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Theodora Kalikow, president of U. of Southern Maine

U. of Southern Maine

University of Southern Maine's president is backing away from plans to lay off a dozen faculty amid student protests and threats of legal action.

President Theodora Kalikow surprised almost everyone on campus Friday afternoon when she announced she would work with faculty to try to avoid the layoffs, which have been rescinded for now. It's not all joyous, though. A round of layoffs that will eliminate 34 staff jobs is continuing, as are plans to eliminate three academic programs and the jobs of their seven faculty members.

But the campus union hailed Kalikow's decision not to lay off a dozen professors who were told in March they would lose their jobs. Opponents of the layoffs said student protests played a key factor. An administration spokeswoman played down the effects of the protests, which included on-campus actions and increasingly sophisticated lobbying efforts.

Many campuses going through layoffs float trial balloons about how many jobs will be eliminated and scale back or adjust those plans. But once specific layoff notices have been delivered -- as was the case here -- and administrators have said repeatedly that there is no alternative, such reversals are rare.

"Maine was too poor to be the test case for the dismantling of tenure," said Christy Hammer, a sociology professor and president of the local chapter of the Associated Faculties of the University of Maine, an affiliate of the National Education Association.

Hammer said she delivered that message to Kalikow during a recent meeting. The union filed a grievance on behalf of 11 professors on Thursday -- a day before Kalikow announced she'd changed her mind -- but also threatened other legal action. The grievance alleged that the layoffs violated professors' contractual rights and also had a disproportionate effect on women, ethnic minorities and lesbian professors.

Hammer said the whole thing was poorly done. "It was like spaghetti they just threw at the wall -- some people’s lives, some tenured faculty in the prime of their life,” she said.

In at least one case, the university tried to lay off a professor on the tenure track, but not yet tenured and then rehire her as a part-timer. Meghan Brodie, an assistant professor of theater, said she was given a layoff notice and then approached about teaching her classes next fall as an adjunct.

Hammer said that maneuver by the university had the effect of "completely undermining the case they had not yet made" for why the layoffs were justified by financial conditions in Maine.

Administrators at Southern Maine assert that they have to deal with a $14 million structural defect.

But faculty members think there are other ways to shore up the budget. Kalikow now plans to hear them out.

A university spokesman, Bob Caswell, said the president is now committed to "making sure the faculty and administration work more closely together to find solutions to our budget challenge."

The Faculty Senate created a list of 27 money-making or money-saving ideas, including asking for voluntary pay cuts from anyone who makes more than the average salary of a full professor, eliminating all administrative positions with the word "associate" in the title, ending the use of outside consulting firms, and restricting conference travel budgets.

“They were making a convincing case that we could work together and cooperate and find needed savings," Caswell said. "President Kalikow's thinking was, 'O.K., let’s give them a chance to do that and see where they are at later this spring.'"

Critics of the layoffs, including students, said they benefited from campus protests by students and student lobbying efforts, as well as public attention.

Opponents of the cuts said they a got a boost from a blog post by the New York Times columnist Paul Krugman, an economics professor at Princeton University, and the intervention by the American Association of University Professors, which sent Kalikow a four-page letter questioning whether the financial situation at the university justified the layoffs.

Susan Feiner, a professor of economics who was not being laid off, said the feeling emerged that Southern Maine was going to become a national test case about whether college administrators could "wreck tenure and bust the union" not just in Maine but elsewhere.

“They were really brilliant messaging that this wasn’t just us,” she said of those who opposed the cuts.

Still, the administration expects this fall to lay off seven professors who teach in three programs the college is eliminating, though the Maine system's Board of Trustees has yet to approve the end of those programs. In a separate move in late March, Southern Maine saved a fourth program it had planned to cut, recreation and leisure studies.

Staff layoffs, which are expected to include up to 34 people, are still on track at Southern Maine.

The dozen faculty layoffs that were rescinded included professors in arts, economics, English, philosophy, sociology, theater, music, public policy and honors programs. The university has 310 full-time instructors.

Like other state higher ed systems, the University of Maine system's funding fell during the recession and never rebounded. At the same time, tuition has been frozen for the public universities in the system. At Southern Maine in particular, enrollment was unexpectedly low last fall and again this spring.

The 12 faculty jobs that have been saved have only been saved for now, pending the outcome of conversations between the administration and faculty representatives about the budget.

There could also be some question about professors who may have felt pressure to retire ahead of the round of layoffs, perhaps in an attempt to save junior faculty jobs.

“I have a feeling that some of the people who agreed to retire are going to un-agree to retire or seek counsel for age discrimination,” Feiner said.

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