Each school year brings change. In the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education (PASSHE), change is around every corner, with funding declines, tuition increases and numerous budget cuts looming over the system. This change has cast a net so wide that Shippensburg University faculty are feeling the impact as well.
For years, various departments at SU have been operating with vacant faculty positions that continue to affect curriculum decisions, according to multiple sources. The openings stem from years of funding issues at the state level, as well as a prioritization by the university administration of which departments are approved for hire each year.
Kara Laskowski, SU chapter president of the Association of Pennsylvania State College and University Faculties (APSCUF), indicated that the university has tried to take care of pieces of the financial puzzle without addressing the core piece — a lack of adequate faculty staffing.
From 2015-16, Laskowski said 11 professors retired and four resigned from their positions. Five professors were hired to fill these holes.
“[We] haven’t quite found the balance,” she said. Of these vacancies, many are among the university’s arts and humanities courses.
Hiring processes vary between state universities, and SU’s are multi-faceted. Each department can submit a proposal to the dean of its college to request additional faculty. This proposal is reviewed by the dean, who makes a ranking of possible hires and passes it along to the university’s provost. SU does not normally say why proposals are denied, although APSCUF has requested that reasoning be provided, according to Laskowski.
The education crisis is intensified by a nationwide drop in college enrollment, as well as a nearly $24 million funding decline for PASSHE over the last decade, according to its website.
In the same period, SU’s student-to-faculty dropped from a ratio of about 22 to 1 to 18 to 1, according to data from the provost’s office.
But fewer people does not necessarily mean that students are getting more one-on-one attention. Laskowski said in recent years class sizes have increased from 20-some students to about 40-50. This change can impact class discussion and students’ academic performance, she said, while causing professors to feel stressed and burned out.
Anthropology program down to one tenured professor
At one time, SU’s anthropology program had three tenured faculty members. But, two of those professors retired within the last six years, leaving Karl Lorenz as the only permanent faculty remaining. Budget cuts since then have kept the program from recovering from these losses.
Lorenz noted that some of the responsibility for the program’s vacancies comes from state funding, which has taken a nosedive since the early 2000s. A report by WHYY — a Philadelphia-area radio station — says in recent years Pennsylvania has relied on tuition for 75 percent of its higher education funding.
“Our budget is heavily influenced by Harrisburg’s appropriation,” Lorenz said.
Lorenz — the only tenured professor in the anthropology program — said the need is only exacerbated by the number of students who take the program’s introductory courses to fulfill general education requirements. Anthropology courses are also offered as part of the international and ethnic studies programs. There are several temporary professors who are currently assisting Lorenz with the classload, but the amount of time they will stay at SU is undetermined.
“You’d think anthropology would be a priority, but it hasn’t been since 2013,” Lorenz said.
While the adjunct professors are a short-term fix, Lorenz said these kinds of positions do not offer the type of job security and academic freedom that often encourage professors to want to stay at a university.
“They’re [university administrators] basically the ones deciding where the financial resources are going to go as far as hiring,” he said. “It’s clearly a question of priorities, and anthro — as much as we’ve been told — we’re doing a great job, but it hasn’t helped improve our current faculty status.”
English department permitted to hire, but some positions remain vacant
SU’s English department has seven positions in moratorium, which means that these positions are not being eliminated but are not being filled at this time, according to department Chair Shari Horner. The department has hired one tenure-track professor for the fall, which is not included in this number of vacancies.
Horner said the department has taken a hit in recent years in regard to individuals who hold specialities, including in writing and African-American literature. Without the approval to hire, the department has had to let some speciality classes fall out of its curriculum.
The vacancies have had a “huge impact” on student advisement, faculty committee work and volunteering at admissions events, Horner asserted.
“Everybody’s load outside the classroom has increased,” she said.
Another casualty was a less active lecture series, which the department actively hosted at one point for students’ benefit.
“It’s just really hard to find the time to do [the lecture series],” she said.
Although there are fewer professors, Horner says the work required of the department has stayed the same.
A search last year to fill one of the open positions failed, so the department waited and hired someone this year. When the opportunity was granted, the department had reached a breaking point where not everything in the curriculum could be covered. The university denied the department’s hire proposal for five consecutive years at that point, according to Horner.
Art and design department unable to seek accreditation because of openings
Similar to the English department, two faculty positions have been put in moratorium in the art and design department.
Like other departments that have been denied tenure-track hires, art and design has hired adjunct professors to teach classes like American art history and art history 2 and 3, which can be taken for general education credit, according to Chair William Whiteley.
The department has been requesting permission to fill the positions for about five years, Whiteley said. He added that at one point the department was being pushed to reduce its use of adjunct professors — but in doing so, it would no longer have the necessary resources to fulfill degree requirements.
The credits from the three adjunct-led classes would have had to have been transferred in from another institution so students could receive their degrees, Whiteley said.
Art and design has been stable in enrollment for several years, but it does not receive many transfer students and needs at least two more professors to be considered for accreditation, according to Whiteley. Having just enough to get by also means the department cannot pursue new programs for the benefit of current students and recruitment of future ones.
“We just don’t have the time and can’t do it,” Whiteley said. “We seem to be at the bottom of the list [for hiring]. We don’t seem to get the support and things that we need.”
APSCUF President Kenneth Mash stressed that the funding situation is moving in a direction that does not benefit students’ quality of education.
“We need everyone to understand that this is not a tolerable situation,” he said. “There is pressure all around to make ends meet.”
In response to questions about SU’s vacancies, interim Provost James Mike said the administration works hard each year to fill positions where they are most needed.
“Getting the prioritization correct is very important,” he said.
Mike said he could not comment on SU’s funding issues or the process of approving hires because he has only been in the provost position for several months. He mentioned that the administration is in the process of approving hires for next year and making various other budgetary decisions.
Mash said APSCUF would like to see PASSHE universities be able to provide more to low-prioritized departments.
“This generation of students deserves what every other generation before them has had,” he said. “It’s a vicious cycle that all starts with underfunding of universities.”