Will USM sell its Gorham campus to balance the budget?

Posted April 03, 2014, at 2:44 p.m.
his University of Southern Maine aerial photograph depicts the school's Gorham campus.
Courtesy of University of Southern Maine
his University of Southern Maine aerial photograph depicts the school's Gorham campus.

GORHAM, Maine — The University of Southern Maine is planning to cut as many as 30 faculty positions and three full programs in response to a $14 million budget shortfall, but one thing school officials say won’t happen is a sale of the Gorham campus.

“Gorham is not for sale,” USM spokesman Robert Caswell said Wednesday. “Those are just rumors.”

With administrators touting a new “metropolitan university” vision for the school against a backdrop of a financial crisis, some students and faculty in recent weeks have worried that USM’s oldest and least-urban campus was in jeopardy of being sold.

The university operates other facilities in Maine’s largest two cities, with a primary campus in Portland and a separate base in Lewiston.

The Gorham campus features a building constructed in 1773 and was founded in the 19th century as Gorham Normal School, which later became Gorham State College, before merging with what was then known as University of Maine at Portland in 1970.

Gorham is where USM’s dormitories and athletic facilities are largely based, making it the school’s traditional college campus, in contrast to the Portland and Lewiston locations, where more of the students are nontraditional, working adults.

At a news conference at Portland City Hall Wednesday afternoon — during which Portland Mayor Michael Brennan and Portland Regional Chamber of Commerce CEO Chris Hall, among others, sought to address the recently announced budget cuts at USM — Susan Feiner, professor of economics and women and gender studies, passed a note to reporters indicating that the Gorham campus would be put on the market.

Feiner is one of many faculty and students at the school who have vocally protested the job and program cuts, arguing the University of Maine System has enough money in its reserves to weather recent enrollment drops.

System officials have insisted that of the $183 million kept as “unrestricted net assets,” only about $15 million is available to help fill the budget gaps, and the rest is allocated to cover facilities maintenance, employees’ health insurance and scholarships, among other things.

USM’s $14 million budget gap is the largest part of a $36 million gap systemwide reported by the chancellor’s office. Though USM will have to make up for the largest portion of that gap, all seven of the system’s campuses are looking for ways to reduce spending next year.

Rebecca Wyke, University of Maine System vice chancellor for finance and administration, has repeatedly said the state’s other public universities are victims of stagnant state funding, frozen tuition levels and dropping enrollment.

Hall and Brennan each said Wednesday that they had heard talk of the Gorham campus being sold off, but as Hall said, “rumors are a dime a dozen.”

“I don’t think it’s a serious consideration at this point,” Brennan said. “Nothing I’ve heard indicates to me that anything like that is imminent.”

The Gorham campus encompasses roughly 125 acres and is home to seven residence halls, classrooms, a performing arts center and athletic facilities. It is not subject to property taxes, and a cumulative value for the properties was not immediately available.

Reached after the Wednesday news conference, Caswell dismissed any talk of putting the Gorham campus on the market.

Caswell said the school’s recently developed direction package — a vision document being used to guide restructuring decisions and created by a 32-member task force of faculty, staff and community members — encourages the preservation of and greater interaction between the university’s three campuses.

“There’s been a rumor circulating that we’re looking to sell the Gorham campus as expeditiously as we can,” he said. “Not true.”

 

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