The University of Southern Maine heard something last week that had been missing at the institution for a long time: It’s called good news.
USM President Theodora Kalikow surprised everyone by saying that she would be able to take back the layoff letters that had already delivered to a dozen faculty members and work with a list of cost-saving measures proposed by the USM faculty.
The decision arrived in the midst of a very contentious period where students and faculty publicly criticized the administrators’ choices to cut faculty and programs. All of the players now have a much more difficult assignment. Now it’s time for the administration, faculty and students to work together, call for community support and make the kind of reforms that the whole university system needs to thrive.
The changes shouldn’t stop now. The USM faculty’s proposed cost savings list may have been more palatable than the proposed layoffs, but they do no more to address the built-in problems that cause the university system to spend money in the wrong places while serving fewer students.
Kalikow’s announcement could one day be looked back on as the point when all the stakeholders became fully engaged, but it’s only the beginning of the process, not the end.
Kalikow deserves credit for listening to her opponents, which is never easy, especially when some of the criticism took on a very personal tone. That may be why Kalikow was unwilling on Friday to give the protesters any credit for changing her mind, saying that she did not “cave” to pressure. But there’s nothing wrong with listening, taking in new information and changing your mind. That’s not caving.
Anyone who cares about the future of USM has a reason to be optimistic when viewing involvement of the student protesters. Many states have seen protests from students upset about tuition increases and cuts that affect them directly, but these protests were not self-interested.
Students from programs that were not being cut gave voice to the idea that a university has to be broad and deep, no matter what any individual is studying.
Which is not to say that the university can’t ever change. Programs should be added and discontinued over time, but it is important that the students are part of the decision process, as they insisted on being at USM.
Also encouraging was the community support that emerged over the last few weeks. Portland’s Mayor Michael Brennan, members of the Legislature and leaders of civic, business and cultural organizations spoke out for the importance of USM, which is not only the training ground for nurses, lawyers, teachers and other essential professionals, but is itself a major employer in the region.
The turmoil around the budget crisis – which is real and not manufactured, as some have claimed – has resulted in a good start.
Everyone interested in a strong and successful university system should stay involved in the months and years ahead to make sure that the hard work ahead gets done.