‘A pathetic shadow of what a university should be’: USM faculty, students say layoffs will gut programs

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PORTLAND — University of Southern Maine students and faculty said layoffs at the school will hollow out popular departments and all but close down pathways to graduation for many students.

“This university is just a pathetic shadow of what a university should be,” said Susan Feiner, professor of economics and women and gender studies at USM. “This school doesn’t have any idea how students in some of these majors are going to graduate. They don’t have the faculty to teach some of the core classes, and they don’t have the faculty because they were fired.”

Paul Christiansen, a tenured associate professor of musicology at the school, told reporters during a Wednesday news conference in Portland that he was informed via voice mail that he would be laid off.

“I was the only music historian, not only at USM, but in the whole university system,” said Christiansen, who said he didn’t know how the School of Music could continue without his classes or work hours. “This is a colossally bad idea to turn this university into ‘USM online.’”

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University of Maine President David Flanagan has proposed terminating 50 faculty positions at the school — 25 layoffs and 25 voluntary retirements — as part of a plan to overcome what administrators are calling a $16 million shortfall in the school’s $134 million overall budget.

In addition to elimination of the university’s French and medical applied sciences programs — as well as the earlier closures of the New England and American studies and two other programs — the job cuts promise to cripple several other departments at the school, faculty members said Wednesday.

Feiner said the faculty is anticipating word of another 80-100 cuts to non-faculty staff positions as early as Monday.

One student who spoke at the news conference on Wednesday said he would likely have to go to another school if he wanted to continue pursuing an economics degree after at least two key faculty members in that department were retrenched.

One of those faculty members, associate economics professor Rachel Bouvier, became emotional when she spoke at the event, calling the faculty cuts “heartbreaking.”

“You need to tell your stories,” she implored the students in attendance, “maybe not to the administration, because I’m not sure they can hear you. You need to tell legislators.

“We are not a diploma mill,” Bouvier continued. “We are educating people, and if that’s important to you, you need to go further than telling your stories just to me.”

Jerry LaSala, president of the school’s faculty senate and a professor of physics, said a layoff in his department this year comes on the heels of another colleague’s retirement last year.

“That’s actually a 60 percent reduction in our workforce,” he said Wednesday. “With our enrollment growing, I’m not sure how we’re supposed to do this.”

Jennifer Nelson, a graduate student at the university’s high-profile Muskie School of Public Service, said job reductions would effectively force consolidation of what were four diverse programs within the school to one new graduate degree program.

This represents the second straight year USM has grappled with budget cuts that faculty and students have protested as irreversibly damaging. Administrators have defended the changes as unfortunate, but necessary.

USM and University of Maine System administrators have blamed rising costs of doing business, dropping enrollments and inadequate funding from the Legislature for causing a systemwide budget crisis, in which the deepest cuts have affected USM.

Flanagan, a former Central Maine Power Co. executive, was appointed in July as a one-year president to bridge between previous temporary school president Theodora Kalikow and a permanent replacement next year. Flanagan was hired in part to oversee what administrators have called the university’s “right-sizing” in response to its financial troubles while a search committee looks for a new president to lead the school going forward.

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