About 200 University of Southern Maine students protesting faculty layoffs and program cuts staged a walkout and two-hour protest Monday outside the campus administration offices while pointedly spurning an offer to meet with President Theodora Kalikow in the campus gymnasium.
English major Phillip Shelley was loudly cheered as he read a letter he sent to Kalikow: “You will not be remembered as someone who made hard choices and difficult compromises at a time of crisis, but as a frontline collaborator in the dismantling of the public liberal arts university during a time of manufactured crisis, and with it, the democratic promise of a free and secure citizenry comprised of creative, critical thinkers.”
“I beg you. Help us,” his letter said.
On March 14, Kalikow proposed cutting four academic programs and as many as 50 faculty and staff positions in an effort to cut $14 million, or 10 percent, of the school’s $140 million budget for the fiscal year that starts July 1. It is part of a larger $36 million funding gap in the University of Maine System caused by flat state funding, declining enrollment and tuition freezes.
The first layoffs happened Friday, when more than 100 students lined the hallways where Kalikow and Provost Michael Stevenson have offices as a dozen faculty members arrived to receive layoff notices. Over the weekend, the Student Senate passed a vote of no-confidence in Kalikow.
On Monday, the protesters were barred from entering the University of Maine School of Law building, where USM’s administrative offices are located.
All three entrances to the building were locked as USM and Portland police officers stood by. The parking lot was closed and all afternoon law school classes were canceled. At one point, the doors at which the students were gathered were handcuffed together from the inside, although no one in the crowd tried to enter the building.
There were no arrests and the two-hour protest ended with some students walking over to the Woodbury Student Center, where they said they intended to remain around the clock. Campus officials said they would be allowed to stay overnight. The building normally closes at 10 p.m.
During the protest, students and faculty got up to talk at a podium and lead chants, while people in the crowd held signs that said, “U$M,” “Can the Admin” and “Students are not customers.”
“These people changed my life. I want to learn from them,” Student Senate Vice Chairman Will Gattis said of several of the laid-off professors.
“I love being at USM. I want to make it a better place to be,” said Jules Purnell, one of the student organizers. Purnell, a 28-year-old junior, called the planned layoffs of up to 30 faculty members “an absolute tragedy.”
“I’m here because (faculty members) care about our students,” English professor Nancy Gish said. “What is happening here is education for the 1 percent and crap for everyone else.”
“I think today was a pretty massive success,” said organizer Meghan LaSala, the niece of Faculty Senate Chairman Jerry LaSala. “Our intention was to go inside and meet with the provost, but they locked us out. We want all of the cuts to be retracted and we did want to deliver that message directly to the provost.”
Only a handful of students came to Sullivan Gym to talk to Kalikow, who joined them on the edge of the bleachers instead of speaking from a podium set up in the middle of the gymnasium.
Kalikow said she was “sad” the student protesters didn’t come. “The best part of this is that it shows that the faculty-student relationship is very strong,” she said.
Several said they didn’t think the cuts were necessary.
“There is no budget crisis,” economics professor Susan Feiner told the students, noting the system took in $17 million last year and put it in reserves. “They’re lying. … They want low-wage workers. They don’t want educated people.”
Kalikow and USM Chief Financial Officer Richard Campbell have said reserves at USM are necessary for upcoming big-ticket capital projects, while declining enrollment has resulted in overstaffed departments.
“We have a faculty and a physical plant and footprint that was designed for a bigger place with more students,” Kalikow said Monday. “When that changed, we had to change – and we have to do something now. We have to do these terrible things.”
Enrollment at USM has dropped 19.5 percent since its peak of 11,089 students in 2004. There were 8,923 students enrolled at the start of the current academic year at USM’s three campuses in Portland, Gorham and Lewiston-Auburn.
University of Maine System Chancellor James Page acknowledged the cuts – and the protests – on Monday.
“We clearly hear the concerns of our faculty and students at USM and campuses across the state. These are very difficult times. Our universities are facing unprecedented challenges and the Board of Trustees and Presidents agree that we must redefine the way we do business to better serve our students, businesses, and the state,” Page said in a statement.
Several legislators also expressed support for the students, but acknowledged the difficult budget situation.
“These are tough times and hard decisions must be made,” Senate President Justin Alfond said in a statement.
“As a state, we should be investing more money in higher education,” said Rep. Peggy Rotundo, D-Lewiston, House chairwoman of the of the Legislature’s Appropriations and Financial Affairs Committee.
Other campuses are making similar cuts. Last week, University of Maine at Augusta officials announced that they would cut 24 positions, end several degree programs and drop two sports teams. Officials at the flagship campus in Orono plan to announce this week how they will close a $12 million gap.
Noel K. Gallagher can be contacted at 791-6387 or at:firstname.lastname@example.org