USM cuts will affect Muskie School, eliminate language programs

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PORTLAND — The loss of 50 faculty positions at the University of Southern Maine will affect more than just the two programs the University of Maine System board of trustees voted to eliminate last week.

If a plan presented by University of Southern Maine President David Flanagan and Provost Joseph McDonnell is carried out, the Muskie School of Public Service will lose six faculty members and with them will go at least one of the three graduate programs offered at the school.

Along with the loss of the French major, which was finalized by the trustees on Friday, the Modern and Classical Languages Department will be all but eliminated. All three professors in that department will lose their jobs, resulting in the loss of the classics and Spanish programs as well.

The proposed reductions are the administration’s attempt to cut $6 million from the university’s $134 million budget. An additional $10 million will be eliminated through cuts in administration and capital expenditures later this year, bringing the total to $16 million if Flanagan’s plan is approved.

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Twenty-five of the 50 faculty members whose positions were targeted for elimination accepted an enhanced retirement package, leaving the administration to potentially lay off the remaining 25. Administrators had originally reported that 24 of the targeted faculty members accepted the retirement package, but the correct number is 25.

Charles Colgan, a professor of public policy at the Muskie School and the former state economist, is one of the professors who chose to retire.

“It was clear to me that when the budget deficit hit $16 million that cuts were going to have to be made within our faculty,” said Colgan, who also is a senior fellow at the Center for the Blue Economy in Monterey, California. “I have another job to go to, so I was the first one to volunteer.”

To Colgan, the changes the Muskie School is undergoing signify “a shift from being primarily a graduate school with a small undergraduate program to primarily an undergraduate school with a small graduate program.”

The Muskie School offers master’s degrees in public health, public policy and management and community planning and development. Under the proposal, the public health program will stay largely intact, while the other two will merge into a new master’s program that also incorporates geography, anthropology and environmental sciences.

In this way, the Muskie School will continue to offer public service programs but with a focus on health and the environment. The program that emphasizes the environment will be new.

“The program that is created ought to be broad enough that graduates who want a broad policy training and management education and will go into diverse public service careers will still be able to do that,” McDonnell said. “But we also want to gain a particular reputation for health and the environment — two programs that we think are particularly relevant to Maine.”

These changes come after the University of Maine eliminated its master’s of public administration program in 2011, according to Carolyn Ball, who was the director of that program and now teaches at the Muskie School.

Like the New England and American studies program, which was eliminated at the University of Southern Maine earlier this year, the Muskie School is one of the few departments at the University of Southern Maine that serves primarily graduate students. Faculty in graduate programs teach fewer students, making the programs more difficult to justify financially, McDonnell said.

In the new Muskie School, faculty will teach both undergraduate and graduate classes, and there will be more integration with programs in other parts of the university, such as at the business school, he said. Professors will teach more, and there will be fewer of them.

The language department also is taking a major hit. Though the French program received much fanfare because the University of Maine System board of trustees had to vote to cut it, both the Spanish and classics programs will be eliminated under this plan as well.

While the University of Southern Maine students could major in French, the Spanish and classics programs offer a major that is classified as “self-designed,” and therefore the trustees did not have to vote to eliminate those programs.

Jeannine Uzzi, a classics professor, said these cuts could impact other programs at the University of Southern Maine that have a language requirement.

“What you do when you eliminate this kind of thing is you really decrease the quality of the education overall,” she said.

In addition to the 25 faculty members who agreed to retire after their programs were targeted for reductions, 12 other faculty gave notice that they will retire this year. They do not come from the programs that were identified for cuts, so they do not count toward the 50 positions proposed for elimination.

Chris Quint, the University of Southern Maine’s director of public affairs, said last week that no final determinations have been made regarding the retrenchments. It is written into the faculty members’ contract that retrenchments can only happen by Oct. 31 in order to go into effect for the spring semester and by March 31 in order to go into effect for next school year.

Colgan said that the financial problems the university is facing have been decades in the making.

“While I may disagree with some parts of the decisions being made here, the real issue lies not with [the administration] but with the trustees’ and the Legislature’s — over the past 40 years — refusal to deal with the fact that [the University of Southern Maine] is structurally underfunded and over-expensed,” he said.

“This isn’t a story of ‘the butler did it,’” he said. “This is ‘Murder on the Orient Express.’ Everybody did it.”

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