Budget Shortfall Leads to Staff Cuts in College of Ag Sciences

By Chuck Gill, Penn State

UNIVERSITY PARK – Ten people are losing their jobs and dozens of additional positions are being eliminated through attrition as a result of budget shortfalls in Penn State’s College of Agricultural Sciences caused by state appropriations that have not kept pace with rising costs.

The job losses will cut across the college’s research and cooperative-extension missions.

The downsizing is part of a multiyear effort to address eroding state support while maintaining and enhancing high-priority programs that focus on issues of critical importance to Pennsylvania and the nation, according to Bruce McPheron, dean of the college.

“The College of Agricultural Sciences, like many other institutions in the state, has faced a perfect storm of budgetary challenges in recent years,” McPheron said. “The severe economic downturn, rising health care and other costs and skyrocketing state pension obligations have combined with eroding state appropriations to make these actions necessary.

“Because the college’s success and progress are driven by its people — who educate the next generation and make scientific discoveries that help feed the world — eliminating positions is always our last resort,” he said, “but we remain committed to building on the excellence of our faculty and staff to find and apply solutions to problems related to food production and security, human and animal health, environmental quality and conservation, and other concerns.”

The college’s base funding for agricultural research and Cooperative Extension, 93 percent of which is invested in people, comes from federal, state and county appropriations — a funding model unique to the land-grant university system that sets Penn State apart from other institutions of higher education in the state. In the current fiscal year, the college’s state appropriation for agricultural research and extension was flat at 2008-2009 levels.

The governor’s proposed budget for 2010-2011 again includes flat funding for the college. However, college administrators say without greater state support, rising operating and pension-related costs will create a budget shortfall of $11 million as of July 1, 2011, requiring a 20 percent reduction in agricultural research and extension programs in the 2011-2012 fiscal year. This would equate to more than 160 positions in the college.

“Unlike Penn State’s undergraduate education programs, these programs do not receive tuition dollars,” McPheron said.

The college is taking several steps to address its financial situation. The announced layoffs are part of an across-the-board, 5 percent reduction in spending in all departments for the 2010-2011 fiscal year. To position the college for the future, an additional 10 percent in vertical budget cuts based on strategic program priorities will take place for 2011-2012.

The college has instituted a “soft” hiring freeze, filling only positions of critical importance. Administrators also will evaluate additional college restructuring options and seek to leverage resources with University-wide institutes, other Penn State colleges and external stakeholders.

Penn State Cooperative Extension already is in the midst of a restructuring effort aimed at enhancing efficiency and focusing resources on statewide issues and program priorities. But as state funding has remained flat or declined in recent years and positions have been lost, Extension administrators have had little choice but to reduce or eliminate programs. Some examples:

— Commercial fruit and vegetable growers may soon have to comply with new regulations mandating “good agricultural practices,” or GAPs, to reduce foodborne pathogens at the farm, processing and retail levels. The College of Agricultural Sciences offers faculty expertise in this area, but budget and staffing shortfalls may hinder Extension’s ability to transfer research-based information to growers, potentially affecting food safety for consumers.

— Renewed federal efforts to clean up the Chesapeake Bay and the boom in exploration for natural gas in the Marcellus shale region are placing new emphasis on the need to protect and enhance water resources across Pennsylvania. Budget pressures have contributed to regional gaps in extension expertise in natural resources, reducing the capacity for programs aimed at helping farmers, well owners and communities monitor and improve water quality.

— State law requires that every gallon of gasoline and diesel fuel sold in Pennsylvania contain a percentage of biofuels. Finding economical ways to produce and distribute feedstocks for cellulosic ethanol and biodiesel can enhance financial viability for farmers while protecting air and water quality and reducing reliance on imported and offshore oil. But lack of adequate resources hampers Extension’s ability to work with researchers, crop growers and biofuel producers to develop and demonstrate crop varieties and production systems suitable for Pennsylvania.

With an expected worldwide population growth of 50 percent — or about 3 billion people — over the next 40 years, failing to adequately address emerging issues related to food and energy production, health and food safety, and water quality could have important consequences, McPheron noted.

“This population growth, coupled with an increasing standard of living around the world, leads to a forecast that we must double food production,” he said. “However, increased production must occur on the same or fewer acres, using the same or less water and energy. Sustaining food, fiber and renewable fuel production under this challenging scenario will require continued change and adaptation, including embracing new — and some yet-to-be discovered — technologies.”

McPheron pointed out that past investments in the country’s land-grant institutions have reaped huge dividends not only in food production, but also in tackling looming issues such as protecting humans and animals from infectious diseases; addressing diet-related concerns such as obesity and diabetes; and safeguarding air, water, forests and other natural resources.

“We must continue to invest in innovation and education through the land-grant university system if we are to ensure that the citizens of Pennsylvania continue to have access to a diverse, safe and affordable food supply,” he said.

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