After Reprieve, Sudden Cuts

The University of Southern Maine plans to eliminate 50 faculty positions, 100 staffers and many freestanding departments, leaving some questioning whether what remains will truly be a university.


October 7, 2014
Students for #USMFuture
Protests to cuts have been going on for much of the year, including this one in April.

The University of Southern Maine is planning to eliminate between a fifth and a sixth of its faculty and roughly a seventh of its staff, and to embark on a vast restructuring of its academic departments.

Faculty and students are expressing deep concern the university will cut itself to the quick and perhaps beyond repair.

After a year of fighting program eliminations and layoffs, faculty at Southern Maine became a national cause célèbre for opponents of sharp cuts to higher education and in particular to the erosion of liberal arts disciplines at public universities. After numerous protests, a dozen faculty jobs were spared earlier this year, but now the administration has announced far more sweeping plans to make up what it says is a $16 million budget deficit.

David Flanagan, a former power company CEO who became president in August, said he needs to balance next year’s budget by eliminating 50 faculty positions and 100 staff jobs. There are about 300 full-time faculty at Maine – 280 by the faculty’s count, 320 according to the administration – and roughly 750 staff and administrators.

The administration also plans to merge several different departments and programs in ways that some faculty said could undermine the university’s mission and students’ future.

The English, philosophy and history departments would be combined into a single humanities department, Provost Joseph W. McDonnell said in an email to faculty Monday. The new humanities department would have just 22.5 professors, compared to the 29 in the three departments being merged.

The chemistry, math and physics majors could become just one major – and maybe that same major should also subsume the natural and applied science program, the provost suggested.

President Flanagan said the university’s enrollment has declined by nearly a third in the past five years, but the university has not adjusted its costs. The university faces a choice, he said: Reduce costs and find some new revenue, or dramatically raise tuition from $7,700 to $10,000 a year. That increase, he said, is too much for Maine students to bear and the legislature is not looking to chip in enough money to plug the hole.

So, he said, conceding a point to his critics, perhaps the university cannot conceivably offer the vast range of courses now that big public universities in the West or Midwest can.

“There will be some upper-level courses that will have to go by the board and the choice is stark: Do you want the maximum conceivable array of courses, or do you want to have a general education and opportunity and a wide range but not an exhaustive range of majors that is financially accessible to the people of Maine?” Flanagan said.

Philip Shelley, a 52-year-old student who graduated from the English program in May, said he wondered whether Southern Maine will still be able to call itself a “real university” after it makes the changes.

“The question really is how much you can take out of an institution and still seriously look in the mirror and seriously say you have a university – a real university,” Shelley, who has been active in student protests against the cuts, said in a telephone interview.

Students, Shelley said, don’t want a “fake, watered-down, online, adjunct-heavy career training school.”

Center for the Arts?

One example of the potential challenge facing the university’s plans to consolidate programs is in the arts.

Provost McDonnell’s letter said the university will combine the music, art and theater departments.  “USM,” he wrote, “has the potential to become the center for the arts in the University of Maine System.”

At the same time, he said the music program will have to shed two faculty members. The music program now has 10 professors and has already lost six full-time professors since 2005, said Paul Christiansen, an associate professor of musicology in the department.

He wondered how the program will function with just eight full-time faculty members. If no one retires, Christiansen, because he has less seniority, said he – the program’s sole music historian – and the music program’s sole composer might lose their jobs because of union rules.

Professors might retire, but those might be the chorus and band professors. How, he wondered, could a music department work without someone teaching chorus or someone teaching band? “If their mission is to keep cutting this deeply, it is certainly not a place I would send my child to – if this is the way they want to go,” Christiansen said.

Flanagan said about 100 faculty and about 100 staff are eligible for retirement. He hopes about 50 of the faculty will retire on their own by Oct. 20. If not, by Oct. 31, the university will make plans to layoff however many it still needs to in order to find the savings it seeks.

Under union rules, faculty have to be notified by November that they will be “retrenched” – that is, laid off. After that, they get 18 months of severance pay. But they do not have to teach during the spring semester.

Some faculty sources said it’s unclear how the administration plans to plug what could be a considerable hole in the schedule for the spring semester, which is just three months away.  The administration said faculty will be expected to teach four courses a semester instead of three, but it’s not clear if that alone will cover any hole.

“For each person that leaves you lose six classes and a remaining person only picks up two, so you’re short four,” said Susan Feiner, vice president of the Southern Maine faculty union, the Associated Faculties of the University of Maine, an affiliate of the National Education Association.

Feiner said the union, which has already filed grievances over earlier program closures, is planning to file new grievances over plans to close two other programs and to lay off faculty.

Some faculty also dispute the magnitude of the deficit, so the $16 million figure the administration is citing is not unanimously agreed-upon.

Jerry LaSala, chairman of the Faculty Senate, said faculty had not been consulted in any way, either. Now, he said, they are quite uncomfortable about what the cuts and program consolidations will do to the university. “My personal fear is that cuts of this magnitude will just accelerate enrollment declines rather than arresting them, and we will back in a worse situation further down the road,” he said.

LaSala, a physics professor, said there are 2.5 faculty members in his department.

“If we lose somebody, we’re down to one and a half faculty members in physics, and merely by throwing a bunch of mathematicians and chemists into the same room as us, it doesn’t mean you have people trained to teach physics,” LaSala said.

The provost’s plan calls for one of them to go, and then to merge the department with the chemistry and math departments. He cited, among other things, the average of six students that the physics department graduates each year, a figure that is perhaps not out of line with national averages.

“The STEM disciplines play an important role in preparing professionals for the Maine economy,” the provost said.


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