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USM reverses course on 12 layoffs, but budget questions remain

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USM reverses course on 12 layoffs, but budget questions remain

AUGUSTA — Twelve University of Southern Maine professors who had previously been told they would be laid off will keep their jobs, according to USM President Theodora Kalikow.

Kalikow announced that the layoffs were off the table during a Faculty Senate meeting in Lewiston on Friday afternoon. Upon hearing the news, the faculty erupted in applause, she said after the meeting.

“The faculty made it clear to me that they had contributions to make to this process that they hadn’t had a chance to make yet,” Kalikow said.

She said she was resolved to “give them a little bit more time to work with me and my administration to come to results that we can all understand and accept.”

The elimination of three programs, however, is still part of the president’s plan to find $14 million in order to balance USM’s fiscal year 2015 budget. Those programs are geosciences, American and New England studies, and arts and humanities.

Another 14 layoffs, of both salaried and hourly staff, were not rescinded, according to USM spokeswoman Judie O’Malley, and 10-20 similar layoffs could come later in the year.

Kalikow asked the Faculty Senate to submit to her viable alternatives to the layoffs that would help the university find savings by May 31, USM’s director of public affairs, Bob Caswell, said. The Faculty Senate has already circulated a draft of nearly 30 recommendations for other ways to fill the budget hole.

The recommendations attempt to address the budget woes by “(affecting) students as minimally as possible” and preserving “student learning and the core University of Maine System’s educational mission above all else.”

The faculty’s proposals also call for the administration to “maximize savings by cutting high-cost entities first” and “preserve revenue generation for the system,” according to the draft document.

Kalikow said she was able to look at the recommendations for the first time just before she went into the Faculty Senate meeting on Friday.

“I think some of the ideas are good. Some of the ideas are already happening. Some are far out,” she said. “I’m not sure which is which.”

The cuts recommended by Kalikow at a Faculty Senate meeting in March were part of a system-wide effort to find $36 million, which University of Maine System officials have said is necessary to resolve a budget shortfall.

When asked whether the students’ protest had influenced her decision, Kalikow responded that she was happy that the students were taking an active role in this process.

“We’ve lived through 30 years of disenchantment in higher education,” she said. “Our country is not better off as a result.”

“I hope this student activism at USM will be a foreshadowing of greater things to come.”

Jerry LaSala, a physics professor and chairman of the Faculty Senate, said Thursday that he was surprised by Kalikow’s announcement and praised the work of faculty members who have been negotiating with the administration to find alternatives to layoffs and program eliminations.

“We had stressed to her that this could be a healing moment, a chance for us all to work together, and that we could cooperate and work with her to produce the kind of savings needed, and that if there needed to be cuts, they could be more strategic,” he said.

LaSala said that while the faculty had worked hard to lobby Kalikow, the effort of student organizers had likely been a large factor in forcing the layoff reversal.

“The Board of Trustees and the general public listen much more attentively to students than to faculty,” he said. “They’re what the university is all about, so if they’re saying the administration is not providing what they need and expect, then the trustees listen.”

Students with the #USMfuture group, who have organized rallies and engaged lawmakers against the cuts, said Kalikow’s reversal was a victory for their group.

Members of #USMfuture were meeting with Democratic lawmakers in the State House on Friday afternoon when they received word from members of the Faculty Senate that the retrenchment had been reversed. The group said they were excited about the news, but still had as many questions as answers.

Marpheen Chann, one of the student activists and the vice president of USM’s student government, said the group was lobbying lawmakers for full restoration of both the laid-off faculty and cut programs when the message arrived.

“You organize and fight so hard to defend the things you believe in,” he said. ”We’re excited.”

The #USMfuture group pledged to continue its activities until the University of Maine System board of trustees agreed to a full independent audit of the system’s spending.

“This is the first really big victory we’ve had,” said student organizer Jules Purnell. “But we want to find a way to make sure this is sustainable.”