Among what appeared to be 1,000 or more students, faculty and supporters stood long lines of people waiting to sign a petition, and everywhere were signs:
“We Need Education Not Prisons.”
“Let’s NOT Encourage the ‘Stupid American’ Stereotype.”
“Fund Us Please.”
Those messages and more came out clear and sometimes loud, during a protest rally Tuesday at the main campus of Edinboro University of Pennsylvania. They were aimed straight at Republican Gov. Tom Corbett and his proposal to cut funding by more than 50 percent to state-owned universities, a part of his overall plan to close a roughly $4 billion projected state budget gap.
EUP Freshman Dalton Babcock was one of many students who had some things to say about what the proposed cuts could mean. “I’m here entirely on financial aid and scholarships,” said the second-semester anthropology major. And with tuition and fees for full-time students living on campus currently standing at $15,000-plus per year, “if (that assistance) drops, I’ll have been here for a year and be out of college,” said Babcock.
He said as far as he’s concerned, that “would kill my chance for a future.”
In the $27.3 billion state budget he’s presented for consideration by legislators, Corbett has proposed cutting spending on higher education by a total of $644 million for the 14 state-owned universities as well as state-supported universities including Penn State, Pittsburgh and Temple.
For Edinboro alone, the proposed funding reduction would create a budgetary “hole” of $15.7 million, according to university President Jeremy D. Brown. Taken across Pennsylvania, the loss of funds would “represent the biggest percentage cut to state higher education funds in history,” Brown said in addressing the rally’s crowd of participants.
As it stands, Brown said, there remains “a lot of uncertainty” about how and in what areas EUP would be most affected by the funding cuts, but tuition hikes are a clear possibility; officials at state-owned Kutztown University recently indicated the cuts could result in a 32 percent tuition hike there.
Along with possible tuition hikes, university officials around the state have also said the funding loss could result in layoffs and fewer academic programs being offered. Similar rallies were held Tuesday at other Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education schools, and a large-scale demonstration is also planned for Monday in Harrisburg.
“I’m going to start ordering some buses” for EUP students, faculty and staff, university Student Government Association President Adam Maybe said at Tuesday’s rally. And “if you’re really serious about this, I want to see all of your names on this petition.”
Following the on-campus demonstration, hundreds of students and faculty, many still carrying signs and repeating chants like “WE SAY NO!”, marched together into downtown Edinboro to hand-deliver that petition to the local office of Republican state Rep. John Evans.
Evans, who also serves as an EUP trustee, wasn’t at the office when the petition was delivered and wasn't immediately available for comment Tuesday. A staff member at the office said she hadn’t yet counted the total number of signatures on the petition, but indicated it had multiple pages.
“Coming to a rally is a great thing,” said Jean Jones, an Edinboro professor and president of the university’s faculty union association who was among the event’s chief organizers. “But if we do not put the pressure on our legislators, this (funding cut) is going to happen. Send an e-mail. Send a message. Tell them, respectfully, that we cannot have these cuts.”
The Association of Pennsylvania State College and University Faculty — the union that represents the 6,000 faculty members and coaches at the 14 state-owned universities — recently offered to negotiate a one-year salary freeze. APSCUF officials and members said the union wants to demonstrate it’s doing its part in attempts to resolve the state budget deficit while working to get the proposed funding cuts off the table.
“We are there,” Jones said, “and we will stand with the students.”
A recently-released statewide poll conducted by Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster along with several newspapers and TV stations showed a majority of adults — more than 60 percent of the more than 500 surveyed — favor measures such as taxing smokeless tobacco, privatizing the state-run liquor and wine trade, reducing the number of state employees and imposing a tax on natural-gas drilling to close the state’s budget gap. Fewer than 30 percent favor measures that include cutting spending for state colleges and universities, according to the poll.
Corbett pledged in his campaign to not increase taxes in general, and he has opposed any tax measures on the gas extracted from the rich deposit known as the Marcellus Shale. He repeated that stand during the speech earlier this month in which he outlined the proposed cuts in education, stating such a tax could hinder the growth of natural gas drilling in Pennsylvania and prevent the state from becoming the national hub of the industry.
In proposing to cut education to balance the budget instead of taking other approaches, “our governor is making a statement, and we have to tell them we don’t like the statement he’s making,” Jones said. “We can’t afford that, and we can’t stand for that.”
Ryan Smith can be reached at 724-6370 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. The Associated Press contributed material to this report.
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