PORTLAND, Maine — A week after students first took to the hallway outside Provost Michael Stevenson’s office at the University of Southern Maine, the protest’s organizers continue to make plans for demonstrations and believe they are gaining momentum.
A group known as Students for #USMfuture has been protesting and recruiting more students to their cause since university administrators earlier this month announced program cuts and faculty layoffs.
The group was dealt a setback Thursday, when legislative leaders rejected a student-drafted bill, sponsored by independent state Rep. Ben Chipman of Portland, which would have placed a one-year moratorium on the proposed cuts to allow a stakeholders group to review the university system’s finances and suggest alternatives to the cuts.
Students opposed to the cuts regrouped Friday. According to one of the student organizers of Students for #USMFuture, Jules Purnell, student efforts seem to be gaining momentum.
“There are things at work that even I am not privy to, and that’s pretty exciting,” Purnell said. “I see this eventually becoming much larger than it is. Some of us have been planning for the better part of the day, and the road ahead reaches all the way to the next election.”
Protesters met Friday on the USM campus to discuss their goals and plans, and while there were fewer than 30 people in attendance, student organizer Meaghan LaSala said she feels that the group made progress.
“We are building a united front for public higher education in Maine,” said LaSala. “We are rallying for statewide solidarity.”
The group decided Friday that one of its goals needs to be addressing state funding for public higher education throughout Maine, instead of focusing solely on problems faced by USM.
“I’ve heard a lot of responses from the public that make us seem like screaming children trying to get our toys back. We need to show that we are members of the community who feel like they’ve been betrayed by the system,” said student Brittany Goldych.
The group has made plans for a public march through Portland on Tuesday, April 8, which they hope will help them gain community support. The march will take place immediately after USM students return from spring break, and LaSala hopes it will help boost visibility so students don’t leave the group.
“We are going to provide them [students] a chance to get involved immediately when they return to school,” said LaSala.
Protesters plan to march back and forth between Monument and Congress squares, according to LaSala. Professors will be invited to teach their courses in the city to show support for the protesters.
Right now, Students for #USMFuture has more than 1,000 contacts via Facebook and more than 600 student contacts through email lists, said LaSala.
LaSala said the group has yet to file for a permit for their march.
Organizers have said that one of their goals is to unite the University of Maine community against cuts happening across the system, and student organizers have created a #UMainefuture Facebook page.
Michael Bailey, a student at the University of Maine in Orono and organizer for #UMaineFuture, spoke with USM students via Skype at Friday’s meeting. Baile applauded their efforts with the Legislature and their future protest plans.
“Your protests have sparked a larger movement,” said Bailey to USM students. “We are the future of Maine and it’s no secret that Maine has a problem with young people.”
Bailey went on to say the cuts to university faculty and lack of state funding indicate that the state doesn’t care about its young people.
No USM administrators were present at Friday’s gathering.
“All of these rallies and protests show that they [students] really care about this place, their education and their professors, which is not at all a bad thing,” said USM spokesman Robert Caswell when reached by phone Friday.