In two weeks the University of Maine System board of trustees will vote on whether or not to eliminate three programs at USM: American and New England studies, geosciences and the arts and humanities program on the Lewiston-Auburn Campus.
USM administrators proposed eliminating these programs in March as a cost-saving measure in an attempt to cut an estimated $12.5 million from the budget, which will increase into $15 million at the end of this fiscal year. Former President Theo Kalikow proposed the cuts, but Interim President David Flanagan is carrying them forward.
The eliminations were recently approved by a UMS committee and sent to the full board of trustees for final voting.
“We have to start somewhere,” said Flanagan. “There did not seem to be any good reason to delay acting when it’s clear that there are going to be even bigger deficits to deal with prospectively.”
Trustee Bonnie Newsom cast the single vote against the eliminations.
“[Trustee Newsom] wanted to be able to vote on the three programs individually, but the proposal as it was was a straight up yes or no on all three programs together,” said Meghan LaSala, a senior women and gender studies major and leader in the group ‘Students for #USMFuture,’ who was at the meeting. “She spoke in support of American and New England studies and said that she couldn’t in good conscience vote in favor of the elimination of the program because of the service it provides to the region. It’s one of the only of its kind in the country.”
Flanagan agrees and notes that the American and New England studies program is remarkable and unique, but expensive, in terms of the deficit it runs and the number of students they graduate.
USM developed and applied quantitative based criteria that the programs didn’t meet. This criteria looked at enrollment, graduating students, relation to other programs in the university and faculty members.
According to Flanagan, even if the programs are cut, students currently enrolled can finish out their degrees.
Kent Ryden, director and professor of American and New England studies, described his feelings as ‘disappointed.’
“I think [American and New England studies] is a very important and valuable program for the university and for the region,” said Ryden. “We’ve traditionally had a close working relationship with schools and museums and historical societies in the community, so I’m disappointed that we haven’t had the opportunity to find a way to restructure the program.”
Ryden explained that he would like to keep the program alive in any way possible – if not as the self contained entity that it is now, then in a way that’s more cost efficient and will bring in more revenue.
According to Lydia Savage, professor of geography, USM just didn’t have the resources to explore alternate options for any of the other programs on the table.
“In the board of trustees meeting, both President Flanagan and Provost McDonnell praised the three programs for their quality of teaching, research and community engagement and said that with a little investment and a little time, they could be turned around, but USM didn’t have either,” Savage said.
“So these are decisions that are being made while acknowledging that it could be different,” LaSala said.
Still, Flanagan believes that even if we could offer many majors, it would mean higher costs and reducing accessibility and affordability.
“They had developed criteria and these programs seemed to be, by any reasonable standard, high priorities for elimination,” said Flanagan. “It’s not because they’re not good programs.”
Phil Shelley, USM graduate and active member of Students for #USMFuture, feels that, since these are the same programs that President Kalikow ‘targeted’ a year ago, the elimination of them is seen as part of a ‘larger end game.’
“We won’t be able to withstand $15 million in cuts. It’ll result in a drastic change in the nature of the institution and the way it serves the people of Portland and Maine,” Shelley said.
“It’ll be a fundamentally different institution,” LaSala added.
Both believe that Portland deserves a first-class university.
“What administration and the board of trustees are doing now is dismantling the university and taking it away from the city of Portland,” said Shelley. “It’s a question of you either dismantle something or support it and let it grow.”
Despite their fights, all affected recognize that President Flanagan should not be envied for his job, according to Ryden.
“His mandate that he’s been given by the board of trustees is to balance the budget,” said Ryden. “So I think he has a very realistic sense of the position that he’s been put in. I perceive him as having to go out and dissolve a big problem that the previous administration wouldn’t or couldn’t.”
“We will have to make more cuts. We’ll try to do it strategically. We’ll try to do it consistent with hitting the priorities of the metropolitan university report. We’ll try to do it with the least pain to the USM community. We will have to reduce both faculty and administrative staff in the coming year,” said Flanagan.
These cuts will be done by eliminating individual faculty in programs that are going to continue, as well as eliminating whole programs.
Still, LaSala and Shelley believe the students remain the strongest force to be reckoned with.
“There’s an opportunity here to organize and to make a difference, but students need to take that opportunity,” said LaSala. “That’s up to us.”
According to President David Flanagan, USM’s projected budget deficit of 12.5 million is going to grow.
After this fiscal year, an additional $3 million is expected to be added to the current deficit. Flanagan put the numbers in perspective by saying that the deficit will roughly be equal to 13 percent of the university’s total budget and exceeds the entire budget of the University of Maine at Fort Kent.
“We will manage, and we will somehow close that gap,” said Flanagan. “We are discussing different approaches, all of which will result in painful choices.”
Before students moved into the dorms last weekend, Flanagan introduced his leadership team and spoke about the budget issues, saying that it was time to face some ‘tough realities.’
“We must make strategic budget choices within all parts of our house,” said Flanagan. “We’ll be working with the faculty senate and taking advice from community members to develop the criteria to fix this budget issue.”
Three academic programs are slated for elimination to balance the budget as enrollment continues to decline, and most members of the President’s Council are admitting that it’s going to be a difficult year.
Chief Financial Officer Dick Campbell says that decreasing the gap won’t rely entirely on cutting academic programs and staff, but it will have to happen to some extent.
“We’re looking everywhere for solutions,” said Campbell, noting the system’s decision to sell the Stonehouse, home to USM’s MFA in creative writing. “But, in the end, we will have to make the hard choice to eliminate positions, whether they are from faculty, salaried or hourly.”
Some of the less disruptive strategies being discussed by Flanagan and his council include having fewer instructors teach the same level of course offerings and having faculty share offices. According to Campbell, spending less money on big projects, re-examining how we allocate funds to programs and making a bigger effort to recruit and bring in students will all help bridge the gap. When choosing where to make cuts, Campbell said that he will practice a similar decision-making process as when he chose to eliminate the print shop and lay off five employees over a year ago. This decision stemmed from realizing that the print shop’s equipment was too expensive and the market for the service was declining.
“We have to keep our costs down while we face the realities of this revenue situation if we’re going to make USM more efficient, accessible and affordable to the Maine people,” said Flanagan to a sparse, mixed crowd of faculty and students at a welcoming speech last Wednesday in Abromson Hall.“I think if we can control our costs, overall we’ll attract more students, and we’ll do a better job of serving the state of Maine. That’s got to be a primary focus for us in these challenging times.”
Lydia Savage, a professor of geography in the Muskie School of Public Service, believes that the administration should decrease tuition to see their enrollment numbers increase.
According to Savage, this tactic is working well for the University of Maine in Presque Isle and Fort Kent. Savage also thinks that the UMaine system should be actively investing more into USM.
“USM should be one of the top assets in Southern Maine, the population center of the state,” said Savage. “Instead, we are told enrollment is down and we must cut costs so we do, but how do you recruit and retain while you simultaneously dismantle a university by eliminating programs and student options for courses and degrees?”
“I know my neighbors are concerned about what USM will look like when their middle schoolers are ready to attend college,” said Savage. “And the President has stated that there will be more program eliminations to come.”
No matter where future cuts will be coming from, Flanagan has stated that he will practice complete objectivity and transparency when deciding which programs to eliminate.
“We’ll be able to articulate our rationale for what we’re doing, so it doesn’t seem like we’re making decisions behind a curtain,” said Flanagan.
Flanagan said that he’s a proponent of freedom of speech, but that bad attitudes and theoretical budget solutions being made popular by the local media is making the situation at the university even worse.
Flanagan shot down recent ideas including a completely arbitrary 10 percent cut of administrative staff salaries and the use of UMS reserve funds. He said that the system funds are already allotted for and that the plan to cut administration was too reliant on cutting positions from the non-academic side.
“The concepts were generally too optimistic, or too impractical,” said Flanagan. “In terms of finding a solution, it was like throwing darts at a board.”
Flanagan also said that if bitter tones across blogs and social media continue, USM will look a lot less appealing to potential applicants and their parents.
“Complaining about them [the economic factors] does not erase the deficit,” said Flanagan.
Flanagan closed off the welcome speech on Wednesday by exhibiting a great deal of optimism about the year and future of USM. Flanagan said that although it may seem strange, he’s not stressed and is ready to take on the challenges at USM.
“This is not my first rodeo,” said Flanagan. “I feel challenged and stimulated.”
“USM is a place you can be proud of,” said Flanagan. “But I will bend every effort and spend every waking hour thinking about this issue and ways I can make students even more proud to call USM their home.”