By Ollie Gratzinger
Earlier this year, public universities throughout the state announced widespread layoffs amid existing financial woes exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Indiana University of Pennsylvania said in October that 81 tenured or tenure-track faculty members could be let go after the spring semester. At Edinboro University in northwestern Pennsylvania, 21 permanent faculty members will be laid off, along with an additional 26 adjunct and regular part-time faculty members.
Now, Duquesne University — a private school — is joining the line-up of local colleges forced to make cuts in an era of financial uncertainty.
In an email obtained by Pittsburgh City Paper that was sent out to professors Dec. 4, signed by Executive Vice President and Provost David J. Dausey, the university explained exactly how these cuts will be implemented.
“Duquesne has taken two steps to align the size of the faculty with our enrollment realities and long-term goals,” the email said. “As a first step, Duquesne has offered a comprehensive voluntary retirement incentive program to long-serving faculty. As a second step, the University will not renew a subset of contracts of full-time non-tenure track faculty and a few others who do not have tenure.”
These changes will allegedly reduce the overall faculty size by less than 5 percent.
According to university spokesperson Gabriel Welsch, Duquesne currently has 482 full-time faculty — 282 tenured, 72 tenure-track who are not yet tenured, and 128 non-tenured. Full-time faculty teach about 83% of the courses, and about 17% of courses are taught by adjunct faculty. Taking into account the 5% estimate from the email and the number of faculty at the university, as many as 20 positions may be cut, if not more.
Last week’s email also explained that the financial challenges facing higher education institutions had existed before the pandemic, but COVID-19 shortened the time frame for coping with these issues, and limited the range of options available to remedy them.
It also made note of a 12 percent decline in enrollment numbers at Duquesne in the last 10 years, resulting in 200 less staff positions over the course of the decade. But throughout this decline, the email said that the number of full-time faculty has remained essentially the same. That is, until now.
Welsch says a goal of these cuts is to better match the university’s faculty size to the size of its current and anticipated student body.
“Duquesne continually balances its faculty in response to enrollment trends and student demand,” he says in an email. “Each year this involves retirements, decisions to not replace faculty who have decided to leave the institution for other reasons, and the non-renewal of contacts for a limited subset of faculty who do not have tenure.”
But still, news of looming layoffs doesn’t sit well for some faculty members.
“The elimination of so many faculty positions is deeply concerning for the university. Duquesne prides itself on a small faculty-student ratio,” says one faculty member who wishes to remain anonymous. “Why should students pay our tuition rates for large classes taught by part-time adjunct faculty?”
For students, the price of a three-credit course changes occasionally, but it’s currently sitting at just over $4,000; adjuncts make roughly the same amount per course. The university’s adjuncts have also been barred from unionizing multiple times, leading to concerns regarding both job security and workplace ethics.
Welsch adds that non-renewal of contracts this year “will affect a very small number of faculty who do not yet have tenure, in areas of limited demand.” It is not yet known where in the university these layoffs will take place, which faculty members will be affected, or if one department or college will feel the brunt of it.
“All academic units at the university have contributed to cost containment efforts. Non-renewals are balanced with non-replacements and voluntary retirement acceptances,” Welsch says. “Thus, some units had limited numbers of non-renewals or no non-renewals because of these factors.”
Welsch also explains that the voluntary retirement incentives, though expanded by the impact of the pandemic, aren’t exactly new, and that the university has offered these several times in the last decade. Duquesne University leadership is also committing gifts to emergency funds for students most affected by pandemic-related economic challenges, according to Welsch.
News of these cuts also comes as Duquesne continues to build both its new Osteopathic School of Medicine, a roughly $60 million project paid for in part by fundraising efforts, and its new UPMC Cooper Fieldhouse, a $45 million arena that has been under construction since March 2019. All of the arena’s funding has come from outside donations — primarily UPMC and a $2 million grant from the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania — as well as “gift sources,” according to Welsch.
“They have had some delays, but more because of work restrictions due to social distancing than to costs,” says Welsch.
Nonetheless, the faculty member says that optically, its continued promotion feels like a slap in the face.
“The approach by the administration has been deeply insensitive. Most of our faculty uprooted their lives and moved from across the country to take a job at Duquesne,” says the faculty member. “A few days after the administration warned about multiple job cuts due to fiscal concerns, it posted a Facebook video celebrating its new basketball arena. Talk about tone-deaf.”
The faculty member is referencing a Dec. 7 Facebook post by the university captioned “The UPMC Cooper Fieldhouse is coming along!”
Ollie Gratzinger is a reporter at the Pittsburgh City Paper, where this story first appeared.