Portland Mayor Michael Brennan called a press conference Wednesday to say he supports a “robust and vital” University of Southern Maine, but refused to say where he stood on the university’s recent decision to lay off a dozen tenured faculty members to reduce spending.
“I’m not in a position to say,” said Brennan, who was asked the same question repeatedly. “If cuts are made, they should be made judiciously.”
Later, he said making a statement on the cuts “is not our competency,” adding, “This is complicated.”
That response disappointed some USM faculty and students who attended the press conference at City Hall, where Brennan was joined by Chris Hall, chief executive officer of the Portland Regional Chamber, Preble Street Executive Director Mark Swann and Jennifer Hutchins, executive director of Creative Portland.
All four said they were there to support a strong USM in the community but none denounced the cuts.
To deal with a $14 million budget shortfall – 10 percent of USM’s $140 million budget – President Theodora Kalikow last month announced plans to cut three academic programs and eliminate as many as 50 positions, including as many as 30 faculty members.
Two weeks ago, 12 faculty members were laid off, prompting a string of protests, a Student Senate vote of no confidence in Kalikow, a bill calling for an audit of the University of Maine System’s budget and a student walkout.
University officials said the layoffs, effective May 31, affect faculty members in the art, economics, English, philosophy, sociology and theater departments, the honors program, the School of Music and the Muskie School of Public Service’s graduate program in public policy and management.
“These are not frills. This is muscle and bone,” Wendy Chapkis, a professor of sociology and women and gender studies at USM, told Brennan. “I was hoping to hear you say, ‘No, this can’t happen.’ ”
Brennan said he understood the cuts are difficult and mentioned that the Portland School District had to lay off 30 to 40 teachers last year. He said he thought the university should do “what was reasonable.”
“I would oppose cuts that I’d see as being ultimately damaging to the future of USM,” he said.
Brennan and the others holding the press conference said they were there to show support for the university’s role in the city and community, particularly in light of Kalikow’s announcement that USM should evolve into a “metropolitan university” that is closely connected with businesses, residents and governments in Greater Portland.
USM already has deep ties to the community, said Swann and Brennan.
Swann noted that Preble Street was founded by a USM faculty member in 1975, currently has six USM interns and has trained over 500 social workers over the years.
“We have that longstanding connection,” Swann said.
Brennan said he will propose in the upcoming city budget to add an internship program for students at USM and other institutions.
“It’s a very small step, but a symbolic step, to partner with USM and other institutions,” Brennan said.
The budget shortfall at USM is part of a $36 million shortfall throughout the University of Maine System caused by flat state funding, declining enrollment and tuition freezes.
The USM programs slated to be cut are American and New England studies and geo- sciences at the Portland and Gorham campuses, and the arts and humanities program at Lewiston-Auburn College, which is part of USM.
Staff Writer Noel K. Gallagher can be contacted at 791-6387 or at: