La Salle shrinks: Buyouts, programs to downsize or close as consultants converge

A longtime professor wonders ‘can we justify our existence?’ as the Catholic college grapples with a sudden 11 percent drop in enrollment.

La Salle

La Salle

The latest evidence of hard times at La Salle dropped in the middle of last week: For the second time in the last year, the Catholic university announced to faculty via email it was offering voluntary buyouts. Any professor over the age of 60 who has worked for the university for at least five years can apply.

The move comes with the university facing a shortfall of $12 million and undergraduate enrollment that has declined 11 percent in the last year — from 3,583, according to Department of Education data, to 3,175, according to La Salle, with an especially precipitous drop in freshman enrollment. Already, the university laid off 23 employees (no professors) last summer and enacted a first round of buyouts. The biggest changes could still be to come. Every department and faculty member is being audited as part of a strategy administrators have deemed the “Prioritization Program.”

While La Salle has declined to discuss the program, interviews and surveys dispersed to alumni show the university is considering overhauling its academic departments, with the possibility of consolidation — or even elimination — of smaller programs.  

“It’s not something we’re really prepared to talk about,” said Jaine Lucas, a spokesperson for La Salle. “Private universities in particular have had a more difficult time. Like we all do, we draw back at times and look at the class structure and see if we’re in alignment with our size.”

But the prioritization program has been a topic many are discussing around campus. It was introduced by new president Colleen Hanycz. She started in the summer and said she didn’t realize at first the magnitude of the shortfall and decline in enrollment La Salle faced.

To aid the process, the university hired consultants. A longtime La Salle professor, who asked to remain anonymous because of concerns about speaking about the subject to the media, said professors have been asked to itemize everything they do and provide it to a faculty task force that interacts with the consultants.

“There’s very much a sense of, ‘can we justify our existence?’” the professor said.

The professor stressed the university had mostly been open about the process, holding explanatory meetings to which faculty were invited. But employees are concerned about cuts to administrative and support staff and the consolidation or elimination of smaller departments.  

Recently, alumni have been asked to fill out surveys about the programs from which they graduated because the university is “examining all of its programs in order to decide upon future directions for the University and to prioritize programs.” One survey from the Communications Department explained that it wanted to gather information for “an important La Salle University report that will assess how our Communication Department compares to other academic departments at La Salle in terms of quality, effectiveness, and reputation. The results will be used to make decisions about the future funding and structure of the department.”     

Not long ago, La Salle was thriving, at least compared to its current state. Now, layoffs, buyouts and the possible restructuring from the prioritization program have become part of the campus environment.   

“We’ll see what comes out of it,” said the professor. “Something’s going on.”

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