By Konstantine Fekos
Student protesters raised quite a shout on campus Wednesday morning and afternoon against nine or more potential faculty cuts to Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) programs at Edinboro University of Pennsylvania.
More than two dozen students and one faculty member rallied against the proposed cuts outside Cooper Science Hall as early as 8 a.m. before marching outside the offices of President Julie Wollman and Nathan Ritchey, dean of Science and Health Professions.
Some were clad in white lab coats while others waved signs that read “Save Our Sciences” and “No professors, no students.”
“We’re already working with minimal faculty; to cut any more would be painful,” said Brittney Oleniacz, student lab assistant for the Geoscience Department and rally organizer, in response to the university’s 2013 Operations and Workforce Plan.
The plan proposes cutting at least nine positions in multiple STEM departments, including biology and health services, geosciences, chemistry and physics and technology in the hopes of saving revenue to help balance the university’s current $5.5 million structural deficit caused by factors like declining enrollment and cuts in state funding.
“The cuts aren’t well thought-out,” said Steve Mattern, senior geology major. “If you look around, especially in this area, people are getting hired in science and technology (fields). These sectors are growing.”
Despite student concerns, Ritchey claims no coursework for STEM program majors will be touched or altered as a result of the Workforce Plan.
“Interestingly, I was meeting with a department chair when it (the protest) happened,” he said. “I found it semi-ironic. The demonstration was good and it was doing exactly what I was doing at the moment, saving jobs and science.”
Edinboro University’s administration, including the deans of both academic colleges, have direct hands in shaping the Workforce Plan through recommendations and faculty meetings, making them targets of interest for student protesters.
“I don’t know what they’re being told, so I want to tell them I’m doing my best to save jobs,” Ritchey said. “But as a person responsible for the fiscal health of the university, it’s my job to address any deficit that may hurt us in the long run.”
Ritchey remains optimistic in proposed alternatives, including the potential to reappoint current faculty to new initiatives to improve STEM programs and help expand other programs in high student demand.
He also believes the university can rely partly on natural attrition and eliminate positions opened by retirement.
“To me, the ideal situation would be to save money and faculty,” he said. “The faculty identified in the Workforce Plan can be used in growing programs.”
While Ritchey admits times are troubling, he believes this is the university’s chance to move forward positively with new changes.
“I’ve never seen more faculty members focused on how to make things better, improve programs (and) increase enrollment,” he said. “That’s exciting.”
The rally became more inclusive as it continued into the late afternoon, reaching out to students from the art and music departments, which are facing potential cuts to degree programs.
Several students eventually staged a silent protest in the lobby of Reeder Hall, the campus administration building.
“We feel for music and other departments being cut,” Oleniacz said. “However, we’re confused. There’s supposed to be a growth in STEM industries and millions of new STEM jobs in the future.”
As a result, students held signs with figures from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics and stem.org, projecting at least a 17 percent growth in STEM industries, including geology and environmental science, over the next six years.
In addition to their public demonstration, student protesters circulated miniature flyers promoting an online petition, available at petitions.moveon.org/sign/stop-edinboro-faculty. They hoped to get 500 signatures.
Petition supporters seek to retract most, if not all, of the cuts proposed in the Workforce Plan.
As of Wednesday, the petition garnered at least 437 signatures.
“We want the faculty to see that we care,” Oleniacz said. “We have their backs and we support them like they’ve supported us.”
Konstantine Fekos can be reached at 724-6370 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.