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More than 100 USM students, faculty protest proposed budget cuts, layoffs

Posted March 21, 2014, at 9:41 a.m.
Last modified March 21, 2014, at 7:49 p.m.
Students and faculty gather Friday morning to protest outside a meeting about potential layoffs and program cuts in the office of University of Southern Maine Provost Michael Stevenson.
Students and faculty gather Friday morning to protest outside a meeting about potential layoffs and program cuts in the office of University of Southern Maine Provost Michael Stevenson. Buy Photo

PORTLAND, Maine — University of Southern Maine students and faculty chanted, yelled and — in one case — stretched out on the floor of the hallway outside the office of Provost Michael R. Stevenson to protest during meetings Friday at which 15 full-time faculty members in nine departments were expected to be laid off.

Later in the day, USM spokesman Bob Caswell said that due to the retirements of three faculty members, the number of layoffs on Friday was reduced to 12 full-time faculty members in seven departments.

Friday’s layoffs are in addition to eight faculty members — and four entire departments — expected to be eliminated in July.

According to the administration, the number of full-time faculty will be reduced from 310 to about 280.

Jammed into the seventh-floor hallway and blocked from Stevenson’s office by USM security and Portland police officers, more than 100 students chanted, “I don’t know but I’ve been told, cutting professors is getting old. Try to take away their jobs, you’ll have to answer to our moms.”

Amid tears and hugs, students jostled for space to hear their peers demand a meeting with Stevenson, whose office door remained closed. Students said Stevenson has not responded to phone calls and letters.

Susan Feiner, a faculty member in the economics and women and gender studies departments, sat in the middle of the hallway and encouraged students to join her in blocking the way in the manner of the student sit-ins of the 1960s. When USM police asked her to move, she suggested students sit on her to prevent her from being moved.

“What the chancellor’s told you, what the chancellor’s told the public, about a potential $36 million deficit opening up in the next fiscal year, is a bold-faced lie,” Feiner said.

University of Southern Maine President Theo Kalikow plans to cut four programs, a total of 20-30 faculty jobs and 10-20 additional staff position cuts — in addition to 14 already eliminated this year — as the school attempts to overcome a $14 million budget shortfall.

Meghan Brodie, a faculty member in the women and gender studies department and an assistant professor of theater, said she met Friday with Stevenson and learned that she would lose her job at end of May.

Amid cheers and applause from students, many of whom are in the theater department, Brodie said she was overwhelmed by the support, and encouraged students to continue their educations.

“[The administration] has given us no numbers, no rationale, just a series of assertions that say we need to [make cuts],” said Lorrayne Carroll, a graduate of USM and a professor of English, American and New England studies and women and gender studies.

But Caswell, who heard the protest from his sixth-floor office — one floor below — said the cuts are necessary due to a “perfect storm” of factors including lower revenues, higher costs, flat funding and a decrease in student enrollment of about 12 percent over the past seven years.

“Essentially we’re here today because this is one in a series of tough decisions that needs to be made to essentially bring our costs and revenues in line,” he told the Bangor Daily News.

Kalikow announced the spending gap, which represents nearly 10 percent of the school’s fiscal year 2015 budget, nearly two months ago. A special advisory committee charged with developing a slate of recommendations for the future of the university delivered its report to the president last week.

In an email Friday to the university community, Kalikow wrote of “painful decisions” and of the “very hard day.”

She said, in part, “We must find ways to make sure USM is fiscally sustainable — that revenues and expenses are in balance year in and year out. To do otherwise would jeopardize our ability to serve students and Maine taxpayers.”

To the suggestion from some protesters that the administration bear some of the brunt of the cuts, Caswell said, “Some senior people are no longer here as the result of past budget cuts … and that’s not to say there won’t be others.”

According to Caswell, faculty layoffs came in the departments of economics, English, sociology, theater, the honors program, in the School of Music, and in the Muskie School’s graduate program in public policy and management.

Still, he said, the future of the university remains bright.

“Looking ahead, I feel confident once we bring our revenues and costs in line, we’ll be in a position to offer an affordable quality education and at the same time do everything a university does to boost the community’s economy and quality of life,” he said.

Theater major Ashley Rood of the Topsham-Brunswick area dismissed that message. The 22-year-old junior said she does not plan to return to USM next year.

“I don’t think I’ll be getting the quality of education I’d pay for,” she said.

Throughout the day Friday, students continued to voice their concerns at a speaking engagement of U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud and a meeting of the Faculty Senate.

Just after 3 p.m., Stevenson left the provost’s office with a police escort, students reported.

Kalikow also met with groups of students in Payson Smith Hall.

“I’m just sad and exhausted,” student Nick Marcketta, 24, of Portland said after he emerged from the meeting.

He said Kalikow presented the students with “metrics” and “rationales” including teacher-to-student ratios and teacher-to-major ratios, but he wasn’t appeased. “We’re not going to get what we want, which is our beloved professors staying. All we can do is work to bring attention to public education.”

Students said they planned to gather again outside Stevenson’s office at noon Monday to begin the protest anew.

 

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