PORTLAND — Before a crowd of more than 100 people, many wearing purple “Invest in USM” stickers and holding signs with phrases such as “stop the cuts,” the University of Maine System’s board of trustees voted Friday to cut two academic programs from the curriculum — undergraduate French and graduate applied medical sciences.
Dozens of professors, students, alumni, members of the business community and schoolteachers testified, some through tears, in an effort to prevent the cuts from moving forward at the six-hour meeting.
“I’m not a fiscal liability for the university,” said Nancy Erickson, USM’s only full-time French professor, who may lose her job. “I’m making a contribution that is material and otherwise.”
Bryan Bozsik, president of the Bioscience Association of Maine board, asked trustees not to make a decision before studying the impact eliminating the applied medical science program would have on his industry in southern Maine.
“When we take away the only graduate medical science program in the Portland region, we have to ask how well are we treating our human capital,” he said.
But USM President David Flanagan said that cuts on the table were necessary to avoid raising tuition and would inflict the least amount of harm on students.
“I am here today along with Provost [Joseph] McDonnell, in partial fulfillment of the mandate you gave me,” he told the trustees. “What you asked me then is that we put this university on a financially sustainable path so we assure the long-term future of the university.”
UMS Chancellor James Page said this was the action necessary to put the university on that path.
“Time is now dictating events,” he said. Refuting claims that the structural gap is fabricated, he said, “The structural budgetary gap is real and its effects … are now immediate.”
The trustees voted 9-2 to cut the programs.
The cuts, along with other dramatic cost-saving measures that the university’s administration has proposed, have garnered outrage among some faculty and students who say the financial crisis at USM has been exaggerated by higher-ups and the proposals will do more harm than good.
The program eliminations are just one part of a plan presented by Flanagan earlier this month to cut $6 million from the university’s budget. He proposed reductions in 25 academic programs, which would result in the elimination of 50 faculty positions. An additional $10 million will be eliminated from the $134 million budget through cuts in administration and capital expenditures later this year, bringing the total to $16 million if Flanagan’s plan is approved.
He acknowledged that the decisions were difficult and the programs being cut had value.
McDonnell said that French and applied medical sciences were chosen because they had few majors and their expenses are greater than their revenue.
Flanagan said at a meeting on Wednesday that USM’s budget shortfall is caused primarily by the steadily declining student enrollment. Part of that has to do with Maine’s demographics, with a decline in the number of students graduating from high school, and part of it is increasing competition with other schools, such as for-profit universities and Maine’s less expensive community colleges.
Several students and professors argued that cutting programs and faculty will not yield savings but a further decline in student enrollment. If students can’t access the programs and classes they want at USM, they may go elsewhere.
USM Senate Faculty President Jerry LaSala, who is a chemistry professor, used an analogy to explain why he felt this did not make sense.
“When they cut back the number of buses, then there’s fewer passengers because (the buses) don’t go where you want them to,” he said. “And that’s the road we’re going down here.”
Others argued that eliminating French is insensitive to the cultural history of Maine.
“We are trying to save what we have of our heritage, our identity, and for those new immigrants that want to retain their heritage and identity,” said Diane Pelletier, an alumnus from Lewiston who majored in French.
Flanagan has said earlier this month that, with the exception of French and applied medical sciences, he believes USM will be able to offer the same courses with fewer faculty. Under the plan that he rolled out with McDonnell, faculty will be required to teach four classes a semester rather than the two or three he said they teach now.
French and programs similar to applied medical science are available at other schools within the system, such as at the University of Maine in Orono, Flanagan said, a fact was part of the criteria for choosing which programs to eliminate. The USM students who are currently in those programs will be able to finish their degrees.
UMaine is exploring the possibility of carrying on some of the work in research and teaching in applied medical sciences that will be lost at USM.
In a letter addressed to Vice Chancellor for Administration and Finance Rebecca Wyke, UMaine Provost Jeff Hecker, wrote, “The University of Maine is interested in exploring ways that the students enrolled in the AMS program might continue their studies through UMaine Graduate programs. We are also interested in exploring ways that the University of Maine might create positions that would allow UMS Applied Medical Sciences faculty members to continue their research programs and continue to contribute to the Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences and Engineering.”
However, he ended the letter by saying UMaine is considering this possibility in the context of its own cuts, which will be carried out this year.
Many of the nearly 60 people who testified asked trustees to slow the cutting process to give the USM community time to come up with an alternative.
“I would like to be part of the solution. I don’t feel I’ve had time to do that,” said Anne Breggia, research coordinator at the Maine Medical Center Research Institute. “Let us give you some viable solutions to keep this program open.”
But Trustee Norman Fournier said there was no time.
“Folks, it’s been two years that we’ve been talking about this situation,” he said by phone. “Change is hard.”