PORTLAND, Maine — One by one, University of Maine System faculty members or supporters, many wearing T-shirts demanding a “fair contract,” told the system board of trustees Monday about plummeting morale among the ranks of the state’s higher education teachers.
Finance administrators, however, argued that the system can’t afford to promise pay raises with potential budget shortfalls on the horizon.
Members of the Associated Faculties of the University of Maine System on Sunday protested outside the University of Southern Maine’s Glickman Library while trustee committee meetings were being held. They returned to the building Monday morning for the public meeting of the full board.
Faculty members have been working without a contract for about five months, and have called the administration’s latest offer of 0.5 percent wage increases in each of two years “unreasonable” after nearly three years without raises in the previous contract. Members of the University of Maine Professional Staff Association are also working without a contract.
“We congratulate the board on your record profit in 2011 of $80 million, on top of the previous year’s record profit of $56 million,” University of Maine at Machias professor Ron Mosley told the board. “Clearly, there are sufficient funds here to make an adequate investment in faculty and staff. Faculty and staff morale is low and is sinking. Faculty and staff don’t feel their work is valued, and in fact they feel undervalued.”
Eileen Eagan, an associate professor at USM, said many among her colleagues “are feeling overworked and frazzled,” while USM professor William Steele said talks between faculty and system negotiators are starting to grow “adversarial.”
“While tuition and fees have risen, faculty compensation has not,” AFUMS vice president Matthew Killmeier told the board. “While students have been paying more for less, the faculty has been doing more with less.”
Maine Education Association union representative Ross Ferrell said faculty members have been hearing about dire financial straits “since 1992” and they’re tired of administrators claiming “the sky is falling.”
But Rebecca Wyke, system vice chancellor for finance, said the oft-referenced $80 million increase in net assets is deceptive. The number includes $43 million from restricted sources — such as grants, contracts and endowment pledges, which cannot be reallocated at the wish of the administration — and more than $6 million from the federal stimulus that won’t be available in future years.
Wyke also said the figure includes $10 million in increased revenues from tuition hikes, but $8 million of that amount is put toward increased financial aid for students. She added that another $5 million included in the total net assets increase came from a rise in state funding for the university system. The state appropriation is still lower than fiscal year 2008 levels.
Assuming flat funding from the state and less than 5 percent tuition increases, Wyke said the system is projected to be running at an operational deficit of $11 million in fiscal year 2013, and the shortfall balloons to $25 million by 2017 if no bookkeeping changes are made in the meantime.
“When the state government is reducing our revenue, I don’t know how you can say we should increase wages and reduce tuition,” Wyke said.