PORTLAND — With $1.3 million in cuts to be announced in the next few weeks, the University of Southern Maine community – from students to staff to day-care parents – is on edge.
About $1.3 million has already been cut from this year’s budget, in accordance with a $2.7 million curtailment ordered by the state. These cuts came after reductions last year were made to balance an $8.2 million deficit, leaving little flexibility and low morale across campuses in Portland, Gorham and Lewiston/Auburn.
“There’s definitely been a general sense that everyone is more on edge than they were last year,” USM student body President Ben Taylor said this week as he prepared to begin spring semester classes.
A year ago, one of the biggest stressors was a list of 26 academic programs being evaluated for possible suspension pending department plans for increased enrollment and general sustainability.
This year, there isn’t a list. Or, more accurately, everything is on the table.
In a November announcement to all three campuses, President Selma Botman, who joined the USM administration last July, said she is facing “a responsibility that is as excruciating as it is unavoidable: getting this academic community through a wrenching adjustment to a new financial reality.”
Those adjustments so far have included cutting travel expenses, reducing funds for online course development and support, suspending upgrades to the university’s new Web site, reducing library acquisitions, cutting funds for technology and equipment, decreasing the budgets for continuing education and the Lifeline fitness program, and cancelling some non-faculty appointments.
These cuts have achieved about half of the $2.7 million curtailed, she said.
The remaining cuts could lead to as many as 65 layoffs, she said, although other efforts have been made to prevent the loss of those jobs.
Administrators are stepping forward to teach, she said, from the provost to the dean of Arts and Sciences. Botman is scheduled to teach this semester, holding an upper level History of Modern Egypt class in her house on the Gorham campus.
“Shared effort is the only way we have to make the difficult reductions necessary in instructional budgets without harming our students,” she said.
While Botman and the university administration have tried to assure students, faculty, and staff that cuts will protect and maintain the academic core of the university, not everyone is convinced.
Taylor said that among students, one of the biggest fears across all departments is that adjunct faculty and part-time professors will be cut. “That’s worrying to a lot of people,” he said, “because they’re the best professors in a lot of departments.”
Another fear among some students, faculty and community members is the loss of child care on campus though USM’s Child and Family Centers in Gorham and Portland.
While cuts won’t be announced until February, Christine Galbraith, chairwoman of the Child and Family Centers Advisory Committee, sent an e-mail this week to parents saying that the day-care facilities “remain high on the list for elimination.”
She and the advisory committee are planning a “Night of Action” on Thursday, Jan. 29, to show support for the program and keep it off the final list of cuts. The event will be held from 6 to 7:30 p.m. in Portland’s Woodbury Campus Center.
Parent and former law student Carol Eisenberg of Portland said she is worried that administrators will see the child-care centers as peripheral to the academic mission of the university.
“But it really is central,” she said, “making it possible to go to school or work there and feel good about where your kids are.”
The child-care centers serve about 100 children, according to university officials. About 75 percent of them are the children of students; faculty, staff, alumni and community members are the parents of the others.
For Eisenberg, having on-campus child care made it possible to have children in the first place – she had her first while in law school, and said she might not have had her third child if the day care wasn’t there.
As a student, she would visit the child-care center to breast feed between classes, and was able to study for the bar exam in the student center, knowing her kids were just a few hundred feet farther down the sidewalk.
On-campus child care, she said, “was such a piece of the puzzle.”
Now as a lawyer, she said she still relies on USM for a quality of accredited child care she finds lacking in the area. “It’s the only one I’ve ever seen that I want to send my kids to,” she said.
But Eisenberg is worried about more than just her kids. “This is not a job market where you want to see any jobs cut,” she said, referring to the professional staff teachers and managers working there.
Robert Caswell, USM director of public affairs, said Monday that “no final decision has been made about the future of the (child-care) program.”
That program, “like every other part of this university, is being evaluated,” he said.
Caswell said “thoughtful consideration” is being given to every potential cut, from child care to travel.
“Given the sobering nature of the fiscal challenges facing us,” he said, “we have to look at all aspects of the university with an eye toward protecting and maintaining our core educational efforts. USM, like every other organization in the public and private sectors, has to decide what we can and cannot afford to do so that we continue to offer people the best education possible.”