PORTLAND, Maine — The University of Southern Maine didn’t violate union contracts when it eliminated 51 faculty positions and five programs in 2014 during a series of cuts aimed at closing a $16 million budget gap, an arbitrator found.
During those cuts, 26 faculty members were laid off.
The Associated Faculties of the University of Maine, also known as AFUM, a union representing full-time faculty on the University of Maine System’s seven campuses, challenged the decisions, arguing that the layoffs violated contracts.
That grievance led to arbitration. Arbitrator Mark Irvings over the weekend released his findings, the results of seven days of hearings between April and September.
Irvings found that, in one of the 26 instances, the university did violate a faculty member’s contract, because the professor was laid off prematurely. The system must pay that employee lost wages and benefits, Irvings ruled. Identifying information about that faculty member was redacted from the findings document.
Most of the layoffs occurred during the stint of former USM President David Flanagan, who was faced with closing a $16 million budget gap. In a statement issued over the weekend, Flanagan called the cuts “an unwelcome but a necessary action to balance the budget of the university for the future.”
“We are grateful the arbitrator affirmed the hard but necessary work former President Flanagan and his team did to reduce expenses at the University of Southern Maine,” system Chancellor James Page said in a Sunday news release.
Susan Feiner, president of USM’s AFUM chapter, argued Monday morning that this arbitration decision sets a dangerous precedent for future decision making at the system and campus level.
“From the point of view of the faculty and perspective of the students, it’s a terrible decision,” Feiner said. “The decision makes it much easier for the system to strip full-time tenured faculty out of their universities and replace us with part-time faculty who cost far less.
“[Irvings] said the university can do this, that doesn’t mean what it did is right, or good for the students, or good for the system,” Feiner added.
USM faculty and the system’s administration have clashed in the wake of the 2014 cuts. Disputes have ranged from discontent with the manner in which faculty were laid off to differences of opinion and interpretation over the state of the system’s and USM’s financial health, and whether cuts were needed at all.
Irvings, in reviewing the financial information, sided with the system, saying that “particularly in light of the static state appropriations over this period, it was abundantly clear that the system could not continue to operate without bringing the current budgets of its universities into balance.”
Those financial woes continue, with several campuses projecting budget gaps for the coming fiscal year.
This arbitration ruling comes to a different conclusion from the one reached last year by a national faculty advocacy group. Last summer, the American Association of University Professors censured USM for what it called “flagrant violations” of shared governance and academic freedom stemming from the 2014 cuts.
System officials roundly criticized that report, calling it one-sided and inaccurate in several claims.
The system was represented during arbitration by three lawyers from Bernstein Shur Law Firm: Glenn Israel, Linda McGill and Patricia Peard. AFUM was represented by Howard Reben. The university system spent $35,760 on its attorneys during the seven days of arbitration hearings, according to system spokesman Dan Demeritt.
There were additional costs accrued by Bernstein Shur lawyers outside of those hearings from 2014 through the release of arbitration findings. The system pays Bernstein Shur lawyers $200 per hour, a roughly 33 percent discount off standard billing rates, according to Demeritt.
Feiner said she didn’t have an amount available for the cost of Reben’s services.
In statements after the decision, USM and system administrators stressed the need for cooperation in moving on from this decision.
“Faculty collaboration and shared governance is a priority of my presidency,” said USM’s new president, Glenn Cummings. “We still have challenges to overcome, but, working together, we are making important progress.”
Follow Nick McCrea on Twitter at @nmccrea213.