College of Ag Sciences eliminates positions, refocuses for future

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- The Penn State College of Agricultural Sciences will eliminate about 130 positions -- more than half through early retirements -- as it refocuses its programs and reorganizes in the wake of state budget cuts of 19 percent for fiscal year 2011-12, which began July 1.

The job losses will occur at Penn State Extension offices across the state and in academic and support units at the University Park campus.

An early retirement incentive offered to employees in April resulted in 82 individuals taking that option. An additional 24 employees have been laid off effective immediately, and about 25 more positions will be eliminated over the next few months as the college prioritizes programs and identifies further reductions in order to meet budget targets.

When completed, these jobs cuts -- combined with previous attrition, layoffs and reassignments during the last two years -- mean the college's permanent workforce will be about 200 employees smaller compared to 2009 levels.

Bruce McPheron, dean of the College of Agricultural Sciences, said the college was able to save more than 20 jobs by shifting a portion of some research and extension staff salaries from permanent funds to grants and other funding sources.

"Obviously, we wanted to minimize the number of people affected by this," McPheron said. "This is a painful process -- the people losing their jobs are hard-working, dedicated employees who believe in the mission of the college.

"But about 90 percent of our base funding is invested in people, and despite successful efforts to reduce our budget over the last two years in anticipation of cuts, we had little choice but to include layoffs in our cost-reduction efforts."

McPheron noted that until this year, the college's state appropriations for agricultural research and extension had remained virtually flat at $55 million since 2006. The last two years, the state reduced its contribution by 6 percent and made up the difference with federal stimulus funding.

Anticipating the expiration of stimulus funds for 2011-12 -- and to cover rising costs in health-care benefits, state pension obligations and other items -- the college took a series of aggressive steps to cut about $12 million from its budget over two years. These included a "soft" hiring freeze in effect since 2009; no pay increases for employees in two of the last three years; a 5 percent across-the-board cut for all college departmental budgets in June 2010; and elimination of more than 30 positions, including seven layoffs, in June 2010.

But this year's state budget cuts of about $10.5 million for agricultural research and extension necessitated even deeper reductions in spending. Agricultural research and extension, which are part of Penn State's mission as Pennsylvania's sole land-grant university, receive funding through a federal-state-county partnership and do not receive support from tuition dollars.

The college also must endure its share of Penn State's 19 percent state cut in instructional funding for undergraduate education.

The current round of job cuts was done strategically, rather than across the board, McPheron explained. "As we've lost funding and staff, we no longer have the resources to support quality programs in all the areas we have in the past," he said. "Guided by state priorities, stakeholder input and our strategic plan, we will disinvest in programs not central to our core mission."

As a result, several programs will be reduced or eliminated, including statewide extension education programs such as family financial management, adult leadership development, tourism, organizational strategic planning and emergency preparedness. "These cuts will enable Extension to reallocate resources to high-priority programs with critical needs, largely related to production agriculture," McPheron said.

In addition, funding for Extension's Master Gardener program will shift to sources such as grants, and Extension leaders will evaluate new options for the management and funding of the 4-H youth-development program.

Partly in response to recent budget challenges, the College of Agricultural Sciences already was in the midst of reorganizing its academic units and statewide extension structure. The restructuring process, which also addresses recommendations from a university-wide review of programs, has led to a proposal to combine and/or refocus academic departments in the college, reducing their number from 12 to nine.

Though not expected to immediately achieve significant budget savings, the academic reorganization is likely to lead to long-term efficiencies while streamlining and strengthening the college's academic offerings, according to McPheron. The Faculty Senate currently is reviewing the plan, which also must be approved by the Board of Trustees before tentatively taking effect in July 2012.

College officials also have crafted a proposal to change the model for the administration and delivery of Penn State Extension programs across the state. The plan would preserve an extension office in each of the state's 67 counties, but programs and staff would be overseen from about 20 district offices, eliminating duplication of administrative services and processes and freeing most former county extension directors to concentrate on program delivery.

The proposal is expected to reduce administrative costs and enhance Extension's ability to develop and deliver high-priority programs. Extension leaders currently are gathering input from county commissioners and other stakeholders as they move toward implementing the plan over the coming year.

Despite the current fiscal challenges, McPheron is optimistic about the college's future. "Although downsizing is always difficult, we still have significant resources and much to contribute to the success of agriculture in Pennsylvania and beyond," he said. "We will emerge from this as a more focused and efficient operation concentrating in our areas of excellence and uniqueness where we can have the greatest impact addressing Pennsylvania's priorities."

More information about the College of Agricultural Sciences' restructuring process, known as the Ag Futures initiative, is available online at http://agsci.psu.edu/ag-futures.

Last Updated September 12, 2011