UMS chancellor says cutting faculty amid budget woes is unavoidable

Posted April 01, 2014, at 5:46 p.m.
Last modified April 01, 2014, at 9:30 p.m.

ORONO, Maine — University of Maine System Chancellor James Page told members of the University of Maine community that reducing the size of the faculty is the inevitable result of a budget shortfall that the entire system is facing.

He told about 150 staff, faculty and students who attended a forum at the Minsky Recital Hall on Tuesday morning that though the faculty is the heart of the system’s workforce, “to say that it can be excluded from these considerations is also not realistic.”

Page spoke alongside UMaine president Paul Ferguson and UMS trustees Samuel Collins and Gregory Johnson.

“Somewhere between 500 and 600 fewer people are employed by the University of Maine System today than they were several years ago,” Page said. “We are cutting somewhere in the range of 150 and 175 people for this coming year.”

The cuts are not only to faculty.

“We are committed to driving our administrative costs to at or below our peers,” Page said. The system office has determined that it will cut $1.4 million to do its part to balance next year’s budget. UMaine will cut $1.1 million from its division of administration and finance.

The remarks came less than a week after UMaine vice president for administration and finance Janet Waldron announced how the flagship university will cut $9.7 million from its fiscal year 2015 budget. The university will draw about $5.3 million from its savings and 61 faculty and staff positions will be eliminated next year, while 22 new positions will be added. There will be a net loss of 14.8 full time equivalent faculty positions, Waldron said.

UMaine’s cuts are part of a $36 million budget gap that Page has said the system’s seven campuses and central office must address in order to pass a balanced budget next year. Each campus is responsible for coming up with a plan for how it will find its portion of the budget gap and the system’s board of trustees will vote on the proposed budgets in May.

The system office has its critics. In March, after the University of Southern Maine laid off 12 faculty members and proposed the elimination of four programs — which later became three — faculty and students protested, saying the budget crisis was manufactured.

Within the system’s $700 million budget, there is $183 million that administration is not legally bound to spend on any particular project.

“Those funds are in fact unrestricted,” said Susan Feiner, professor of economics and women and gender studies at USM. “They have plans to do whatever they want, but that doesn’t mean that they can’t do something else because they’re unrestricted.”

Administrators say the funds are earmarked for projects on all seven campuses and to spend the money now to save jobs would be fiscally irresponsible.

“There is the much wanted question of reserves,” Page said Tuesday. “We’ve worked hard to dispel misunderstandings … It amazes me some of the assumptions that are made around that.”

He said that the true rainy day fund amounts to $15 million and that decisions about how to spend that money will be made after the state Legislature determines whether it will reduce the state appropriation to the university system by $6.4 million, as has been proposed.

Page subtly urged members of the UMaine community to think of themselves as partners within the seven-campus system.

“The system is all of us,” he said at the beginning of his remarks. “The system is the seven campuses and all the staff. It is the cooperative extension, it is the outreach center, it is our laboratories.”

When an audience member asked if there was talk of merging any of the system’s seven campuses, Page gave a clear “no.”

“It is in statute that there are seven universities and it would take legislative action to change that,” he said.

The fact that the UMS has seven campuses became law in 2005 when Joseph Westphal was chancellor.

“The seven-campus model is the fact on the ground for the moment,” Page went on. “I would not expect that to change in the foreseeable future.”

President of the alumni association Todd Saucier asked what will happen in the fall of 2015, when the board of trustees’ three-year tuition freeze ends. The tuition freeze is repeatedly cited as part of the cause of the budget shortfall.

“It needs to be considered in the context of the percentage of the median income of the people in the state of Maine,” Collins said. He added that the increasing cost of goods and services would also be considered.

Throughout the forum, UMaine was applauded for putting itself in a markedly better position financially than the other universities. While enrollment across the system has dropped, UMaine was the only university to increase its overall headcount between this spring and last spring, according to a recently released enrollment report.

The university is expecting a $10.7 million increase in tuition revenue next year, which Ferguson said can largely be attributed to an aggressive push to enroll more out-of-state students, who now make up almost 20 percent of the student body.

“The work that you have done has been, I think, in many respects exemplary,” Page said.