The department of Student Life announced recently that it would be eliminating the director of Portland Student Life position in an effort to downsize amidst recent budget cuts.
Christopher O’Connor, the now former director, said he could feel something going on within the department and that he almost expected being laid off.
“The way the structure of student life has changed over the past year and recent responsibility changes, I knew something was going to happen,” said O’Connor.
According to Susan Campbell, the chief Student Affairs officer, the decision was made based on changing demographics in USM’s enrollment and the need to work with less with the university’s current financial state.
“It wasn’t based on any individual, it was based on programmatic decisions,” said Campbell. “We’re trying to flatten the administrative structure and put more people directly in contact with students.”
“Our enrollment is dropping,” said Judie O’Malley, assistant director of Public Affairs. “You have to size your organization to fit the number of people you serve.”
Members of the group Students for #USMFuture reached out to O’Connor and asked him if he wanted them to fight for his job as a part of their recent protest efforts.
“You couldn’t have been more deliberately offensive to students,” said Philip Shelley, a member of the protest group, of O’Connor’s firing. “We’re asking them to look at administrators’ salaries and the cut the very active and very loved student life director.”
O’Connor told protesters to fight for the position, but not him.
“I don’t care about me. I care about the students,” said O’Connor. “I personally don’t agree with putting students in that place. They shouldn’t have to rally for our jobs. I don’t want my job back. In many ways, I’m relieved to be out of there.”
Joy Pufhal, the executive director of Student Life, said that the decision to let O’Connor go was not easy.
“It was a great loss for me personally, for the department and for USM,” said Pufhal. “These are hard decisions that unfortunately have to be made. We have to get out of these times at USM where we’re cutting and cutting and cutting.”
O’Connor’s responsibilities have been divided between other Student Life employees and the department has been restructured. Jason Saucier, the former director of Gorham Student Life, will now lead student life as a whole.
O’Connor was skeptical of the restructuring, and spoke about the ‘boots on the ground’ initiative that began when Theodora Kalikow became USM’s president two years ago.
“I didn’t know how I could be anymore involved with students,” said O’Connor. “We’ve barely kept enrollment up in Gorham. Gorham has been spiraling for the past four or five years, and now we’re taking that staff, no disrespect to them as professionals, and task them with maintaining Portland as well? It just doesn’t make sense to me.”
Pufahl said she was very confident in the new structure and believes that they can deliver the programs students are used to with a smaller staff.
“Some folks are going to panic, but the sky’s not falling,” said Pufhal. There’s a lot of work to get done, but we will do it. We must do it. I care very deeply about the students and I will do everything in my power to deliver the best student experience possible.”
USM as one of the nation’s most expensive public four-year colleges for in-state students according to a recent report published by the U.S. Department of Education.
USM was ranked 23rd in the public four-year college category with a net price — the amount that students paid after receiving grants and scholarships — of $18,177 a year. The national average net price was reported to be $11,582 annually.
The report was based on data submitted from the 2011-’12 academic year, which Assistant Director of Public Affairs Judie O’Malley said contained erroneous data submitted by a former employee.
O’Malley said officials made attempts to alter the data they had submitted after the errors were discovered, but that the deadline to make changes to their submissions had passed.
“It’s unfortunate this report has been released using that year,” said O’Malley, noting that the university submits their reports to the Department of Education annually. “The feds have all these numbers, but they’ve chosen ‘11-’12.”
O’Malley said that the data, which is now three years old, does not reflect efforts that have been made recently to keep costs down.
“USM has taken steps to make itself more affordable for students,” said O’Malley, noting that the report would not have reflected the tuition-freeze or reduction in student-housing costs made in the spring of 2012.
During the 2011-2012 year, the University of Maine’s flagship campus at Orono was listed as having a net price of $15,299, lower than the smaller campuses at USM.
O’Malley chalked up the difference between Maine universities to the endowments and scholarships available at UMO in comparison to USM. She also said USM is primarily a commuter school and that commuter students rarely have the connections that resident students do, which affects donation rates from alumni.
The shuttle bus between the Portland and Gorham campuses will make its final loop on Friday before shutting down for the rest of the summer due to low useage.
“This was a difficult decision but we could not balance the high cost of the service with the low level of use,” wrote William Wells, the associate vice president of Operations in the Office of Finance and Administration in a press release last week.
According to Judie O’Malley, the assistant director of Public Affairs, the decision to shut down the shuttle was based on figures during one week of its operation when ridership was only half of what administration expected it to be and what they deem financially sustainable.
The number of riders on the bus has dropped dramatically from 61 riders the week of May 12 to just 29 riders the week of May 26. This ridership is less than half of the number of riders deemed sustainable for a week of transportation. The week of May 26 the shuttle bus drove ten runs without any riders at all.
“It was fiscally and environmentally irresponsible to continue to have the shuttles going back and forth empty,” said O’Malley. “It was absurdly expensive to run that shuttle bus every day. “It was like burning money.”
According to O’Malley, the shuttle bus costs about $2,500 to run in one week and is paid for by using student activity fee funds.
“Because of this [low useage] and USM’s well-known fiscal situation, we cannot continue this costly summer service while we are looking for ways to reduce expenses,” wrote Wells.
Students who still need to travel back and forth between campuses are being encouraged to carpool. The Office of Sustainability has set up a Google Form-based program for students called the USM Summer RideShare Program. The form is only accessible for students, faculty and staff using their university-given email addresses and provides a place for people to list their transportation needs and schedules to help each other get to class.
The university will also be offering transportation by request for students who need to travel between the campuses and have no success finding a ride with the carpooling program.
O’Malley said that the money saved from the shutdown will be used in other areas including maintenance of the grounds, parking lot upkeeps and snow removal.
Reporters at the Free Press attempted to find students who used the shuttle bus regularly, but were unable to find any students using the bus after many attempts.
Students for #USM Future recently organized a rally outside of the Maine Law Building to protest President Theo Kalikow’s final budget recommendations, specifically the three programs that are slated for elimination.
Geosciences, American and New England Studies and the Arts and Humanities program on the Lewiston-Auburn campus have been considered part of the necessary budget cuts since March, and have not been removed from the chopping block.
Convincing administrators not to cut these programs has been a goal of the student group since their first protests and on Wednesday they said they were rallying to ‘preserve’ the programs.
“We know these programs are valuable, profitable and continue to grow,” said LaSala. “We haven’t been explained why these majors are being targeted.”
On Tuesday the group announced a crowdfunding campaign with a goal of $10,000, with aims to finance an independent audit of the UMaine System’s budget. They are hoping an investigation would shed light on any conflicts of interest, rule-bending and lack of oversight within the USM administration. The USMFuture Preservation Fund has raised $2,394 within the first few days of asking for donations.
The group drew a small crowd, comprised of faculty, staff and community members and many were given a chance to voice their concerns publicly..
Stephen Pollock, a geology professor, explained how rising levels in mercury are seeping from bedrock and into Maine rivers, causing many environmental problems, in an effort to show how valuable maintaining a geoscience community on campus is.
“If enough mercury makes its way into the Penobscot river, we’ll have decades, maybe centuries worth of problems,” said Pollock. “These are the kinds of issues that geosciences documents. We make society better.”
Ardis Cameron, a professor in the American and New England studies program, stressed that her academic department is not only popular, but extremely profitable. According to Cameron, it’s also one of only two of its kind of academic program in the entire country.
“It’s a human right to have access to education,” said Cameron. “We need to pause and ask ourselves does the current model best suit the needs of our region and the students who live in it?”
Many speakers and protestors argued that it’s not and there are many more fiscally responsible ways to save money, that doesn’t involve eliminating crucial programs and valued faculty members. The Faculty Senate presented an alternative budget proposal weeks ago with an estimated $5 million in savings, but according to LaSala, Kalikow turned a blind eye.
“There are a lot of ways we can save and creatively shift money that doesn’t involve students,” said LaSala. “Cut from the top and reduce the salaries of overpaid administrators.”
Director of Public Affairs Bob Caswell said that there were sit-down meeting between the administration and student leaders after the group’s first protest when they were rallying to save faculty members who had been retrenched.
“Theo has made a point all along that the work of the students ought to be appreciated because, whether you can agree or disagree with what they’re saying, the students are showing that they care about this university,” said Caswell. “Certainly, everybody is aware of the points that they’re raising. They’ve been taken under consideration.”
Speakers also noted the budget for administrative cellphones. the recent hiring of Director of Public Affairs Dan Demeritt at the system-level and firing of former Portland Student Life Director Christopher O’Connor.
“It’s another chilling demonstration of how decisions are being made without clear criteria or rationales and with little regard to what is best for USM students and the community at large,” said Sarah Victor, a mother and graduate student in Occupational Therapy, on the hiring of Demeritt.
#USMFuture also revealed that they will be starting their own search for a new president.
According to LaSala, #USMFuture is going to urge the board of trustees to listen to their recommendations and give them representation on the official presidential search committee. The first order of business for #USMFuture’s search is develop a criteria for a new president that is based upon preserving USM as a comprehensive liberal arts university and community healing through transparency and shared governance.
“If they refuse to grant us representation on the committee, then we’re prepared to form and sponsor our own,” said LaSala.
Last month, Kalikow announced the formation of the Metropolitan University Steering Group, which would aid the search committee in finding a president with a more metropolitan vision. The members of #USMFuture, according to LaSala aren’t entirely convinced that the objectives of that coalition is what students want for USM.
“We all know ‘metropolitan university’ is simply a code word to help turn USM into an appendage of the corporate world,” said Michael Havlin, a recent graduate in business and economics.
Victor said that the group feels it’s time to take matters in their own hands, but that so far, they’ve been met with condescension, evasion and occasionally outright lies.
“The damage that will be left in the wake of the Kalikow administration, the LePage chancery, and this board of LePage appointed trustees, will have catastrophic reverberations in the state of Maine for generations to come,” said Victor.
Caswell noted that while the budget for FY15 has been finished, the administration will need input on next year’s budget soon.
“As we look ahead to working on the FY16 budget, we’re going to be committed to an inclusive process, so we can meet the fiscal challenges while continuing to offer and affordable high quality education,” said Caswell, noting that the form of the inclusive process has yet to be determined. “All of that has to be done with the understanding that we’re not going to meet universal agreement with the hard challenges we face.”
Editor-in-Chief Sam Hill contributed to this story.
Students for #USMFuture have launched a new campaign called #NoMoreNice in response to recent measures taken by the administration to balance the university’s budget.
In a statement released to Bangor Daily News blogger Chris Schorr, the group announced that they would be launching a crowdfunding campaign with a goal of $10,000 to finance an independent audit of System and USM finances, investigating conflicts of interest, nepotism, waste, and lack of oversight in system operations and Engaging legal counsel to investigate potential class-action lawsuits, or other similar legal remedies.
“We’re stepping our game up in response to the new budget,” said Philip Shelley, a member of the group and recent USM graduate. “The administration is dismantling this place and we need to do the opposite and start fighting to preserve USM.”
Shelley and other members of the group are use the word ‘dismantle’ deliberately, referring the recent decision by the administration to fire Chris O’Connor, who was the director of Portland Student Life, and plans to sell the Stone House, which serves as headquarters for USM’s Stonecoast Master of Fine Arts in creative writing program.
“When they’re done, this will no longer be a comprehensive liberal arts university,” said Shelley.
The group will be hosting a rally outside of the Maine Law Building tomorrow morning in attempt preserve the three programs that have been slated for elimination. Geosciences, American and New England Studies and the Arts and Humanities program at the Lewiston Auburn campus have been targeted for elimination since March and President Kalikow confirmed in her announcement that she would still suggest they be cut.
“We wanted to provide another floor for directly affected people to share their stories,” said Meaghan LaSala, a group member and senior women and gender studies major. The group hosted a similar event for staff who were threatened with cuts in late April.
“Along with many stakeholders in the USM community and across the state, we feel that the program cuts make no sense and have no coherent economic rationale,” said student organizer Caroline O’Connor in a press release sent out by the group this afternoon. O’Connor recently enrolled in the American New England Studies program. “This program is profitable for the university, many of its graduates stay and work in Maine, and it’s one of only two of its kind in the country.”
The group also announced the creation of a USMFuture Presidential Search Committee. Their goal is to form a search committee comprised of students, staff and faculty to find a presidential candidate who will preserve USM as a comprehensive liberal arts university, focus on transparency and shared governance, critically examine USM’s budget in the context of national public higher education funding and acknowledges a student’s education as a human right.
A search committee has already been formed by the USM administration to search for Kalikow’s replacement, as she will be retiring after the next academic year.
“We would love to be a part of the search,” said Shelley. “Students deserve to have a say in the future executive direction of their university.”
The rally is set to take place tomorrow at 10:30 a.m.
A new group has been formed at USM in an effort to implement USM’s plan to become a premiere urban metropolitan university and redefine the university’s mission, an undertaking that President Theodora Kalikow has said might take years to complete.
The goal of the Metropolitan University Steering Group is to find ways to broaden the reach and impact of the USM community in the greater Portland area, create direct connections between students and professionals in the region and stimulate the growth of its programs. The group has been holding weekly community outreach meetings to share ideas, address concerns, outline challenges and gauge interest in potential partnerships with local companies and businesses in the area.
The meetings have included a variety of local higher education figures such as Southern Maine Community College president Robert Canter and former USM president Bob Woodbury, along with faculty, staff and representatives from local businesses like L.L. Bean and the Hilton Garden Inn. The focus of last week’s meeting was to discuss possible engagement tactics that would help USM attract more young students and increa a shared vision of community.
Richard Barringer, a research professor at USM’s Muskie School of Public Service, is chair of the group and moderated discussion, urging attendees to encapsulate their ideas on sheets of yellow paper that were passed out at the beginning of the meeting.
“These yellow sheets will serve as a benchmark, as to whether the plan we come up with, will actually continue to work in 3-5 years,” said Barringer. “USM needs a new model, if it’s going to become sustainable.”
One of the ways the group plans to create this future is by increasing partnerships with local businesses in the public and private sector. According to Robert Caswell, the director of Public Affairs, USM campuses are located in prime locations to ensure that a student’s learning experiences continue even while off campus. Caswell said that these experiences included things like internships, volunteer opportunities, service learning courses and working one-on-one with faculty members.
“USM is located in a very special location compared to the rest of Maine and even the whole New England area,” said Caswell. “We have the potential to develop so many off campus partnerships in the Lewiston, Gorham and Portland communities.”
One of the ways Barringer plans on implementing this new vision is by introducing some community engagement and partnership methods from other universities.
“We’ve been looking at about half a dozen universities that have a stellar reputation for doing that well,” said Barringer. “We’ll use their best practice experience, in order to inform us on how to bring that to USM.”
The group is also tasked with making sure this new focus is realized in every academic department, especially when hiring new staff.
According to Caswell, if this vision gets successfully realized, USM will gain a more strategic niche community among other local colleges, which will make the university more attractive to candidates and applicants. Caswell said the final plan should be finished by Labor Day.
“It seems the consensus, both on and off campus, about this group has been very positive,” said Barringer. “So we’re going to spend less time justifying it and more time actually doing it and doing it well.”