PORTLAND, Maine — In an effort to cut costs at the University of Southern Maine, the University of Maine System’s Board of Trustees voted to cut five academic programs and eliminate 50 faculty positions at the school this year.
But 215 students are still listed as being in those programs and have yet to complete their degrees. Many have been left wondering how they will fulfill their course requirements after their professors lose their jobs before the start of next semester.
“Who’s teaching classes?” said Jillian King, a graduate student in the applied medical sciences program. “What happens to students who are working in the labs? There’s not enough consideration for how much time that takes out of a student’s day worrying about this stuff.”
As part of a plan to cut $16 million at USM, faculty were given the option of an enhanced retirement package or face retrenchment, which is another word for a layoff. The graduate programs that will be cut are applied medical sciences and American and New England studies. The undergraduate programs to be eliminated are geosciences, French and arts and humanities at the Lewiston-Auburn campus. Other programs, such as Spanish and classics, will also lose the only faculty they have.
USM’s provost and the deans of each of the colleges that have programs slated for elimination say they are working hard to figure how to accommodate each student in this predicament. They are creating what are called “teach-out plans” that will allow the students to complete their degrees without the full-time faculty in place. Meanwhile, no new students will be admitted to the programs.
“We have an obligation to teach out these programs,” said USM Provost Joseph McDonnell. “We take that obligation seriously.”
He said the solution for each student will depend on the program they’re in and how far along they are toward their degree.
“There are a limited number of students in each of these programs, which is why they were slated for elimination,” he said.
Of the 215 students, only 99 are enrolled in courses this fall. Some of the students who are not currently enrolled in a class may simply be taking the semester off, but others have not taken a course at USM for over a decade, according to Chris Quint, the university’s director of public affairs.
Barbara Brittingham, of the New England Association of Schools and Colleges, which accredits USM, said the process USM is undergoing is fairly standard.
“They’re working very closely with us,” she said.
McDonnell said first-year students in these programs will be encouraged to pursue a different degree or transfer. That is also the case for sophomores who have not yet accrued many credits.
But for sophomores who are further along, as well as juniors, seniors and graduate students, plans include hiring adjuncts to teach the remainder of courses, directing students to other courses within the university that will fulfill the requirements and asking faculty who have been retrenched to help with the teach-out plans.
In the geosciences program, for example, all the faculty who have lost their jobs have agreed to continue to teach next semester, according to the dean of the College of Science, Technology and Health, James Graves.
Faculty who are retrenched are paid for 18 months, or three semesters, after their obligation with the university ends on Jan. 1, said Quint. Additionally, they would be paid as an adjunct if they agree to teach courses after they’ve been retrenched.
Some students, such as King, have to complete a research project and write a thesis to finish their degree.
King earned a $6,000 grant from the Maine Space Grant Consortium, an affiliate of NASA, to study how organisms deal with extreme environments, research that would eventually turn into her thesis.
Earlier this month she was told by the university that she would not be able to receive those funds because her program was going to be cut and her faculty advisor, who was supposed to supervise her work, would be retrenched.
On Wednesday, Graves said King would still get the grant and, if her advisor did not stay on, the university would find someone else to work with her.
Students in the American and New England studies program also will be assigned alternate faculty advisors who will supervise their research, according to Manuel Avalos, the dean of the College of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences.
Ardis Cameron, a professor of American and New England studies who is retiring, said these plans should have been worked out before the program cuts were voted on by the trustees.
“It’s been chaotic, capricious and arbitrary,” she said of the process to cut the programs.
She said she does not see how students in her program can complete their theses without the director of her program, Kent Ryden, who has been retrenched.
Some students said that being taught by an adjunct professor will not be the same as having the professors they’ve come to respect.
“I decided to be a French major after having a class with Professor Nancy Erickson,” said sophomore Daniel Bahun in an email. “I had a plan for after college. I have asked a few professors and various people at USM about the teach-out plan, but no one has any information.”
Avalos was certain there would be a plan in place, though the details are still being worked out.
“We’re committed to helping the students who are here to finish those degree programs,” he said.