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PSU Altoona cutting six programs

College will ‘teach out’ discontinuing programs for those already enrolled, chancellor said

Penn State Altoona is discontinuing at least six academic programs for which enrollment has shrunk in recent times, a move that is part of universitywide cost cutting, according to a memo sent to the local college staff Thursday.

Programs to be discontinued include integrative arts, mathematics, science and political science; the associate degree program in science and minors in math and dance, wrote Penn State Altoona Chancellor Lori Bechtel-Wherry.

In keeping with the discontinuations, the college is not renewing the contracts of eight faculty members for the 2022-23 academic year, Bechtel-Wherry wrote. In addition, searches have been canceled or postponed for eight faculty posts that had gone vacant and been left unfilled due to COVID-19 — although the searches could be reactivated and the vacancies shouldn’t be attributed to the “current budget situation,” wrote university spokeswoman Lisa Powers in an email.

The college will “teach out” the discontinuing degree programs for the students who are already in them, Bechtel-Wherry wrote.

No other students may enter those programs “without permission” and the only students who will receive permission are those whose remaining coursework aligns with the remaining coursework of students already in the programs, according to the memo.

“The formal university consultation process to close these programs will begin in the near future,” Bechtel-Wherry wrote.

The college is making the cuts to comply with a university requirement to reduce the overall budget here by $4.7 million over two years, Bechtel-Wherry wrote. The plan is to make two-thirds of the cut this year and the rest next year — with “monitoring for efficiencies” ongoing thereafter, she wrote.

The cuts reflect a much bigger issue, according to Bechtel-Wherry.

“(P)ublic colleges and universities across the country are under considerable financial stress due to years of declining enrollments,” Bechtel-Wherry wrote. “The overall downward demographic trend has acutely affected institutions in the Northeast and is evident at Penn State Altoona, where we have experienced a 23 percent (-811) reduction in students over the last five years.”

“(The) steep enrollment decline has negatively impacted revenues, undermined our long-term financial stability and threatens our capacity” to meet the needs of students, she wrote.

The integrative arts, mathematics, science and political science have stood out as problematic, “even in the context of the overall decline in the Altoona College enrollments,” according to Bechtel-Wherry: “(They) have the lowest enrollments of all our programs and have consistently remained the lowest enrolled programs for years.”

Three of the four have been targeted for more than a decade.

A universitywide review of academic programs in 2011 recommended phasing out math and science degrees then, and also recommended “assessing the viability” of the political science degree, suggesting it should be phased out by 2013, Bechtel-Wherry wrote.

The university is “confronting unprecedented times,” Bechtel-Wherry wrote. Those times require “painful and difficult decisions,” she stated.

“The closing of the programs is unfortunate, and represents a loss to our campus community,” she wrote. “(But the closures are) in the best long-term interests of our college.”

No more faculty layoffs are planned for this fiscal year, which ends June 31, according to Bechtel-Wherry.

Students frustrated

The discontinuation of the political science program won’t disrupt the education of political science major Adam Fogle, because he’s already declared.

But students who might have considered the program now have their options constricted, according to Fogle, who spoke to the Mirror on Wednesday.

Students who haven’t declared, but who have expressed interest in political science might be able to join, he said.

They’re in a “gray” zone, he added.

The budget cuts go beyond what classes and programs will be available, according to a member of a student association focused on members’ preparation for a post-graduate profession.

The association has had to cancel social activities, said the student, who asked that her name not be used.

Professors whose jobs are being cut are those with the least seniority, said Mike Fleury, a freshman from State College.

It’s a stressful time for at least some of them, Fleury said Wednesday.

But in class, they’ve been “very positive,” he said.

“(They’re) pretty good at separating their personal feelings from the teaching,” he said.

The discontinuation of integrative arts is forcing an unwelcome change in plans for a student at the college who posted about it on Facebook early in the week.

“I’m forcibly switching to an English major with a creative writing concentration,” the poster wrote. “I don’t want to be an English major. I picked integrative Aarts for a reason. I am frustrated that my choice now does not matter.”

The one campus program the poster loved is the one she has to leave, she wrote.

Similarly, the plans of a friend who’d hoped his campus studies would enable him to teach music are being “ruined,” the poster wrote.

The curriculum cuts seem especially egregious when compared with the high salaries earned by the university’s president and head football coach, the poster added.

The plans for the budget cuts are “ongoing and fluid,” Bechtel-Wherry stated in a memo sent to staff last week and shared with the Mirror then.

“It’s all happening fast,” Fogle said.

Up until Wednesday, “It’s all been very hush, hush,” Fogle said before telling a Mirror reporter: “I’m glad someone is asking questions.”

Mirror Staff Writer William Kibler is at 814-949-7038.

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