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Spanier: 'Abraham Lincoln Is Weeping' as Corbett Pushes Penn State Cuts

on March 09, 2011 1:45 PM

Gov. Tom Corbett's proposed budget would move Penn State "substantially" toward privatization and signal "near-total abandonment" of state support for public higher education in Pennsylvania, university President Graham Spanier said Wednesday.

"Public higher education is not just a private good. It is a public good that benefits all society," Spanier said in a 55-minute press conference at the Outreach Building at University Park.

Spanier opened in part by declaring that "Abraham Lincoln is weeping today," a reference to the Morrill Act of 1862. The act, signed by then-President Lincoln, fostered the creation of land-grant institutions -- including Penn State -- to expand the availability to higher education for the non-elite.

Now state funds make up about eight percent of the Penn State budget, having declined steadily from nearly 37 percent as recently as 1970. Under Corbett's budget proposal, introduced Tuesday, state support would fall to about four percent of the university budget.

According to Penn State-supplied numbers, the proposal would mean a decline of $182 million from current state funding levels for the university. Corbett, in his budget address Tuesday, called for shared sacrifice as the state tries to control its spending and cope with a $4 billion deficit.

A finalized state budget is expected to go into effect in July, leaving Penn State little time to make major adjustments in its operations, Spanier said Wednesday.

He said the university has contingency plans at many levels; expected some sort of funding cut; and is willing to make adjustments to help the state through its fiscal crisis.

"But not in our wildest imagination could we have anticipated a proposal like this," Spanier went on. Overall state spending would fall about three percent under the Corbett proposal, while higher-education spending specifically would take a 50 percent hit.

Spanier said university leaders are now "working around the clock to develop contingency plans." He vowed to challenge the size of the cut that Corbett has proposed.

And while the elimination of four percent of the university budget may not sound like a big deal, Spanier said, those state funds are used primarily to subsidize the expense of educating in-state college students.

As a result, the cut would have an acute impact on the university's educational budget, Spanier said. He said it would eliminate 10 percent of the university educational budget, 50 percent of the budget for Penn State Cooperative Extension services, and 50 percent of the budget for agricultural research.

"These are devastating cuts," Spanier said. He said tuition increases are likely, but that proposed rates have not been finalized and that the university is trying to minimize the impact on those rates.

He also said layoffs are likely at Penn State in the next budget cycle. The university has indicated it will look at a variety of expense-containment measures, including a scaling-back of planned facility improvements; pay freezes; higher insurance rates for employees; program reductions; and across-the-board departmental budget cuts.

Plus, the closure of some Penn State Commonwealth Campuses would be a possibility if the Corbett budget proposal wins approval as-is, Spanier said.

Asked about the likelihood that Penn State will eventually go private, he said that, "yes, we could go private. But it's not what we want to do."

"We are not a for-profit entity. We don't make profit and put it in the bank. ... We don't want to be a wholly private institution because of our mission," Spanier added, underscoring the university's service-driven mission. "There's a reason why we have an office in every county of Pennsylvania."

At the same time, Spanier said, the university is reaching a point "where you have to question what it means to be a land-grant university, what it means to be a public university."

Spanier said he has been in touch with leadership of other state-related universities, including the University of Pittsburgh. Presidents of state-related universities are due in Harrisburg for budget hearings on March 28.

Steve Garban, the chairman of the Penn State board of trustees, told reporters Wednesday he's hopeful that the cuts will not come to pass with their current proposed scope. State Sen. Jake Corman, R-Bellefonte, told StateCollege.com earlier that he hopes university leaders will articulate specifically how the proposed funding cut would affect their respective institutions.

More than 100 people turned out for Spanier's Wednesday press briefing, during which he fielded more than 20 questions from reporters. University employees and local elected leaders, including county commissioners and municipal officials, were among the attendees. The event was broadcast live on WPSU radio and streamed live via the WPSU website.

Onward State has the press conference covered on this page, as well.

StateCollege.com will post additional information as it becomes available.

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