APSCUF President Dr. Jamie Martin delivered the following comments (as prepared) to Pennsylvania Association of Councils of Trustees on March 25 at its annual conference.
First, I want to express my appreciation to Rich for the invitation to address all of you today.
I am most happy to bring the views of my colleagues to stakeholder groups, such as you. By way of an overview, I would like to discuss the challenges that my colleagues are facing and concerns that they have, and I believe that they will be happy that I am sharing them with you. I want to provide you the views of my colleagues broadly — issues that exist at all 14 of our universities. I also want to talk about the concerns and issues that exist at the six universities that will become Pennsylvania Western University and the Commonwealth University of Pennsylvania later this year. Finally, I want to share with you some of the issues that our students face as they pursue their college degrees. But to provide some context, I do need to mention funding for our 14 universities.
I know that later today you will be hearing about advocacy for funding for higher education, but I am going to make that same pitch. Governor Wolf’s budget proposal includes significant funding for PASSHE: a 15% increase to the line item, $200 million in scholarships for our students, the remainder of the federal funds ($150 million) that will provide student services/support, fund DEI initiatives, and marketing/recruitment for all our universities.
I will not get into the politics of this, but I will say that I believe that we are at an inflection point: Pennsylvania ranks 46th or 47th in the nation in funding for public higher education. Conversely, according to the Institute for College Access and Success, Pennsylvania college students have the third-highest debt load in the nation. The statewide average debt level for the Class of 2020 was over $39,000. The austerity measures that have been implemented at our universities cannot continue without serious damage being done to our campuses, our faculty and staff, and, most importantly, our students. Increased funding for our state universities is sorely needed.
To learn about what is happening on our campuses, I have the opportunity to speak on a regular basis with the 14 APSCUF chapter presidents and to make campus visits each semester. If I had to choose one word to describe the faculty, it would be “exhausted.” However, being a professor, I cannot use only one descriptor. On several campuses, morale is at an all-time low; faculty are overworked; and, on some campuses, I am seeing faculty begin to disengage. To understand how the faculty have reached this point, it is necessary to talk about their experiences over the last couple of years, as we all have lived with the threat of COVID.
When it became clear that the pandemic was worsening in mid-March 2020, faculty had to make a quick pivot and move their face-to-face classes to online classes. At that time, many of our campuses were either on spring break or about to begin spring break. Thus, the faculty had to work to determine how best to complete the remaining six or seven weeks of their classes via distance education. This was not an easy task, when you consider that we had the entire semester mapped out — the course requirements and assignments — with the expectation that everyone would be in person in the same classrooms. This took a lot of time and effort, but they rose to the occasion, and I know this firsthand, as I was the chair of my department at that time. The students’ lives were thrown into turmoil as well, as they left their campuses for spring break — and then did not return. It was an extremely stressful semester for everyone, and there were certainly some challenges that we all had to overcome, but I think that everyone breathed a sigh of relief when it came to a close.
Most of the faculty — me included — believed that this was going to be short-term, and it wasn’t. Most of us believed that everyone would return to campuses in the following academic year — and they didn’t.
As we approached the start of the 2020–21 academic year, the university administrations had to decide if students would be returning to campus — and the timing of these decisions varied. For example, West Chester University made the decision in early July to not bring students back to campus and to move to remote delivery. This gave faculty time to prepare and the time needed to shift their face-to-face classes to be delivered in a different format. At other universities. the decision about bringing students back to campus occurred much later — at some campuses in August. This left my colleagues much less time to prepare for remote teaching.
It is important to note that, on many of our campuses, there are very few fully online courses delivered. We have faculty who had not taught a fully online class; we have classes that probably should not be delivered remotely. Learning the various platforms that are used for online classes can be challenging, and I can attest to that. When I developed my first fully online course, I had to figure out how to upload class materials, I had to work to do video lectures for some of my classes — and then figure out how to get those to work properly in Moodle or D2L. I had to consider how my course objectives could be met and how some of the out-of-class activities I had planned could be adjusted when we were not in the same physical classroom. I had to determine how to prevent cheating on exams that were administered online. To learn all of this, I went to a lot of training that was offered on our campus — and it took months. The faculty did not have months to do all of this: They had weeks. They also had to learn new techniques and develop new ways to engage the students in their classes, having to ponder what to do when students turned off their cameras. They had to consider how to best teach a lab course or a studio course via Zoom.
Our students faced similar challenges. Some of our students did not have access to computers or laptops. Others did not have reliable internet connectivity. Some of our students at IUP drove to the campus and parked near buildings that allowed them to connect to the campus Wi-Fi network, and they participated in their classes from their cars. Others who were living at home had to share computer access with siblings who were also taking classes remotely, or with parents who were working from home.
Because of the challenges that our students faced, administrators on many campuses made the decision to allow for students to decide if they wanted the letter grade that they earned in their class to be transcripted, which impacts that grade-point average, or if they preferred to use a pass/fail option, which does not. On our campus, students did not have to make this decision until after they knew what their letter grade was. While most faculty understood the rationale for a pass/fail option, there were legitimate concerns. One of those was that students’ performance in their classes would decline as their grade-point averages would not be impacted. I heard from many faculty that this is what occurred. In later semesters, as students took upper-division courses, they were less prepared for them, and their grades then suffered.
Our faculty, including our counselors, also worried about the physical and mental health of our students. One area of concern related to food insecurity. All our campuses have some type of food pantry available to our students — and when they are not on campus, they cannot access them. We know that we have students who have housing insecurity — no home to go to. I believe that each campus kept some of their residence halls open, as this was the only housing available for some students. When you teach a face-to-face class, you see your students multiple times a week, and you can often sense when one of them is struggling with grades and/or with physical or mental-health concerns. When that happens, faculty know of the services that are available on campus and can help the student access those and even help with the referral process. I spoke with faculty who were very concerned about their students but could not assist with referrals, as they were away from campus. This took a toll on my colleagues.
When students returned to campus this academic year, different problems arose. Faculty were excited to be back in face-to-face classes but were concerned about the prospect of having students in classrooms who had COVID. They wanted to teach; they just didn’t want to get sick. As you know, students at the PASSHE schools were not mandated to be vaccinated, and while most of our faculty were, some have children who could not be, some are immunocompromised and/or live with someone who is.
There was a lot of disparity among the campuses regarding the availability of testing and the availability of vaccination options. The faculty had to deal with students who had tested positive or were potentially exposed, who were weaving in and out of classes — and this was occurring throughout the semester. Faculty struggled to figure out how to be sure that these students did not fall behind, but this often required teaching their classes using two different formats: face-to-face and remote for some. For some of my colleagues in the hard sciences, it meant teaching their lab multiple times a week so that students who were out due to COVID could catch up. There were some students who were fearful of going to the face-to-face class, even though they enrolled in it, who wished to then take the class remotely. Making matters worse, class sizes have increased on all our campuses due to a directive to return to the student/faculty ratio of the 2010–11 academic year.
Due in part to these issues and in part because of retirement incentives, nearly 10% of the faculty systemwide have retired (or will retire) in the past three years. In many cases, these faculty are not being replaced, nor are adjunct faculty being hired, again because of the student/faculty ratio: The more faculty that you have, the lower the ratio. But classes that our retired faculty and adjuncts previously taught still have to be delivered. This has resulted in many faculty members being asked to teach additional classes on overload. Hence, they are teaching additional classes that have more students than before. A spinoff of the reduction in the number of faculty is difficulty in offering enough electives for our students. I know from my time in the classroom and as the chair of our department that students are often angered when a class that they wish to take is not being offered.
Advising is critically important for our students, and doing it well is time consuming. You must be able to assist them in understanding their curriculum requirements, talk with them about their progress in classes, link them to campus resources if needed, and provide other assistance that a student may need. Just as class sizes are growing, the number of advisees that a faculty member has is increasing. This results in less time one can devote to these students.
In addition to teaching their classes and advising students, faculty are expected to engage in scholarly activities and in service activities — and both are diminished. It is important to stay engaged in research activities; this helps one stay current in their discipline, and students benefit when their professor can share their expertise. In my discipline and many others, there is an expectation that we attend professional conferences to present our research findings. However, university budgets have been shrinking, and so have professional-development funds that provide support for travel to these conferences. There are expectations that we publish in professional journals, write books, do art exhibits or musical performances. But again, these are time-consuming activities.
Providing service to one’s department, college, university, and the community or the academy is the third area that faculty are expected to be engaged. But I am learning of the difficulty of finding faculty members to volunteer and/or run for universitywide, collegewide and department-level committees. Many of the committees that are critical to the functioning of the university are “heavy workload” ones, but with fewer faculty who have less time, committee work of that magnitude is overwhelming.
I spoke to one faculty member, and I will not name the university, who is teaching a full undergraduate load, teaching a graduate course on overload, is doing an independent study and an individualized instruction to a small number of students so that they don’t fall behind in their progression toward graduation, and is serving on several heavy workload committees — and she told me that she simply cannot continue at this pace. After speaking with her, I was worried about the toll that this was taking on her physical health. This was the workload of one faculty member, but many faculty have similar ones. As I said, they are exhausted and beginning to disengage. That is what is happening on all our campuses, including the six that are in the process of being consolidated.
I want to explain why we, APSCUF, have used the word “consolidation” rather than “integration” — and it’s a simple one. Act 50 of 2020, the legislation that allows for restructuring uses the term “consolidation,” as does the Middle States Commission on Higher Education.
I am sure that you know that APSCUF was very vocal in our opposition to these consolidations, but I can explain why. We often heard the following phrase as it relates to our universities: “We have to do something.” We questioned: Shouldn’t it be the right thing, not just something? To be clear, no alternatives were ever considered beyond these mergers. We questioned why, if simply consolidating functions across universities or centralizing functions could result in significant savings. We wondered if there were other options beyond this massive restructuring — but none were presented.
The second reason that we were vocal in our opposition was we could not understand the rationale for it — what outcome were we trying to achieve. We assumed that the rationale for the consolidation was cost savings — but then discovered it will cost more than it saves. We heard about the potential for 25% in cost savings for the students attending the consolidated universities — but that is no longer discussed. Expanding student opportunities has been presented as a benefit for the students attending the consolidating universities, but we are learning of many programs being cut at the six universities.
The State System held several public forums, and APSCUF had several as well. Over the course of all of those, only a handful of individuals spoke in favor of the consolidation. Faculty, staff, community members, alumni, and others were very vocal in their opposition — and felt unheard — as the consolidation plan was approved by the BOG in July 2021.
On March 10, the MSCHE did approve the substantive change request that allows the consolidation to move forward, but there is still a great deal of uncertainty among the faculty and students — and a great deal of work that must be done before the six universities become two. For example, APSCUF has been negotiating with PASSHE to deal with articles in our collective bargaining agreement — which speaks to 14 distinct universities —to figure out how things will work at the consolidated universities, and this has not been easy. Everything from how faculty evaluations will occur in a department that spans three campuses, how the tenure and promotion process will work, how a department chair at California or Bloomsburg will do their required duties if they have students and faculty at Clarion/Edinboro or Lock Haven and Mansfield. This merely scratches the surface: There are many more collective bargaining issues to address, and it will take months.
Of critical importance is the development of the curriculum for each new university, and the faculty are hard at work on this in both regions. They are working on discipline-specific curriculum that will require the blending departmental curriculum requirements that may be very different across the current universities. It will require the determination of departmental requirements for students — by faculty spread across multiple universities. This has been hampered by the restructuring of departments and colleges. As part of this reorganization, some departments are now in different colleges, some departments have been split, others have been merged, and some programs will no longer exist. Beyond departmental curricula, the general-education component will have to be developed. This is a difficult challenge, and developing the general-education requirements should be a thoughtful and interactive one with much input from the faculty at all six universities. In some meetings that have occurred, we have heard that the faculty are excited: They are not. The amount of time and effort that this will take is considerable, and I continue to hear how overwhelmed they are, and I must point out that many of the faculty that are now expected to do some heavy lifting were the same ones who spoke out loudly in opposing the consolidation
A few weeks ago, one faculty member said, at a meeting that the chancellor had convened that included top administrators from both campuses, the following: “I am getting tired of hearing that the faculty are excited. We are not. It’s not like we are skipping down the halls here. With regard to the curriculum, we see this as another box that we have to check, and we are trying to figure out how to do that while teaching classes and, for many of us, teaching overloads. So please stop saying that faculty are excited.”
It is still unclear how many online classes a student at the two new universities will have to take to progress toward graduation. While this is related to the curriculum development, the course schedules at our universities are recommended by chairs but must be approved by deans. Hence, the administration at the two new universities will have to decide on which campus courses will be taught. If a course is taught in person at Bloomsburg, students from Lock Haven and Mansfield will ostensibly have to take that course via Zoom. It is possible that students on some campuses will need to enroll in more online courses than students on other campuses. Given our experiences during the pandemic, how do we prevent these students from being disenfranchised and having a lesser experience than their classmates who are in the physical classroom? This is going to be even more complicated in disciplines that require labs or studios, and when disciplines will only exist on one of the campuses. For example, if a student at Clarion wants to major in chemistry, but the chemistry major only exists at California, how will that work?
The faculty have heard from students that they are very concerned about what to expect at these universities next fall. They have many of the same questions that we do. Recruitment of new students has been hampered by the uncertainty that exists. Faculty at the six consolidating schools worry that enrollments will be negatively impacted and have wondered aloud, “Why would a student come to a consolidated university knowing that they will have to take online courses, when they can go to Slippery Rock or East Stroudsburg and know they will have face-to-face courses?”
On March 10, the MSCHE approved the substantive-change proposal that was submitted by the State System and the two new universities. They did stipulate that updated financial projections and organizational charts for the two universities must be submitted by early May, but this decision allows the consolidation to move forward. While we all knew that the Middle States accreditation was required, there are some faculty who are concerned that accredited programs may have to be reaccredited.
For example, will a program that was accredited by the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association at Clarion University of Pennsylvania have to be reaccredited now that Clarion no longer exists? There are many accredited programs across the six universities, and if their accrediting agency requires reaccreditation, it will be time-consuming and potentially costly.
Our coaches and student-athletes are still awaiting the decision of the NCAA. Their spring meeting is in April, and the expectation is that they will consider the continuation of athletic teams at the consolidated universities. We are hopeful that all the athletic teams that currently exist will be able to compete after the consolidation. But I know that one coach that I spoke with is trying to figure out if the NCAA will allow for the PennWest Clarion Golden Eagle basketball team to compete against the PennWest Edinboro Fighting Scots basketball team. If the NCAA decides that sports teams at an accredited university cannot compete against another team at the same accredited university, what then? What does that mean for the athletes who are on scholarships and for those who are not?
There are other issues and concerns at these six universities, but I need to tell you of concerns that I am hearing from faculty at the remaining eight universities regarding this restructuring, and it is this. Does this consolidation become the roadmap for others? They ask, will Kutztown University and East Stroudsburg University be next? IUP and Shippensburg?
All of us here today have experienced two very difficult years. I hope that I have been able to paint the picture of what these two years have been like for my colleagues and our students.
I will close by saying that we appreciate the time you devote and the work that all of you do for your respective universities. I believe that there will be changes for the council of trustees at Clarion, Edinboro, Mansfield and Lock Haven — and, if so, I hope that will be smooth transition for all of you. The trustees with whom I interacted at IUP were dedicated in their work, had a deep fondness for our university, and wanted it to prosper. The faculty at all of our universities share these characteristics.