Administrators claim USM enrollment, tuition freeze force cuts; Portland protesters say, ‘They’re lying’

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PORTLAND — Nearly 125 University of Southern Maine students and faculty members walked out of classes at midday Monday in protest of deep cuts proposed by President Theo Kalikow that would eliminate four programs and between 20 and 30 faculty positions.

The group gathered outside the University of Maine School of Law building, where the USM administration offices are located. Demonstrators chanted, called for the ouster of Kalikow and Provost Michael Stevenson, read letters and held signs protesting the cuts.

The protest was a continuation of one that took place last Friday in the halls outside the provost’s office and represented the latest move in escalating unrest on campus over the cuts, which administrators say are necessary due to a looming $14 million budget shortfall.

Many students and faculty, however, have argued they don’t believe the budget reports, calling it a “manufactured crisis.”

“There’s no budget crisis,” Susan Feiner, a professor of economics and women and gender studies, told attendees at Monday’s rally. “They’re lying. … They’ve got historic reserves. There’s no need for cuts.”

On Friday, 12 faculty members in seven departments were given notice that they will be laid off effective May 31. That number comes in advance of at least eight more faculty job cuts in July when four programs – American and New England studies, geosciences, recreation and leisure studies, and arts and humanities at the school’s Lewiston-Auburn campus – are proposed to be eliminated.

Kalikow has said additionally that between 10 and 20 staff positions will be cut.

While dozens of students crowded near the entrance of the Maine Law building across campus, Kalikow reserved the gymnasium in the James V. Sullivan Recreation and Fitness Complex to meet with students, field questions and listen to criticism and suggestions. By mid-afternoon, only a trickle of students made their way to the spacious gym to talk with the president.

Most of the protesters instead migrated to the indoor amphitheatre at the nearby Woodbury Campus Center, where they continued to hear from speakers and plan their opposition strategy.

“(The budget shortfall) is real,” Kalikow said. “It’s horrible, but it’s a real crisis.”

USM’s $14 million budget gap is the largest part of a $36 million gap systemwide reported by the chancellor’s office. Though USM will have to make up for the largest portion of that gap, all seven of the system’s campuses are looking for ways to reduce spending next year.

Rebecca Wyke, University of Maine System vice chancellor for finance and administration, reiterated on Monday afternoon that USM, like the state’s other public universities, is caught between stagnant state funding, frozen tuition levels and dropping enrollment.

Wyke said current state subsidies to the university system are $6.2 million lower than in 2008 and trustees are currently seeking to freeze tuition for a third straight year.

The third major way for the schools to increase revenues to fund operations and faculty salaries is by adding students, and Wyke said that hasn’t been happening.

Systemwide, enrollment dropped from the equivalent of 22,170 full-time students in fiscal year 2013 to 21,666 full-time equivalents in the current year. At USM, that number fell from 6,577 full-time equivalents last year to 6,199 such students this year.

“We just don’t have opportunities for our revenues to grow, and our student body has declined,” said Wyke, who was reached by telephone in Machias, where the university system’s board of trustees met Monday. “We have a lot of staff and a lot of faculty that just aren’t needed to serve our student body at the size it is today.”

The USM Student Senate has rejected the administration’s reasoning for the cuts, voting 13-0 on Saturday night for a resolution expressing “no confidence in the current administration’s plan.”

The resolution stated that, while the student group embraces the flexible “metropolitan university” brand being promoted by Kalikow as part of a restructuring process, “(T)he use of simplistic metrics to determine program and faculty eliminations is not in line with the comprehensive strategic plan that is needed to bring the University of Southern Maine forward.”

Many of those who participated in the campus demonstration Monday argued that cutting faculty would just exacerbate the downward spiral, driving away students and further decreasing revenues.

Jules Purnell, a women and gender studies major, said she and others have been frustrated by what they feel have been budget decisions made without student input, noting that repeated attempts to secure a meeting with Stevenson have gone unanswered.

“We feel like we’re getting a lot of doubletalk,” she said at the rally Monday. “We need them to realize we need these faculty members and programs, otherwise our campus will be gutted and we won’t have any way of reaching the vision we’ve set forth for our university.”

Added fellow women and gender studies major Caroline O’Connor: “We’re told that the way USM ‘does business’ fails to sustain a successful university, yet the truth is that USM fails to generate a large enough profit margin to sustain the board of trustees’ business model.”

University spokeswoman Peggy Leonard said the system has approximately $15 million in its budget stabilization fund, some of which will likely be used to help reduce the amount of cuts that are necessary across all campuses. But that money represents one-time funding that can’t be used again next year or the year after to prop up an unsustainable annual budget, she said.

The system’s so-called “unrestricted net assets” for fiscal year 2013 did reach $183 million, she said, but suggested the “unrestricted” title for those funds can be misleading, with nearly all of that money earmarked to cover employees’ health insurance, facilities maintenance, technology projects and scholarships, among other things.

“We clearly hear the concerns of our faculty and students at USM and campuses across the state. These are very difficult times. Our universities are facing unprecedented challenges and the board of trustees and presidents agree that we must redefine the way we do business to better serve our students, businesses and the state,” System Chancellor James Page said in a Monday statement. “All of our universities are making campus-based decisions in order to meet these challenges. These are not easy or hastily made decisions – they were made following extensive review at all levels of the system.”

Sidebar Elements

University of Southern Maine business and economics major Laine Geistwalker, left, protests deep cuts proposed by President Theo Kalikow on Monday in Portland. The cuts would eliminate four full programs and 20-30 faculty positions.

In Portland on Monday, a crowd protests proposed deep cuts at the University of Southern Maine.

University of Southern Maine President Theo Kalikow waits in an empty gym on campus in Portland Monday as students and faculty members walked out of classes.