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New USM cuts may trigger union grievances

By CAROLINE O'CONNOR  |  October 11, 2014

USM says it has no money, and the best way to make money is by firing the revenue makers. Or at least that’s what it sounded like when President David Flanagan’s administration resolutely forged ahead with a new round of cuts at the University of Southern Maine on Monday. The university community received an email from Provost Joseph McDonnell midday slating 50 professors for retrenchment, and citing an “academic alignment to improve student access, close a $16 million dollar structural gap without a tuition hike, and initiate transition to Metropolitan University model.”

The email details a plan to reduce the number of professors per academic department through voluntary retirements before October 20. If not enough faculty retire to bring down the numbers, though, the administration says it will announce a set of layoffs no later than the end of the month. This was distressing news for students already trying to figure out what they’ll put their degree towards after college. According to one student who spoke at the conference, “My major is planning on being merged with mathematics and chemistry. When you’re looking into grad school, a mixed major is not what they’re looking for.”

Conference organizers spoke to the near impossibility of ‘teaching out’ students majoring in programs which could lose up to 5 faculty each. “We all have our own areas of expertise,” said Associate Professor of Musicology Paul Christiansen. According to Christiansen, who teaches an undergraduate program in Musicology and Music at USM’s School of Music, “if these retrenchments were to go forward, we would not only lose the only music historian in the program, but we would also lose the only composer. The Bachelor of Music in Composition would be defunct.”

But the layoff proposal isn’t as cut and dry as it might seem, once you unpack the passive-aggressive rhetoric. McDonnell wrote in the email that the school employs 100 instructors eligible for retirement. The retirements and layoffs are consistent with the administration’s attempt to reconfigure small degree departments into more interdisciplinary programs, and yet the prospect of getting 100 people to retire is daunting for any “business”—if they don’t get enough to retire, the administration expects they’ll be forced to cut programs.

It seems two things are happening here. Older professors are being pressured to retire to save the jobs of their younger colleagues, despite any retirement plans they may or may not have begun preparing for. The standard retirement age in the US currently stands at 65, and is gradually creeping toward 67, reflecting rising living costs upon older Americans. And yet administrators at publicly funded universities are more willing to offer retirement packages that can in some way be characterized as “comprehensive” to people who are almost 12 years younger than the average age of retirement, rather than enter into any talk of long-term collective bargaining.

Secondly, the idea that an implausible number of teachers must retire to stave off the prospect of more program eliminations is a convenient way for the administration to cut programming, hence ensuring the transition into a trademarked “Metropolitan University” model, whereby the liberal arts become useful only once they are diluted into unspecialized curricula, and when they can be broken down into more easily digestible concepts of job-readiness and corporate literacy.

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