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PSU buyouts a no-win for local campuses

The Pennsylvania State University is looking for a few good candidates to step up and leave their jobs to create a leaner university as it moves forward.

Last week, the university announced a program to cut staff and faculty at its 20 locations outside the University Park campus.

Facing a multimillion dollar budget deficit, it’s offering a voluntary separation incentive program at its Commonwealth Campuses in an attempt to reduce costs and deal with declining enrollment.

In short, one of the most well-known institutions of higher learning in the nation is looking to employee buyouts - much like those offered by countless corporate entities - to alleviate problems it has seen coming for years.

Under the proposal, tenured faculty, tenure-track faculty, academic administrators and staff who are full-time employees not on fixed-term contracts and were hired before April 1, 2023, are eligible.

They have until May 31 to decide and their final day would be June 28 in most cases.

Employees who resign voluntarily would be paid a year’s salary in lump sum, in addition to receiving six months medical coverage.

In a statement, the university said it must reduce its overall operating costs and prioritize funding for investment in student-focused initiatives, and there is no way to do this without addressing personnel costs.

Penn State said it must address its existing operational and personnel approaches so that it can focus on its commitment to delivering the highest value to students and creating a more resilient institution.

So far, there’s no estimate of how many workers are eligible, let alone how many might take the offer.

And there’s no acknowledgment of possible layoffs if the university doesn’t meet its goal in the buyout plan. More than 3,000 people work full-time at the Commonwealth Campuses, according to the university’s website.

Regionally Penn State has a presence in Hazleton, Schuylkill Haven and the Lehigh Valley.

Recently, those local campuses have experienced a bumpy ride.

University figures show enrollment has nose-dived at the Commonwealth Campus facilities, down to about 24,000 across the system. In fact, enrollment has dropped by about 14% across those locations since 2019.

Locally, Hazleton has taken the biggest hit, with just 510 students - down 18% from 2019. Lehigh Valley, with 954 students, lost 2%. Other locations fared far worse. The Schuylkill campus, with 650 students in 2023 showed an increase of 3% - the only campus in the system to do so and the only Penn State presence without a nearby community college.

Through most of that time, however, staffing remained flat at all the locations.

With fewer students and subsequently reduced income, there’s been some talk of reorganizing or restructuring the system, possibly focusing fields of study at some locations.

There’s also been some talk about the possibility of closing some of the smaller locations to make the system more self-sustaining. For now, though, there’s nothing like that on the table.

Doing so would truly be a loss to the communities served, especially to the local economies where college students and their parents shop and eat.

And doing so might be considered an affront to countless local donors whose dollars funded campus improvements or endowed scholarships.

Over the years, the Commonwealth Campuses have served as a starting point for students looking to save money by attending classes locally before moving on to further education at the main campus in Centre County.

At the same time, they’ve become valuable members of their communities, offering the resources and expertise of a world class institution of higher learning, contributing to the growth of local businesses and industries.

But looking ahead, Penn State faces the same things as other institutions across the commonwealth.

Despite what many areas might be experiencing as regional population growth spikes, Pennsylvania’s overall population is declining. Its population is aging and the birthrate is dropping.

It’s unfortunate that university administration waited this long to recognize that trend.

And more unfortunate that countless potential future students won’t have access to local opportunities.


The foregoing opinions do not necessarily reflect the views of the Editorial Board or Times News LLC.