the years.

But the buyout offer still came came as a surprise to the Faculty Senate. Senators who spoke expressed concern about the impact the buyout could have on academic programs, students, faculty and staff workloads and morale, and the future of the campuses.

Faculty Senator Catherine Rios, from Penn State Harrisburg, questioned the impact on graduate programs and what will happen to the non-tenure line faculty left to deal with the after-effects of faculty who leave.

“It feels like the graduate programs are being purged. They’re being prepared to be kind of just withered away. Because I don’t see the mechanisms for actually stepping in, filling the gaps and sustaining them. What are the plans?” she said. “I am in a position to actually accept this offer. But what are the implications for my program? And ultimately, that won’t be my primary concern, will it? It will be what’s the advantage for me, myself. This is dividing the non-tenure line faculty and the junior faculty and the senior faculty.”

Vice President for Commonwealth Campuses Margo DelliCarpini said the university is not looking at increasing workloads for employees. And, she said, graduate programs are as important as undergraduate programs.

She said not all campuses have graduate or research programs.

“So we don’t have a one-size-fits-all approach to dealing with with vacancies in those areas,” she said. “But we do have a commitment to ensuring that our strong campuses and programs remain strong and that our students are having the experience that they deserve. And our faculty and staff are supported in carrying out that mission.”

The buyout offers come with 12 months’ salary and subsidized health benefits for six months. Eligible faculty and staff have until May 31 to decide whether they’re accepting the offers.

According to the university, most employees will have a separation date of the end of June, but the university will be able to delay an employee’s departure by six months if it’s determined that person is needed.

The buyout offer does not apply to non-tenure line faculty, something Josh Wede, the incoming chair of the Faculty Senate, took aim at.

He said there are non-tenure line faculty who have dedicated their careers to the university.

“I mean, it is disgusting,” Wede said, “that non-tenure line faculty continue to be treated this way by the university.”

University administrators said they will be refilling positions as needed, but also emphasized the need for change in the face of declining enrollment and changing demographics in Pennsylvania.

“How do we create a business model that’s suitable to where we are today, not one that keeps trying to do what we’ve been doing for the past 20 years that may have worked 20 years ago, but just isn’t working today,” DelliCarpini said.

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