PLU could cut more than 30 faculty members in budget fix

A faculty group at Pacific Lutheran University is recommending steep faculty cuts at the small suburban college in Parkland.

Within three years, 31 faculty members could lose their jobs and two areas of study be eliminated or reduced, if the university’s board of regents approves of the recommendations in December.

The proposed cuts were blamed on declining enrollment over more than a decade without a corresponding cut in the number of professors at the university, which celebrated its 125th anniversary last year.

PLU had nearly 3,100 graduate and undergraduate students this past academic year, about 600 fewer than in 2005. During that decade, the number of faculty remained the same, Acting President Allan Belton said.

“We can’t do this every year,” Belton said of cuts to the school’s budget. “As a university we have to decide how we are going to be a sustainable university for another 125 years.”

Founded by Norwegian immigrants, the Lutheran college has been named among the best value colleges in the country by US News and World Report. Tuition this academic year will cost $40,350.

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A major and minor in the classics would be eliminated and a major in Nordic studies reduced to a minor under the plan suggested by the 20-member Faculty Joint Committee, which was convened last year to address PLU's budget issues.

The two areas of study have few students, Belton said. About three students a year declare majors in the classics programs, while about four select Nordic studies.

All students currently in those areas of study will be able to complete their coursework, Belton said, and the school will continue to offer select classes in those disciplines.

“There are no bad programs at PLU,” Belton said. “Any decision we make to eliminate a program, its an excellent program going away, there’s no denying that.”

Classics professor Eric Nelson said cutting the classics major and minor would be a mistake.

Many more students take courses taught by professors in his department than just those who major in the field, he said. Classics professors also teach courses for other majors, including art, literature, history, pre-med, and women’s studies.

Students need a foundation in the classics to question and interpret traditional texts that underpin present-day ideals, Nelson said Friday.

Students “will be completely unmoored from the vocabulary, ideas and texts from antiquity that inform their own disciplines and both entangle and might liberate their minds,” he said.

There will be cutbacks in other programs, said economics professor Norris Peterson. Department heads will examine the faculty committee’s recommendations and return in the fall with suggestions.

“We are asking for various programs to tell us how they are going to respond to the recommendations we made,” Peterson said.

PLU worked in the past three years to save $3 million in administrative costs and balanced its $90 million budget. Belton said the university already had refinanced debt and outsourced some expenses to that end.

Suggested faculty cuts could save about $2.8 million a year, Belton said. The amount is likely to change, depending on which faculty members decide to retire, he said.

In many cases, Peterson said, the recommendation for faculty cuts includes losing one position in many departments. Responses to the recommendations could include offering some classes less often or restructuring programs.

The university currently has 376 faculty members.

Belton said he hopes to avoid involuntary layoffs by enticing professors with a phased retirement program, which so far has been available for those who have worked for the university for 20 years or more.

Opening the program to more faculty could help ease the transition, which Belton expects will take three years.

Among those volunteers will be 64-year-old Peterson, who plans to retire at the end of the next academic year.

He said the last major cutbacks at PLU were in the mid-1990’s, when the university eliminated its engineering program.

Since June 2013, Belton said, the school's endowment has grown to $96 million from $78 million. Of that, $7 million came from last year's sale of the radio frequency 88.5 KPLU and its assets, now known as KNKX.

The university will hold forums this fall to brief students on how the changes affect them.