Despite reversing a decision to lay off 12 faculty members at the University of Southern Maine, school officials still plan to eliminate three academic programs — and that is drawing criticism from supporters, students and graduates.

The programs due to end are geosciences, American and New England Studies, and the arts and humanities program at Lewiston-Auburn College, which is part of USM.

Supporters of the programs defend them, saying graduates can parlay their degrees into careers in a range of related fields.

“Since graduating in 2007, I’ve worked at Mount St. Helens in Washington, Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico and a consulting firm in Portland, Ore., before settling down in Alaska. I now work for a top civil engineering firm as an environmental specialist,” wrote Holly Weiss-Racine, a 2007 graduate of the geosciences program. “My story is not unique. I know USM geosciences alumni who study volcanoes in Hawaii, teach at universities, work for the state of Maine, run consulting firms and more.”

USM President Theodora Kalikow announced the cost-saving measures, which include eliminating up to 30 staff positions, several weeks ago as part of a plan 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.

USM Provost Michael Stevenson said low enrollment led to the proposal to cut geosciences, which had 25 majors last year, and American and New England Studies, which had 40 majors. The arts and humanities program at Lewiston-Auburn College is also underenrolled, and duplicates offerings on the Portland and Gorham campuses, he said.

Stevenson estimates USM will save about $1 million from the salary and benefits paid to the seven faculty members in the eliminated programs. The savings would be staggered over years, because any student currently majoring in an eliminated program will still be able to graduate with that degree.

Increasingly, the system and board of trustees are describing a future in which the state university system is seen collectively as offering a “portfolio” of courses and specialties, not seven free-standing campuses with duplicate services.

USM officials say future students will still be able to take many of the courses that were offered in the programs to be eliminated, although not all of them would be available at USM. Kalikow noted that the Orono and Farmington campuses both offer geosciences, and arts and humanities offerings are available at USM and on other campuses.

The American and New England Studies program, however, is unique. If the faculty is laid off, it’s unlikely those courses would be duplicated anywhere in the system.

Graduates of the American and New England Studies program have gone on to work at numerous cultural institutions in the area, said current chairman Kent Ryden, adding that it’s the only graduate program in the humanities in the entire system.

“Our program is central to the mission of USM,” Ryden said. “I think it belongs in Portland — Portland is the cultural center of the state and the population center of the state. … I think we are a very good fit. I’m going to fight to keep us here.”

Here are the stories of three graduates from each of the programs.

TOM JOHNSON

USM, Class of 1989, master’s in American and New England Studies
Currently: Executive director of Victoria Mansion


Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

Tom Johnson remembers the thrill of being in the first graduating class of the American and New England Studies master’s program, where students study the New England and American identity and experience through a variety of critical perspectives, preparing graduates for jobs ranging from teaching middle and high school students to work at museums and historical societies.

Johnson was 32 years old, an 11th-generation Mainer looking to return to Maine after living and working in Washington, D.C., most recently for the National Park Service.

“I was determined to have a career in historic preservation and I was planning to go to Columbia University,” Johnson said. “Then here was this opportunity right in my backyard.”

The only other similar master’s program was at Boston University, he said.

That’s still true today, Johnson said. Not only is American and New England Studies the only master’s program of its kind in the region, it’s something that should be based in the state’s cultural center to maximize opportunities for students and local cultural institutions alike.

“Here we are selling (Portland) as a cultural mecca in the Northeast and the irony is that they are eliminating the program that enhances that,” Johnson said.

“On the one hand, they want a ‘metropolitan university,'” Johnson said, referring to the new vision of USM as a university deeply enmeshed with its community and local businesses through internships and other hands-on “experiential” opportunities. “American and New England Studies has been that from the very beginning.”

Johnson said his internships while at USM eventually led to work as director of Maine Preservation in Yarmouth and as curator at York Historical Society.

Now at Victoria Mansion, where two of his colleagues are also graduates of the program, he said the organization regularly hires interns or has volunteers from USM.

“I was really, really, pleased with the content of the program and the really exceptional professors I had,” he said.

Johnson said he opposes cutting the program, saying the state would be affected by its loss. While the number of graduates is small, they go on to jobs in cultural institutions and serve tens of thousands of Mainers.

“We all worry about job placement and economics, but far too often people ignore what the cultural venues of the city bring to their lives,” he said. 

CHRIS MORRELL

USM, Class of 2005, bachelor’s of science in geosciences
Currently: Geologist at R.W. Gillespie & Associates Inc. in Saco


John Patriquin/Staff Photographer

Chris Morrell credits USM’s geosciences department and its aggressive internship opportunities with getting him a job right out of school.

“I take pride in knowing that I am not the only USM geosciences graduate who has been able to practice my discipline here in Maine,” Morrell wrote in a letter to Kalikow after the cuts were announced.

“While my fellow graduates and I numbered only five, three of us remain engaged in private geoscience-related practices in Maine, and the remaining two have been working at various levels of the Maine state government, on the regulatory side of the geoscience discipline,” Morrell wrote. “Other geoscience alums I communicate with have gone on to such things as graduate studies in Alaska and Texas, U.S. Forest Service internships, and private sector work ranging from Oregon to Alaska to Norway.”

Cutting off that program — even if it is underenrolled — will hurt local Mainers, he argues. Geosciences is the study of the composition, structure, and other physical aspects of the Earth, and jobs range from being an engineering or environmental protection geologist to work in the mining, quarrying or oil and gas industries.

“The geosciences department has made its argument on the quality of instruction and quality of graduates,” Morrell said. “It gives people a legitimate track toward a science degree at an affordable state institution.”

A geosciences degree, supporters argue, prepares graduates for high-paying jobs in science, technology, engineering and math, also known at STEM disciplines, that are in high demand. According to data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, jobs for geologists are growing at a faster-than-average rate and the median wage in 2012 was $92,000 a year.

Morrell said he’s used his degree to work on everything from residential and commercial building siting to creating the foundations for 400-foot-tall wind turbines on a New Hampshire ridgeline. Last week, he was in Yarmouth, collecting soil samples so engineering decisions could be made about the design of a public utility.

Many Maine businesses, particularly large firms like Cianbro, have told state legislators they are facing a hiring crisis as older employees retire but few young workers are adequately trained to step into those jobs. A state workforce development committee, and Gov. Paul LePage, have urged higher education institutions to address the gap and focus efforts on providing graduates with the education to fill local high-demand, high-paying jobs.

Morrell said geosciences does just that.

“I think any time there is a detriment to science programs in general, that you lose the potential to gain a certain distinction at the university,” he said.

Rebecca Graham

Class of 2013, bachelor’s in arts and humanities
Currently: graduate student in international law at the University of Ulster in Northern Ireland

Rebecca Graham

Contributed photo

Rebecca Graham started her USM career in the history department, studying Bronze Age Celtic history in particular. That led to studies in political theory and on the Scotch-Irish emigration from Ireland to Maine. By the time she graduated with a degree in arts and humanities, Graham was enmeshed in transitional justice and eager to pursue a law degree, which she’s due to complete this winter.

That’s the sometimes circuitous path encouraged by the humanities, said Graham, 40, who is married and has three children. She received her arts and humanities degree with a concentration in global studies last year.

Arts and humanities students examine contemporary and historical issues through a range of disciplines, from geography and history to photography and popular culture. The major prepares students for a range of diverse careers, including teaching, advertising, business, government and social services.

“If the arts and humanities major didn’t exist in Lewiston-Auburn, I wouldn’t be here,” Graham said in a call from Ulster. “I wouldn’t be focusing on any of the things I’m focusing on. The humanities encompass so many different things — it allowed me the latitude to explore things, to see the bigger picture.”

Administrators have said the program is still offered on the Portland and Gorham campuses, but Graham said many of her fellow students were Lewiston-Auburn residents, many of them from migrant populations, who would not be able to move or commute.

“They’re not going to have the ability to shape their studies,” she said. “They will be limited to a couple different disciplines.”

Graham said she was “deeply disappointed” to hear the program was on the chopping block.

“Industry leaders say the humanities graduates are what they desperately need,” Graham said. “To learn to be a great communicator, a global problem solver — that’s the humanities discipline.”

During her time at USM, Graham focused on the Cork Settlement Project, working to locate the circa 1720 Cork Settlement on the Kennebec River that was part of a larger Scotch-Irish emigration from Ireland to Maine. That work led to collaboration with colleagues in Ulster, and her current schoolwork. Today, she is working on a European Commission-funded project to produce a handbook of fundamental rights for “Rainbow Families” — lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender — in Europe.

Her plan is to return to Maine and use it as a home base to pursue a career in international transitional justice law.

Staff Writer Noel K. Gallagher can be contacted at 791-6387 or at: ngallagher@pressherald.com