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Students, faculty protest PSU cuts

At a rally at Penn State Altoona Monday to protest proposed program cuts and faculty layoffs — especially dance, theater and music in the “integrative arts” program — an instructor who’s losing his job led a variation on a familiar call-and-response:

“We were!” shouted John Conner, technical director and assistant teaching professor in theater arts, who joined the campus a couple of years ago and had hoped to retire here.

“Penn State!” rally attendees shouted back.

Conner was one of about a dozen speakers who lambasted the university for the budget-related cuts, which are unnecessary, which haven’t been explained well and which will harm students, faculty and the community at large, according to protesters.

They spoke in front of the Misciagna Family Center for Performing Arts, after a group of dancers performed on a lawn nearby.

Penn State can afford not to make the cuts, because it annually has a positive operating margin, including $500 million on $7.3 billion in revenue for the last fiscal year, and because it has $5 billion in liquid assets, said Michelle

Rodino-Colocino, associate professor of film/video, media and women’s gender and sexuality studies at University Park.

To comply with a universitywide order to cut costs by $4.7 million over two years, the local college is discontinuing integrative arts, mathematics, science and political science; the associate degree program in science and minors in math and dance — all of which have experienced enrollment declines, stated college Chancellor Lori Bechtel-Wherry in a memo to staff in mid-April.

The college is not renewing the contracts of eight faculty members for the 2022-23 academic year, and searches have been canceled or postponed for eight faculty posts that are vacant and been left unfilled due to COVID-19 — although those could be reactivated and the vacancies shouldn’t be attributed to the “current budget situation,” according to the chancellor’s memo and information from a university spokeswoman.

The university has not been transparent with its intentions, as students have only learned about the cuts from their professors, rather than from the administration, according to the protesters.

“This sucks,” said Devin Poplin, who graduated in December and who now teaches at a local dance studio.

Ana Rossi Lanzendorfer, a 2010 graduate, transferred in from another college where she wasn’t comfortable and wasn’t comfortable at Penn State Altoona, either — until she joined the dance ensemble “and felt like I found home,” she said.

“Now I get to do what I love as a career,” she said.

Such graduates enrich the local area with their talents and dedication, said Arts Altoona President and former Blair County Commissioner Donna Gority.

The administration is “cutting the inspiration,” said Alison, a broadcast major who plays the viola and whose last name was not announced.

The arts programs give students “an outlet” for self-expression, said Bree, a biochemistry major who decided to take dance last semester.

“I guess my dance career is over,” Bree, whose last name was not announced, said.

Ethan, a sophomore whose last name was also not shared, was “stressed to the core,” but a yoga program offered by the college helped him deal with it.

Life has gotten much harder for “stressed-out kids,” said Evan Smith, a freshman broadcast major.

Christian Howard is graduating soon in integrative arts, and thus is lucky, he said.

The cutting of the program for those who follow behind is “sickening,” he said.

The administration should have asked students how they feel before launching into the cuts, said Kayla Jones, who is minoring in dance.

Dance gives her purpose, and helps keep an old experience of post-traumatic stress syndrome at bay, said Pamela Lantz, a sophomore.

“I feel completely homeless (now),” she said.

Integrative arts gave a 2013 graduate from Patton the safe space to be “real,” and to create for themselves a “world I want to live in,” according to an email whose contents were described by Bonnie Cutsforth-Huber, a professor of music.

An online petition to “save the arts” has garnered 400-plus signatures, according to Rodino-Colocino.

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

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