It’s been only two weeks since a dozen faculty members were laid off at the University of Southern Maine, but student organizers have kept up a relentless drumbeat of protests since, sparking the most organized and largest protests at the school in recent memory.
It was the morning of March 21 that galvanized the key organizers, they say.
That was when a dozen faculty members were summoned to Provost Michael Stevenson’s office on the seventh floor of the University of Maine School of Law building in Portland to be laid off. Students lined the cramped hall, jeering administrators, chanting the names of laid-off professors, alternately giving impromptu speeches railing against the cuts and weeping in frustration.
The faculty cuts were among 50 positions and three programs being eliminated at the school, 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.
One professor arrived just as Assistant Professor of Theatre Meghan Brodie came out of the provost’s office in tears after being fired.
“It was the most moving thing. These students just walked up and surrounded her,” said Wendy Chapkis, a sociology and women and gender studies professor who is active in the protests.
“I thought, ah, now this is it. Now the students are being directly affected,” Chapkis said. “These are the people the students work with, and they are disappearing.”
At the end of the day, Stevenson had to carefully step over their bodies under police escort to leave his office.
Since then, there has been a steady stream of protests that blend direct-action tactics straight from the 1960s, such as a student walk-out one day, and modern social media networking, harnessing Twitter and Facebook to share information, raise funds, and organize support among alumni, local unions and other groups.
Highlights of their efforts include drafting lightning-quick emergency state legislation seeking to freeze the cuts and analyze the system’s financial data, publishing several analysis pieces picking apart the fiscal argument for the cuts, and media-messaging that got the attention of New York Times columnist Paul Krugman and philosopher and liberal hero Noam Chomsky.
“It’s been a lot of really intelligent and passionate people coming together,” said Jules Purnell, a junior who has emerged as a protest leader, frequently working as the press liaison. “We all bring our own talents.”
Philip Shelley, who graduated from USM in December, said he’s been impressed by the focus of the students.
“These students are experienced organizers and they know if you want stuff you have to do a lot of hard, exhausting work.”
Not everything is weighty: the students performed a singing flash mob one day, and a semi-playful “Change Your Major!” initiative online is aimed at knocking administrators off balance since they have targeted some underenrolled programs for cuts.
The spot-on messaging and creative approach on multiple fronts belies the stereotype of uninterested, apathetic college students today – something each generation seems to cast on the next. The difference at USM, the organizers say, is that many of them have already been involved in political and civil rights campaigns.
Protests on a university campus are to be expected, when the energy of youth and new ideas and political awakening collide. Student protests in the United States have given birth to the Free Speech Movement in the mid-1960s, played a key role in divesting from companies doing business with apartheid South Africa, railed against overseas wars and agitated for the establishment of ethnic studies and women’s studies programs. Overseas, student protests have toppled governments.
But USM rarely has student protests, and none this size or as well organized in recent memory, according to many longtime faculty members and administrators.
Students are planning a rally and teach-in at noon Thursday in Portland’s Monument Square. More than 100 people have said online that they plan to attend, and campaign signs reading “Keep Public Education Public” have already been printed and are ready to be handed out. The students also plan to go to the State House in Augusta on Friday to lobby legislators.
That said, the number of student protesters – up to 200 at their largest gathering – is a small fraction of the roughly 7,000 students enrolled at USM. The group’s “Students for #usmfuture” Facebook page has more than 1,000 likes and active posts and commentary.
The student protesters also have key faculty mentors, including Chapkis and Economics Professor Susan Feiner, who have offered them guidance and advice.
“I have been unbelievably impressed by their style of organizing,” said Chapkis, who has regularly participated in anti-war protests and been arrested several times.
“It is really an affirmation of how strong our students desire to have a really intellectually robust university,” Feiner said. “They understand that eliminating the liberal arts guts their educational experience.”
A TEMPERED RESPONSE
The administration has largely let the student protests run their course, calling out police for security reasons and allowing students to stay overnight in buildings normally closed. No arrests have been made and no damage done during the protests.
USM President Theodora Kalikow has held several open meetings on the cuts, some of which drew students, others that were boycotted, and has said repeatedly that she wants a dialogue.
But she also says she understands that the students would be upset, and found a silver lining in the protests: “It shows that the faculty-student relationship is very strong.”
The most provocative gesture, if it could be considered provocative, was the decision to handcuff the inside of some building doors where the students gathered. But no students even tried to enter the building, and banners covered the glass doors, so no one even noticed the doors were handcuffed until later.
Police did stand guard during the protest outside the provost’s office, but no arrests were made and they only occasionally asked the protesters not to bang on the walls or doors.
Kalikow and other administrators have expressed concern that the “bad press” over the USM cuts and protests will hurt the school’s reputation.
FACULTY LAYOFFS A TRIGGER
The students say they acted this year – as opposed to last year or the year before, when USM laid off dozens of non-faculty employees and slashed millions from its budget – because the cuts reached into the ranks of the faculty.
“It wasn’t seen as that dire (last fall) but this semester people are realizing that people are being fired and programs are being cut. It’s becoming more real,” Purnell said.
Those cuts, and Feiner’s guest column in the Portland Press Herald that questioned the financial rationale for the cuts, quickly galvanized the protest movement.
“For a long time these cuts felt kind of invisible to students. It wasn’t dramatically obvious,” Chapkis said. “So when their faculty gets laid off, they mobilized.”
The student unrest was evident within minutes of Kalikow laying out the planned staff and program cuts in an all-campus open meeting on March 14. Near the back of Hannaford Hall, Shelley seethed as she spoke, and he and the students rose up to criticize her vision even before the room had cleared.
“I didn’t go there planning to say something,” Shelley said of the meeting, which included presentations by system Chancellor James Page and several trustees. “I was just so outraged by the people there on the stage that day. They were so deliberately disrespectful and so uncaring about what happens at USM and the university.”
Political science major Marpheen Chann-Berry said he got swept up in the movement after seeing the students protesting on the seventh floor.
“I saw a passion in the students there that I hadn’t seen before. That’s when I decided this is something I wanted to be involved in,” said Chann-Berry, who is already politically active as chairman of the USM Student Democrats and vice president of the Student Government Association.
A few days later, he attended an outdoor rally: “That’s when I jumped on stage and declared my full support for the movement.”
It was only after his spontaneous act that he met Purnell and other key organizers.
Shelley had a similar impression of how the group first came together.
“It’s been sort of a self-organizing thing since the day of the seventh floor occupation,” he said. “We’ve been moving so fast we haven’t had a lot of time to reflect on what we’re doing. Everyone just sort of found their own role.”
Shelley, a writer, is involved in messaging, while Chann-Berry, a onetime political campaign volunteer, is on the legislative action committee.
Purnell previously worked on the Equality Maine campaign and for Planned Parenthood.
“They are organizers, they’re not protesters. They want to win. They want to accomplish something. And they’re pretty tireless and egoless about how they go about it,” Shelley said. “I’m proud to be a part of it.”
Staying focused is a constant challenge, said Chann-Berry, who described organizing the spontaneous creation of competing USM-related Facebook and Twitter hashtags in the first few days of the protest.
“At first it was a little chaotic,” Chann-Berry said. “I said we needed to pull back, we can’t be seen as a lot of splinter groups. That’s how we pitched it to the rest of the group. And that’s when we started pulling it all together.”
Even now, the group is carefully tending to its image to maximize effectiveness. During spring break, the student protesters had several meetings and coordinated a call-in campaign to an MPBN show featuring only USM and system administrators.
“It shows that they’re excellent students and we’re not half-bad teachers,” Feiner said of the group’s focus.
WHERE DO THEY GO FROM HERE?
It remains to be seen if the protests can effect any change.
Students claimed victory March 31, when Kalikow announced they had found a way to preserve the recreation and leisure studies program by folding it into similar health and wellness programs under the USM School of Nursing.
But the emergency legislation failed, and there has been no discussion of rescinding the faculty cuts.
There’s also a sense of time passing quickly. USM must submit its budget to the system office this month, and the trustees will take up the entire budget at their May meeting. After that, the students are gone and summer arrives.
“That’s what the administration counts on,” Feiner said, of the ebb and flow of students in a university. Protests and protesters, no matter how large or adamant, eventually fall away as students graduate or class breaks interrupt the flow of a movement.
“I am cognizant that it’s April and we have like five weeks and then the year is over. That’s when the students disappear,” she said. “We have maybe a month to lay our bodies down and say this cannot happen.
“If it does happen, then it won’t matter if the students continue to mobilize. At that point the administration will really be on a track we can’t turn around from,” Chapkis said.
In the short term, however, Shelley hopes they can make some headway.
“If we can get these 12 professors reinstated even temporarily, and get the elevation of this topic in Augusta, that’s huge stuff, even if it doesn’t feel earthshaking. It’s a step.”
Noel K. Gallagher can be contacted at 791-6387 or at: