By David Loomis
INDIANA – On Jan. 29, 2013, soon after he took over as IUP provost and vice president for academic affairs, Timothy S. Moerland spoke to the University Senate in Eberly Auditorium. It was mainly a meet-and-greet.
In brief remarks, the university’s chief academic officer (and substitute president when the president is absent) expressed thanks for the welcome he had received during his 11 days on campus. Then he delivered the requisite humorous observation.
“You may think that Dante’s Ninth Circle of the Inferno is treachery,” the Ph.D. zoologist said. “But I am here to tell you it is acronyms.”
One sentence. Still, it got a chuckle. Moerland’s audience may have appreciated truthful teasing about shared bureaucratic penchants for officialese and jargon that serve to exclude or obscure.
Mr. Moerland’s one-liner, after all, coincided with a boom in university business, which helped enlarge the county’s biggest single economic footprint. IUP enrollments were reaching record highs. Labor-management relations were relatively calm. The dry quip was an effort to bond with colleagues and the community. He made some announcements but invited no questions and yielded the mic.
As Mr. Driscoll put in in a notice about an interim replacement, it was Moerland who “spearheaded” the university’s ongoing turmoil that some critics have called avoidable. Others have called for a pause in the haste to restructure systemwide. (Gov. Tom Wolf’s recent infusion of $200 million in federal stimulus money into a flat-funded state budget for the state university system fed calls for delay.)
On Wednesday, then, Mr. Moerland’s appearance on the local Fox radio affiliate for a mid-morning interview might have piqued interest among citizens who wonder what the ongoing restructuring at IUP and in its statewide system means for the communiversity.
The interviewer at first seemed to telegraph the import his guest represented for community understanding.
“He has made a major impact,” the show host began. “So we wanted to talk with him a little.”
SMALL TALK, INDEED. Lest listeners get any ideas, the interviewer added that his agenda was limited to Mr. Moerland’s “fond memories” of IUP, his career and his plans for retirement.
The softball questions produced such responses as, “IUP is a really, really interesting and good institution” where “terrific people” work as a “team,” including President Michael Driscoll, his boss until August 20, about whom “I can’t say enough good things.”
Asked what he was going to miss most about his former employer when he retires next month (at either age 64 or 65), Mr. Moerland edged beyond platitudes.
“I’m going to miss the opportunity to see through to completion some of the good things we’ve been able to launch,” such as sweeping NextGen cuts in programs and personnel. (“Streamlining,” Mr. Moerland called it.)
“Maybe on another timeline I would see it through more to a concluding point and be able to adjust the course,” Moerland said. “But I think we’re positioned as well as we possibly could be. So I’m going to regret the ability to see these things through.”
The interview lasted about 11 minutes. There were no listener questions.
THE INCURIOUS interviewer and the platitudinous provost avoided discussion of issues that easily could have pushed the interview to 60 minutes. Among them:
— prospects for enrollment decline falling below the 10,000 benchmark set by the legislature for immunity from consolidation;
— prospects for more faculty layoffs;
— collaboration (or lack of) with the statewide community college system on PASSHE reorganization and its impacts on the commonwealth’s other higher-ed institutions;
— losses in profitable, full-tuition-paying international students;
— IUP’s highest-price ranking in the PASSHE system;
— the state legislature’s history of parsimony that has pushed Pennsylvania to the bottom of the nation’s barrel in investment in public higher education.
— the Covid-19 pandemic’s political use a crisis that presents opportunity.
Such questions may produce more platitudes. But they would be on the public record for a public institution that often talks private. And they could contribute to future Fox affiliate radio-show interviews with such regular on-air guests as President Driscoll, state Sen. Joe Pittman, R-Indiana, and state Rep. Jim Struzzi, R-Indiana.
REACTIONS to official remarks issued from Sutton Hall typically are guarded among members of the communiversity, despite the institution’s public status. But one faculty critic characterized Mr. Moerland’s remarks as “corporate Orwellian double-speak” commonly heard around the campus.
Aside from noting Mr. Moerland’s – and the interviewer’s – studied avoidance of contentious retrenchment issues, the critic, who requested anonymity to speak freely, cited trends documented during Mr. Moerland’s tenure as provost and more recent developments:
— an enrollment decline of one-third
— an acceptance rate of 93 percent (up from 58.3 percent)
— a graduation rate (“share of students who graduated within eight years”) of 56 percent. (The university’s six-year graduate rate was 54.4 percent a year ago; the national average six-year rate was 61.2 percent.)
— a standardized-test-score (SAT) average of 990 in 2012-2013; the admission requirement was dropped in 2015
— academics hollowed out by the NextGen cuts
WIDER EFFECTS of the trends include the university’s diminished footprint on the local economy, the critic added.
”Nobody will discuss it,” the faculty source said. “It’s not healthy for IUP to pretend we’re in a bubble. It’s Pollyanna-ish. Nobody wants to admit the economy is bad.”
To be sure, Mr. Moerland is not solely responsible for the troubling trends. And he has defenders, including some who have worked closely with him. But the two camps suggest a divide on campus that won’t soon be bridged under the current regime.
Mr. Moerland declined a July 13 email invitation to elaborate in an interview or in an op-ed.
David Loomis, Ph.D., emeritus professor of journalism at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, is editor of The HawkEye.
The HawkEye invites comments on this and other issues of community interest. Email email@example.com