Facing $4.5 million deficit, U. of the Sciences cuts staff, programs

The University of the Sciences, facing a $4.5 million deficit, has announced faculty and staff layoffs and program cuts, while also proposing the possibility of a “new college structure” by next summer.

Twenty-two staff members — about 4.3 percent of the workforce — will lose their jobs, while 14 full-time and two adjunct faculty will either take a buyout or face layoff or non-reappointment, the university said. They represent nearly 8 percent of faculty.

Phased out or gone will be the music program and rifle team, as well as the master of public health program, online post-professional doctor of occupational therapy program, the forensic science certificate and minor, the small-business minor, and the professional writing minor.

The decisions come as the school, based in University City, faces a projected deficit for 2017-18 that represents nearly 5 percent of its budget. With the cuts, the university will save more than $5 million and the budget will be balanced at about $90 million, university spokesman Brian Kirschner said.

The shortfall, university officials said, is largely due to a drop in undergraduate enrollment, which went from about 2,500 in 2011-12 to 2,100 in 2016-17. Student fees, including tuition, account for about 80 percent of the university’s revenue, Kirschner said.

President Paul Katz said the cuts are necessary to put the university in a position to thrive as it faces its bicentennial in 2021.

University of the Sciences president Paul Katz

“I knew when I came into this position that there were challenges the university was facing that were going to necessitate changes,” said Katz, who took the helm in September. “These are tough decisions, and we will do everything we can to support the faculty and staff members affected by this.”

The announcement comes just three months after the university — which specializes in health-care and science education —  said it was losing accreditation for its  physician assistant master’s program, leaving some undergraduate students who were on track to enter it next fall in the lurch. It also follows the university’s decision about a year and a half ago not to merge with Salus University in Elkins Park.

The challenges at USciences are not unique. Many colleges across the region and nation have had to make cuts and changes in a competitive higher-education environment with a smaller pool of high school graduates.

The university also plans to restructure several departments, including enrollment and fund-raising, and consolidate some centers and departments, officials said.

Katz said the loss of the physician assistant program will add to the university’s enrollment challenges over the next few years. The university intends to eventually reapply and restart that program, Katz said.

Concern spread through the campus on Wednesday as word of the cuts and changes came out.

“It’s horrible,” said Kathleen Dion, 23, who is in her sixth year at the school and due to receive her doctor of pharmacy degree next summer.

Dion, a singer from Springfield, Mass., has been participating in the music program since she was a freshman, and said the program’s adviser, Kim Robson, helped her cope with the death of her father during her third year and her brother’s ongoing battle with cancer. Robson was one of the employees who lost her job.

“The only reason I’ve been able to be successful and stay here is because of the music program and Dr. Robson,” she said. “She goes above and beyond to do whatever her students need. Even throughout the summer, she checks on her students to make sure they are OK.”

Cutting music, she said, wasn’t just cutting a club or a minor.

“It was cutting our stress relief,” Dion said. “It was cutting our safe space in a way.”

Katz said the decisions followed a comprehensive look at the university’s 200 credit and noncredit programs.

“We felt we needed to spend more time on the programs that were most important to the university and which had the largest enrollment,” he said.

In its letter to the campus community, sent late Wednesday afternoon, Katz and Marvin Samson, chairman of the board of trustees, said the school’s student-to-faculty ratio had fallen to less than 9-1 because of the drop in enrollment.

“Our cost per student for instruction is 61 percent over median for comparable schools,” they said.

In addition to the 22 layoffs or buyouts, the university is eliminating two open positions and cutting hours for eight others. The school also plans to outsource its custodial services.

But it will add some programs and sports to boost enrollment. They include a neuroscience bachelor’s degree program and a substance use disorders center, as well as soccer, lacrosse, and track and field.

In the year ahead, Katz said, the university will look at whether to maintain its four current colleges — pharmacy, health sciences, arts and sciences, and health-care business — or consolidate them.

Tuition, fees, and room and board for 2016-17 at the university, which offers undergraduate and graduate programs, with its top majors in pharmacy, physical therapy, biology, and occupational therapy, totaled $54,038.