College is disrupted for more than 100,000 students as Pennsylvania faculty members strike

More than 100,000 college students in Pennsylvania had their education disrupted Wednesday as contract negotiations affecting 14 state universities ground to a halt and professors took to picket lines.

After a last-ditch attempt to negotiate before midnight Tuesday, members of the Association of Pennsylvania State College and University Faculties went on strike at 5 a.m. Wednesday.

Pennsylvania has one of the largest public university systems in the country and, like many, its public funding has not kept pace with inflation. Its state funding of $444 million is about the same as it was in 1999.

This is the first strike in the system’s more-than-30-year history.

Just about 20 percent of the faculty continued to teach, said Kenn Marshall, a spokesman for Pennsylvania’s State System of Higher Education. There were picket lines at 16 sites.

“At 11:35 p.m., we made a last attempt to negotiate through back channels,” the union’s president, Kenneth Mash, said in a statement. “We waited until 5 a.m. We are headed to the picket lines, but even on the picket lines, our phones will be on, should the state system decide it doesn’t want to abandon its students. They’ll know where to find me at 5:30 a.m. I’ll be outside the chancellor’s office at the Dixon Center on the picket line.”

The union represents about 5,500 professors and coaches from Bloomsburg, California, Cheyney, Clarion, East Stroudsburg, Edinboro, Indiana, Kutztown, Lock Haven, Mansfield, Millersville, Shippensburg, Slippery Rock and West Chester universities. It does not represent faculty at several prominent schools in the state, such as Penn State and Temple universities and the University of Pittsburgh.

According to Pennsylvania’s State System of Higher Education website, its proposal included pay raises and health-care plans identical to other state employees’, and it dropped several proposed requirements such as having faculty teach five rather than four classes per semester, increasing the cap on temporary faculty to 30 percent, and other provisions.

“The union rejected the system’s offer to provide raises to all permanent and temporary faculty and the identical health-care package that other system employees have,” the state system said in a statement. “The union previously indicated it would strike on Oct. 19 if an agreement [was] not reached by then. The system remains committed to reaching an agreement that is fair to everyone, especially students.”

Marshall, the spokesman for the state system, said the system was trying to provide raises to faculty but needs to offset that with other savings, with a health-care package with higher premiums, for example. “To date we haven’t been able to get them to agree to those changes,” he said.

Mash said by phone Wednesday evening from the picket line outside the chancellor’s office that they had been negotiating for more than two years and that their contract expired more than a year ago. He believes the quality of education is under attack, with the state system pushing for changes such as replacing classes with online courses, increasing the number of adjunct faculty, decreasing professional development, and so on. He said the union made concessions on issues such as health care, but “no matter what we put forward, it was not good enough.”

He said the state system gave a last offer Tuesday night and essentially shut down negotiations. Mash said the union hopes to get back to the table, to keep talking and to get back to classes.

Students are required to report to scheduled classes unless their university tells them otherwise, the state system noted. Marshall said they hope to resume talks with the union as soon as possible.

“We obviously need to resolve this, to come up with a new contract to end the strike, for our students, for our faculty, for our universities we need a resolution, we need an agreement,” he said.

On Wednesday, some students walked with professors, handed them oranges, played music for them, served doughnuts and coffee and, at one school, held up “FREE BEER FOR PROFESSORS” signs.

Others, and some parents, were upset by the mid-semester strike, and confused about classes, assignments and grades.

Gov. Tom Wolf (D) released a statement expressing disappointment.

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