SGA holds two town halls to discuss faculty non-renewals

Written By Jordyn Hronec, Editor-in-Chief

Over the past few weeks, the Student Government Association (SGA) has hosted two town halls for students to attend and ask questions regarding the recent non-renewals of 17 full-time faculty members. 

The first of the town halls happened on March 16, with university administrators, including President Paul Hennigan, in attendance. The second town hall occurred on March 29, and this meeting included members of the full-time faculty, including several who were affected by the non-renewals. Both town halls were hosted by SGA President Dennis McDermott. 

“We’ve been very clear with the university community that our enrollment for this year was lower than what we had budgeted,” President Hennigan said during the first town hall. “That is not a phenomenon unto Point Park. A lot of schools across the country have experienced lower than expected enrollments this year due to the pandemic, and our housing numbers are lower this year.”

Hennigan clarified that the university’s revenue must be equal to its expenditures, and the inequality from this year is cause for several measures taken across the university to cut costs, including the non-renewals. 

“We’ve had to reduce our operating expenditures this year, and we’re going to reduce operating expenditures for next year,” Hennigan said. “Those reductions do include a reduction in the number of full-time faculty teaching at Point Park University. It was a very very difficult decision. We’ve had to make some difficult decisions with staff positions this year, and we don’t take any of this lightly.”

At the second town hall, professor of literary arts and social justices, J. Dwight Hines, who is president of the full-time faculty union, said that he did not believe that the non-renewal decisions were caused by economic concerns.

“It seems to me that this decision is only loosely tied to the current circumstance we’re faced with as a country,” Hines said. “And it’s more a byproduct of long term strategies, financial strategies within this institution, that aren’t dedicated necessarily to the success of the academic institution, and we’re now kind of reaping that role unfortunately, and COVID is being used as this event to justify the austerity.”

In his reasoning, Hines mentioned that the university received “millions of dollars” from the federal government through the CARES Act, which was passed in April 2020, with additional funding becoming available in January 2021. In total, the university received $5,185,309 in funding, with $1,596,543 going directly to students and the remaining $3,588,766 going to the university itself, according to the allocation tables available on the U.S. Department of Education’s website.

“The spirit of the CARES Act is to help employers to continue paying their employees,” Professor Dora Ion, one of the affected faculty members, said. “Therefore, that obviously refers to not firing people.”

In the first town hall, Hennigan said that no faculty members were “fired.”

“The faculty were not fired, their contracts were not renewed, according to the collective bargaining agreement (CBA),” Hennigan said. “The decisions were made by the deans and the provost, and were submitted to me as a recommendation, and I, as the university president, ultimately made the decision.”

“None of these faculty were not renewed because they did a poor job,” Acting Provost Jonas Prida said during the first town hall. “Every one of these people was an excellent faculty person. It had nothing to do with performance and had everything to do with the fact that we’re in a pandemic, there was a budget concern and we didn’t want the entire university to close.”

Another topic that was addressed at both meetings were concerns raised regarding diversity, equity and inclusion and whether or not faculty members belonging to minority groups were disproportionately affected by the non-renewals.

“Every time a reduction is made, we do an analysis to ensure that the percentage of people in any sort of protected category that are affected by the displacement is at least similar to the percentage of people in that category in the entire unit eligible for displacement,” Lisa Stefanko, Vice President of Human Resources, said. Stefanko stated that the gender makeup of all full-time faculty that could have been up for non-renewal “skewed more heavily toward women,” and thus, so did the number of non-renewed faculty. Stefanko said that similar data was analyzed for faculty members of color, but not for LGBTQ+ faculty members, as this is data that the university “does not collect.”

“The university has a history of initially, at least, the faculty being mostly white men and cisgender white men. If every time we’re in a moment of crisis, we cut what’s new, that is only going to be perpetuated,” sports, arts and entertainment (SAEM) professor Kendra Ross, who is an affected faculty member, said. “And so my conversation around this is that you’ve got to make decisions differently if you want different results. Crises are not going to go away, it won’t be a pandemic, but there will be something else.”

At the first town hall, questions were addressed regarding the quality of academics and potential new hires after the faculty non-renewals. According to Stefanko, an early-retirement package was offered as an incentive to certain faculty members, but some academic departments lost more faculty members to the incentive package than others, causing the need for new faculty members to be hired to fill large vacancies. Stefanko said that in many cases, visiting full-time faculty with one-to-three year residencies will be hired. The administration also acknowledged that eventually, the positions left open due to the faculty non-renewals would again be filled. 

“I trust deans and chairs, frankly,” Prida said. “And again, I don’t mean that to be a flippant answer, but in the same way, we have no way of knowing if any faculty is going to be good or bad, and so I trust that chairs and deans, when they hire people to be replacements for these people who were non-renewed, that these people are going to be qualified, competent and good in the classroom.” 

At the second town hall with the faculty, concerns were discussed regarding certain academic departments losing most of or all of their full-time faculty members. 

“We currently have three full-time faculty, until losing me cuts that in third,” Cat Wilson, a theater production professor in the Conservatory of Performing Arts (COPA), and one of the affected faculty members, said. “We have a smaller program, but we support all of COPA, and so that’s going to take a big hit. And currently I’ve been teaching, last semester was eight classes. So who is going to be taking that? That’s going to be rough on the two leftover who are also maxed out on credit loads, and there isn’t anybody.”

Cinema professor Laura Boyd also spoke regarding the cinema department’s lack of a full-time faculty chair.

“We don’t have a chair, we can’t spare a faculty member from teaching to become our chair,” Boyd said. “And right now, who in their right mind would become chair when as chair you have an empty department, right? We have so few faculty. We were doing great, we were growing, we had great programs, we had very solid ground, and we don’t even have a chair to ask questions of. And it’s very hard, we want to be doing really well, and this is a major blow to us.”

During the second town hall, full-time faculty union secretary and professor of English, Barbara Barrow, spoke regarding some of the measures that the faculty offered in order to help with cutting costs. Barrow said that the union suggested the retirement incentives, as well as offered to assist in creating a committee of full-time faculty members who would assist the university in “identifying cost-saving measures.” Barrow also said that the faculty “did not ask” for extra compensation for preparing online courses, something that under Article 10 section 6 of the CBA between the full-time faculty and the university, is eligible for compensation via a stipend. 

“For most faculty, I think working during the pandemic means working for a lot more without extra compensation, and obviously taking care of sick children or family members while simultaneously dealing with all of that,” Barrow said. 

Barrow also alleged that full-time faculty members “weren’t given an option as to whether or not we can teach on-ground,” with faculty being told that they “had to teach on-ground” during the pandemic.

At the conclusion of the first town hall, President McDermott addressed the administrators.

“Many of these issues that students have or are asking about right now existed long before the pandemic,” McDermott said. “And I don’t want all of these issues to be attributed to this existential crisis, and that there’s nothing we can do about them, because I think many of these problems are just being exacerbated by it.”

The first town hall is unlisted on the university’s YouTube channel, but is available to view here.

The second town hall will also be made available by SGA to view on YouTube as well.