MU Coronavirus

Students walk on the Millersville University campus Wednesday, March 11, 2020

On increasingly unstable financial ground, at least nine state universities are considering dismissing faculty members through a process known as retrenchment.

Each president of those universities sent a letter to the faculty union stating the university may be forced to retrench — a collective bargaining term similar to a layoff — employees because of the myriad fiscal challenges facing the 14-member Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education, which have accelerated since the coronavirus pandemic began.

Millersville University, Lancaster County’s lone state-owned university and largest college with about 7,700 students, did not send a letter, meaning retrenchment isn’t presently on the table.

“At Millersville, we are doing everything we can to increase fiscal efficiency while maintaining high quality education and services for our students,” Millersville spokeswoman Janet Kacskos said in an email.

That includes closely monitoring fall enrollment as well as the impact of the state system’s early retirement incentive, resignations and attrition, Kacskos said.

Schools that have sent letters in recent months include Bloomsburg, California, Cheyney, Clarion, Edinboro, Indiana, Kutztown, Lock Haven and Mansfield universities.

The letters, which were obtained by LNP | LancasterOnline through Right-to-Know requests, don’t mean universities will definitely make cuts. Universities are obligated to notify the faculty union chapter president of possible retrenchments under the collective bargaining agreement.

Jamie Martin, president of the Association of Pennsylvania State College & University Faculties, said she and her members are "diligently working" to prevent job loss.

"In short, we are in unprecedented times," Martin said in an emailed statement. "We are at the beginning of a long process of discussions with the State System, using contractual options that were not available to us in the past, to begin discussing job security of our members sooner than may have occurred in prior years."

Already experiencing financial woes due to steadily declining enrollment, the state system is projected to net a $52 million loss from the pandemic through the summer.

To help right the ship, state system Chancellor Dan Greenstein directed each university to create a sustainability plan and execute that plan in three years rather than five, as originally intended.

Requirements for the plans include curtailing the use of temporary faculty, restricting hiring, eliminating and consolidating unpopular programs, and realigning student-faculty ratios.

"Students are depending on the State System to keep public higher education affordable, even in the face of a global pandemic that has brought serious consequences for our universities," state system spokesman Dave Pidgeon said in an email.

Pidgeon said that the state system is "going to meet this challenge by doing everything we can, through a variety of creative cost-saving measures and other means, to ensure a quality State System education will be affordable and accessible now and in the years to come."

Those cost-saving measures may ultimately include retrenchment. After all, personnel costs represent about three-fourths of state system expenditures. And while the number of state system employees has declined since 2010, it hasn’t matched the decline in enrollment.

The state system, however, is working with the faculty union "to mitigate the need for faculty retrenchment where possible," Pidgeon said.