St. Cloud State to axe dozens more faculty and programs

The confidence of Americans in the value of a traditional four-year college degree continues to erode, with a recent Wall Street Journal poll finding 56 percent of respondents don’t think it’s worth pursuing.

Skepticism is strongest among people ages 18-34, and people with college degrees are among those whose opinions have soured the most, portending a profound shift for higher education in the years ahead. 

The implosion in higher education has led to enrollment at St. Cloud State University shrinking from 18,000 students in 2010 to about 10,000 this year. The trend led SCS to embark on a campaign to redefine the central Minnesota campus under the tagline of “It’s time.”

Now, more than ever, students are more likely to defer enrollment, take a gap year, and choose less traditional pathways for their education. The world around us has changed; we must change too.

The catchphrase has proved to be all too apt. SCS recently announced it’s time to cut about three dozen faculty and staff positions in the face of a formidable budget deficit. Now only weeks later, administrators have decided it’s time to take more drastic action, as outlined in the Star Tribune.

An $18 million budget deficit in fall 2023 will grow to $24.5 million the following year. And the phasing out of a handful of majors has expanded as the school freezes fall enrollment on 70 programs and minors.

The additional faculty reductions will come from more layoffs, as well as early separation agreements and unfilled vacancies. But only next year’s layoffs have been announced, leaving faculty with anxiety about what’s to come.

“Everybody’s morale is just kaput,” said Carolyn Hartz, department chair for philosophy, which is one major being phased out over the next few years.

The latest consolidation plan will result in pink slips for nearly 100 more faculty members over the next few years, aimed at getting the school’s budget deficit under control. The cuts come after years of waiting and hoping enrollment would somehow turn around.

The university also said it will suspend admissions in 70 degrees, certificates and minors to help streamline programming. During a webinar Thursday, Wacker told faculty about 80% of the programs being suspended have fewer than three students and, in several of those instances, similar degrees are available. After those cuts, the university will have about 240 degrees, minors and certificates.

University leaders attribute the chronic budget deficit to a steady enrollment decline that wasn’t met with a similar reduction in staffing levels, as well as instructional costs that are the highest among the seven Minnesota State universities.

At the same time, SCS plans to bolster online instruction as a means of attracting more non-traditional students and millions of tuition dollars.

The university is planning to launch 11 undergraduate accelerated programs this fall with Academic Partnerships, a for-profit online program management company owned by a private equity firm. University leaders are banking on the online programs netting $10 million a year by 2026. They say it will grow enrollment by 3,000 students in five years.

St. Cloud State is the only university in the Minnesota State system that has a partnership with an online program manager, according to Jenna Chernega, president of the Inter Faculty Organization, the union for faculty at the seven universities in the system. Both the Inter Faculty Organization and St. Cloud State faculty association are questioning the partnership.

“Is this in the best interests of the institution or is this an enroll-as-fast-as-possible kind of scheme that ultimately will end up financially being detrimental?” Chernega asked.

That’s just one of the questions swirling around not only St. Cloud State University but other campuses statewide facing similar challenges driven by a loss in public confidence.