To trim a $16 million deficit at the University of Southern Maine in Portland, the school's acting president today launched a so-called "Academic Alignment" plan. The goal is to transform USM into a more efficient, "metropolitan" university. But 50 faculty positions will be eliminated, and that has some faculty and students accusing the administration of cutting the core asset that attracts students.
Over the past five years, there has been a 30 percent drop in the number of students enrolled at USM. And now, President David Flanagan says, the university is facing a $16 million deficit for fiscal year 2016. To solve this problem, Flanagan says there are two options: restructure or raise tuition.
"We would have had to raise tuition from $7,600 to $10,000," Flanagan says, "and to me, that kind of jump would be totally inconsistent with a public university to be affordable and accessible."
Flanagan says the obvious choice is to restructure. He says he wants to "right-size" the number of faculty and courses with the number of students. This means eliminating some programs, such as French and the masters in applied medical sciences, while consolidating others, including economics and business. Overall it will cut 50 faculty positions, and Flanagan says USM hopes to accomplish this through early retirement rather than layoffs. He says this is the first comprehensive plan USM has had in years to address its fiscal issues, and the university will come out stronger. More "metropolitan."
"And that means having more focus," Flanagan says. "Not trying to offer the maximum number of courses, but to focus on areas of particular interest to Southern Maine, and to get people ready for jobs in this area, as well as having a quality education."
But economics professor Michael Hillard says he can't understand why two positions in his department will be cut, especially given the ample number of students.
"We're down two faculty in last couple of years partly because of the retrenchments last spring," Hillard says. "You know, there's nothing about our department that isn't absolutely thriving. They want classes that average 20-25 students. All of our classes have 35-40 students."
One of those students is senior Neal Young. He says he actually transferred to a more expensive, private school his junior year in pursuit of a better education.
"Only to find that I could get a better education here at USM," he says.
One that he now fears will be weakened with the planned cuts. Many faculty struggled to make sense of the plan, including associate music professor Paul Christiansen.
"I don't know how you want to attract students to this university when you keep cutting the core asset that you have, which is your faculty," Christiansen says.
Adjunct professor of linguistics Conor Quinn says he's skeptical that USM's financial situation is as dire as the administration is painting it.
"So for example, one of the examples they keep talking about is how low enrollments are," Quinn says. "Not mentioning the fact that some classes, enrollments have been suppressed. They're literally haven't let students sign up for these classes."
Quinn thinks USM administration is using the guise of fiscal crisis and restructuring purely to eliminate full-time faculty for cheaper, adjunct professors such as himself. Professor Susan Feiner, co-president of the faculty union, wonders why the University of Maine system won't devote any of its $183 million reserve fund toward preserving USM faculty and implementing a strategy to stabilize USM.
"We've got a fabulous location, we've got a brilliant faculty," she says. "This should be a destination school, and nobody has paid any attention to USM except to cut and cut and cut."
History professor Eileen Eagan says realistically, some cuts are probably necessary. But she, as with many other faculty, say any cuts or consolidation should be carefully considered to ensure USM meets the needs of its students. Flanagan says there will be opportunities to amend the Academic Alignment Plan. But, as he puts it, "we either change, or we die," and it's time, he says, for USM to change.