Union rep: USM cut headed to arbitration

LEWISTON — The union representative for University of Southern Maine professors said the way three programs were eliminated last week did not follow the contract, and the issue is headed to arbitration.

A grievance has been filed with the American Arbitrator Association, said Christy Hammer, representative of the Associated Faculties of the University of Maine. Hammer is a professor at USM’s Lewiston-Auburn College. The soonest a decision is expected could be early 2015, Hammer said.

“The decision wasn’t based on facts,” Hammer said. “We gave facts on how the contract was violated. They didn’t follow their own procedures on how programs are eliminated. (USM President) David Flanagan called it ‘red tape.’ I call it ‘due process.'”

Hammer said the faculty senate came up with dozens of suggestions on cuts in a list. The University of Maine System board of trustees “was not even shown a summary of that list. There’s an error right there.”

The three programs that were cut are geo sciences and New England studies in Portland and Gorham, and arts and humanities in Lewiston. The programs included seven professors, which was not enough, Hammer said. “A starved prisoner is easier to kill.”

Central Maine students deserve a humanities program, Hammer said. “Lewiston-area folks don’t just need technical degrees.”

USM spokesman Christopher Quint said USM “will follow all contractual provisions related to any union grievance.”

Quint declined to further address the union’s claims.

LEWISTON — In Barry Rodrigue’s office Thursday, files stuffed with papers were piled on a desk. The walls were bare. Chairs for students were gone.

“I’m moving out,” said Rodrigue, a well-known associate professor at the University of Southern Maine’s Lewiston-Auburn College.

Rodrigue, hired in 2000 by former Dean Betty Robinson to create a Franco-American studies program in Lewiston, is being laid off.

The University of Maine System board of trustees voted Sept. 22 to cut three programs at the University of Southern Maine, including the arts and humanities program at LAC.

The system has fewer students because of the recent recession, the declining birth rate and competition from the Maine Community College System and private colleges. Enrollment at USM has dropped from 8,500 to 6,500 over the past four years.

In addition to Rodrigue, six professors are being laid off at the Portland and Gorham campuses.

USM President David Flanagan said in a Sept. 16 interview that $16 million of the annual $140 million budget has to be cut. This first round represents only $500,000. More cuts will be announced in mid-October.

USM spokesman Christopher Quint said 35 students are enrolled in Lewiston’s arts and humanities program. Union representative and LAC professor Christy Hammer said the number is 61. Administrators are not counting students who are working on teaching certificates, she said.

Cleaning out his office Thursday, Rodrigue was resentful and discouraged. Losing his job won’t help USM’s deficit but will add to it, he said.

“We bring in $350,000 a year in profit, so they’re not saving money,” he said. “We’ve got this award-winning program that has increased in student numbers in the last five years. They’re claiming it’s redundant. We are not.”

The program is different from an arts and humanities program in Portland in that it offers a minor in Franco-American studies, he said. “It is one of only two programs in the state, and one of the few programs in the United States.”

Propped against the wall is a framed certificate of Rodrigue’s 2009 induction into the Franco-American Hall of Fame, an honor given to him by state legislators. He displayed books on Canadian and Franco-American history that he wrote, some with help from students.

“I involved my students in the classroom in research, writing and editing projects,” he said. “They’re getting hands-on experience of Franco-American studies, from book editing to oral history interviews to archaeological field work.”

Rodrigue said he was proud that his students have gone on to successful careers in the community.

Eliminating his job won’t save much, he said. “I think I’m the lowest-paid professor. My baseline salary is around $55,000. I owe $180,000 in student loans. This is not a good time for me to be laid off.”

A native of Lewiston, Rodrigue said he returned to his hometown “because this is where I wanted to teach.” There aren’t many Maine natives teaching in the university system, he said.

The end of the program “isn’t just my loss,” Rodrigue. “I’m frustrated that Lewiston-Auburn and surrounding communities are losing such a valuable resource that we spent 15 years building up.”

He was in Quebec when Robinson recruited him to establish the Franco studies program. That was done “not just by me, but the Franco community, Madeleine Giguere, Madeline Roy, Donat Boisvert,” Rodrigue said. “All these great people participated in this with the students. This will all be lost and swept away.”

Professors whose jobs are being eliminated are being portrayed as “stuck in the old ways of delivering,” Rodrigue said. Professors have tried to create innovative delivery styles but have been thwarted by administrators.

He started offering classes online and in classrooms in 2009 to help students juggling families and jobs. Ten years ago, he said, he proposed a Franco-American studies program for the entire University of Maine System, one that could be taught online. That was shot down, he said.

He said the cuts should be made in administration. “There are too many administrators who are paid far too much. It’s the same as in the corporate sector.”

Flanagan has promised that despite looming cuts, L-A College will survive as a USM campus.

Rodrigue disagreed. “They’re trying to reduce this to a little learning center.”

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