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Crisis at USM

University cuts arts and humanities while crying poor — but are they really?
By NICK SCHROEDER  |  March 27, 2014

 cover_web_032814_main

RETRENCHED Clockwise from top left: Kent
Ryden, Meghan Brodie, Rachel Bouvier, Julia
Edwards, Nancy Richeson, Paul Christiansen,
Deepika Marya, Annie Finch. See below for their
departments.

Ready for a lesson in critical thinking? It’s free. 

Two weeks ago, University of Southern Maine President Theodora Kalikow announced that the school would be cutting the departments of Geosciences, Recreation and Leisure Studies, and American and New England Studies. Those 15 faculty (and three staff), Kalikow said, would make up the first round of as many as 50 eliminated positions at the college (among others within the system) in response to a systemwide budget shortfall brought on by flat state appropriations, decreased enrollment, and tuition freezes.

Many more cuts came last Friday, affecting the departments of Economics, Political Science, Theater, Music, Sociology, Public Policy, English, and Women and Gender Studies. Handed down by Provost Michael Stevenson, many were issued as “retrenchments” — a jargony term for eliminating specific programs without appearing to violate faculty union contracts. (All of those listed are represented by the Associated Faculties of the Universities of Maine, the school’s teachers’ union.) Several more faculty members, whose names were not released, volunteered to retire to “save” a colleague in their department who was originally targeted.

Roughly a hundred USM students and faculty protested the cuts on Friday in Portland, assembling outside the provost’s office in the law building in an effort to prevent the layoffs and demand reinstatement. A majority of USM’s 310 faculty rallied at a senate meeting later that day, voting unanimously to demand of the administration detailed criteria and rationale regarding the layoffs, which targeted the arts and humanities departments and, as several students and faculty pointed out, affect a disproportionate number of women, many of them minorities.

MANUFACTURED CRISIS?
Kalikow, along with Chancellor James Page, has justified the cuts by pointing to a $14 million budget shortfall in the 2013 fiscal year, as well as intentions to close a $65-95 million “structural gap” through 2019. But as protests have swirled the Portland campus all week, a growing number within the university are contesting those claims, alleging they’re part of a “manufactured crisis” designed by University of Maine system officials to justify the implementation of corporate business models that value profits over liberal educational standards.

Among the most vocal of them is Susan Feiner, a USM professor of Economics who also teaches courses in the Women and Gender Studies department. In public statements, citing information pulled from the school’s publicly available budget analysis, Feiner has noted that the UMS actually generated a $17 million profit last year and placed it into unrestricted net assets, a/k/a reserves, of which the school has accumulated an additional $100 million from 2008 through 2012 according to public annual reports. She also points out that the system currently boasts a AA- credit rating through 2015 from Standard & Poor’s, the fourth highest rating possible, and questions the increasing number of administrative hires at campuses statewide, particularly at the System Wide Services and Chancellor’s offices in Bangor, where the school currently pays 291 administrative employees nearly $20 million annually in a region where not a single class is taught.

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