About 200 people marched through downtown Portland and rallied in Monument Square on Thursday to protest recent faculty and program cuts at the University of Southern Maine and demand more funding for education.

“We’re here today because we believe that public higher education is not a privilege. It is a fundamental human right,” said Meaghan LaSala, one of the students who organized the event.

Supporters, including students, faculty members and representatives from several labor unions, cheered the speakers and held up signs saying “No Faculty = No Students = No University” and “USM is Maine’s Future.”

Last month, USM officials announced plans to eliminate four academic programs and as many as 50 faculty and staff positions in an effort to cut $14 million from the school’s $140 million budget for the fiscal year that starts July 1. USM’s budget crunch is part of a $36 million funding gap in the University of Maine System caused by flat state funding, declining enrollment and tuition freezes.

A dozen tenured or tenure-track professors at USM have been laid off, prompting protests. The university restored one academic program by folding it into the nursing program. Still slated to close are the American and New England studies graduate program, geosciences, and the arts and humanities major at Lewiston-Auburn College, which is part of USM.

If those programs are eliminated, another seven professors will be laid off, bringing the total to 19.

Several speakers at Thursday’s rally reiterated the position that the cuts are unnecessary and the budget crisis is “manufactured,” saying USM and state officials have made choices such as “funding buildings instead of teachers” and should put more money toward instruction.

“As soon as USM demands more funding, someone will say the state is broke. We reject that argument,” said LaSala, a junior in the women and gender studies program.

University system officials say there is little “extra” money in the $529 million operating budget, with $183 million in unrestricted non-instructional funds tied up in everything from scholarships to systemwide technology support. They say it would be irresponsible to use those funds to close a single year’s budget gap. The cuts will reduce costs over time, officials say.

The current cuts – including about 165 positions statewide – follow years of budget shortfalls. In this fiscal year, the system closed a $42 million shortfall. In 2012-13, it closed a gap of $43 million. Since 2007, the system has reduced its workforce by 10 percent – 521 full-time equivalent employees.

Speakers at the rally, including Jennie Pirkl of the Maine People’s Alliance, said the cuts are the result of state and university officials’ misplaced financial priorities.

“Is the idea of scarcity a myth?” Pirkl said, noting that big businesses get tax cuts in Maine while education funds are cut. “Maine can do better.”

In 2013, the state’s appropriation to its universities made up nearly 42 percent of the system’s fixed budget, down from a high of 72 percent in 1989, according to system data.

American and New England Studies professor Ardis Cameron criticized the cuts.

“You are right to ask why state funding has been cut,” she told the protesters. “We are here to say no. We are here to support the public interest, to remind our leaders that we are a commonwealth, not a corporate wealth.”

After the rally, about 100 protesters marched a winding path through the Old Port and back to Congress Square for a teach-in. The students plan to go to the State House in Augusta on Friday to lobby legislators.

Protesters have said they hope that alternatives will be found to reverse the layoffs, but USM President Theodora Kalikow has said her proposed cuts close only about half of the university’s roughly $14 million shortfall.

UMaine System Chancellor James Page said USM will likely get some one-time “bridge” funding but those funds can’t be used to restore any of Kalikow’s cuts. He said the money would come from a $15 million fund set aside for emergencies.

The system-wide budget will go to the trustees in May.

Noel K. Gallagher can be contacted at 791-6387 or at:

ngallagher@pressherald.com

This story was updated at 9:34 a.m. on Friday, April 11, 2014 to correct the spelling of a speaker from the Maine People’s Alliance and to correct a quote from Ardis Cameron.