May 21, 2018
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University of Southern Maine lays off faculty members, more cuts expected

By Whit Richardson, BDN Staff

PORTLAND, Maine — The University of Southern Maine has laid off at least seven full-time faculty members in an effort to reduce expenses, according to a union official.

Bob Caswell, a university spokesman, confirmed Tuesday that the university is making layoffs, but wouldn’t give an exact number. He told the Bangor Daily News that seven “is in the ballpark,” but “When all is said and done, it’s safe to say there are going to be more than that in terms of a mix of faculty and staff positions.”

He said an official announcement is expected in a day or two.

“I’m very hesitant to get into the numbers game without ensuring that people have been notified and the numbers have been locked down,” Caswell said.

Seven faculty members received layoff notices last week, according to Ed Collom, an associate professor of sociology and the president of USM’s chapter of the Associated Faculties of the University of Maine, which represents 333 faculty members at the institution.

Collom wouldn’t offer details about who was being laid off, but said most were lecturers who “have lesser job security than those on tenure track.” One of those being laid off, however, is a tenured professor, a move the university can make if it cites programmatic reasons, such as low student demand, Collom said.

Collom on Tuesday morning said the union has no choice but to interpret the layoffs as an aggressive negotiating tactic, given the university’s resources. The union has been operating without a contract since June 30, 2011.

“This is just a further attack upon the faculty at a time when we don’t have a contract,” Collom said. “It’s seemingly being used as a device to further divide us and diminish what little bargaining power we have. … It’s tragic. The taxpayers of Maine, the public citizens of Maine, deserve better from the board of trustees.”

Collom said also that the layoffs were unnecessary because the savings could have been secured through attrition. Twenty-five percent of USM’s full-time faculty are at least 65 years old, he said.

“We have more faculty members in their 70s than in their 30s, so the face of the faculty will transform radically in the next several years,” he said.

USM spokesman Caswell rejected the view that the layoffs are anything but an unfortunate necessity to reallocate expenses to areas of the highest demand during tough economic times. He noted that the university is hiring in some departments, including business, social work and education.

“This is not an attack on faculty,” Caswell said. “If we could do this through attrition, we would be. No one gets satisfaction out of this. It’s tough and painful work for everybody.”

The layoffs are part of USM’s efforts to identify $5 million in “cuts and internal reallocations” for its 2014 fiscal year, which begins July 1, Caswell said. The university, which has campuses in Portland, Lewiston and Gorham, so far has identified $4.4 million in savings, he said. Its fiscal year 2013 operating budget included $140 million in expenses.

“What those cuts are going to do in large part is help position the university to better deal with all the competitive and financial pressures we and other institutions are facing,” Caswell said.

All of the University of Maine System’s seven campuses, including USM, face significant budgetary challenges and will be faced with making tough decisions around workforce reductions, Rebecca Wyke, the system’s vice chancellor for finance and administration, said Tuesday.

The university system’s two most important sources of revenue are student tuitions and state appropriations, and both are strained, Wyke said.

Given the state of the economy, the system’s trustees have frozen tuitions, while the state appropriation to the system has dropped $6 million since 2008 and stands at $179.5 million, she said. Wyke hopes the state appropriation will continue to be flat-funded.

“Flat is the new up,” she said. “It’s what we’re hoping we maintain in this current legislative session.”

If the appropriation does remain flat, the system will continue to freeze tuition for the next two fiscal years, Wyke said.

“When you take those into consideration, the only place to go when other costs continue to rise — like health care, deferred maintenance on buildings … you have to look internally,” she said.

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