Holding signs that read “Chop from the Top,” “Reject Austerity” and “Audit the System,” about 50 students and faculty members protested at the University of Southern Maine on Wednesday against the likely elimination of three academic programs.

The event on USM’S Portland campus was organized by a group called Students for #USMFuture, which has formed to protest fiscal decisions that have been made and will continue to be made by administrators.

The theme of Wednesday’s gathering was to reject the elimination of the American and New England Studies program and the geosciences program at USM, and the Arts and Humanities Department at USM’s Lewiston-Auburn College.

Those cuts are still being discussed, according to an email from USM President Theodora Kalikow, dated June 13.

USM and other campuses in the University of Maine System are making deep spending cuts in response to a financial crisis brought on by flat state funding, declining enrollments and a tuition freeze.

‘NOT THE TIME TO PLAY NICE’

Kalikow announced plans this year to cut some academic programs and lay off faculty and staff members to close a $14 million shortfall in the 2014-15 budget. Those cuts are part of an effort across the UMaine System to eliminate 165 positions and close a deficit of $36 million.

Meaghan LaSala, a student organizer at USM, said the group recognizes the fiscal crisis facing USM and higher education nationwide, but students shouldn’t bear the effects of the cuts, particularly when administrators’ salaries are twice those of faculty members and when corporate interests, not students’ voices, drive decisions.

Sarah Victor, another student organizer, said students have not gotten concrete answers to justify the cuts. “Now is not the time to play nice,” she said.

The group announced that it is starting a crowd-funding campaign that it hopes will raise at least $10,000 that could be used for an independent audit of USM and the UMaine System. The group said it had raised $3,000 by Wednesday afternoon.

LaSala said the group also wants a seat at the table during the selection of a new president for USM. Kalikow, who has been interim president since July 2012, plans to leave next year.

“It’s a major challenge having a voice in this discussion, and I think the fact that the administrators are making all these decisions during the summer break doesn’t help,” LaSala said.

Bob Caswell, USM’s spokesman, said administrators are committed to “an inclusive process” but understand that not everyone will like the outcome.

“We’re facing serious fiscal and enrollment challenges and have to align our programs and staffing with those challenges so that we continue to offer an affordable, high-quality education,” he said.

TEMPORARY PRESIDENT FOR ORONO

While the protest was going on in Portland, the executive committee of the University of Maine System trustees met in Bangor to approve Susan Hunter as temporary president of the flagship campus in Orono.

Hunter, who is now vice chancellor for academic affairs for the system’s seven campuses, will begin her two-year appointment on July 7 and be paid $250,000 a year.

Hunter, a cell biologist, worked previously as executive vice president for academic affairs and provost on the Orono campus and spent most of her career there. She will replace Paul Ferguson, who is leaving to be president at Ball State University in Indiana. She will be UMaine’s first female president.

Hunter said her top priorities are launching a fundraising campaign and continuing the work of UMaine’s Blue Sky Plan, which is entering the fourth year of a five-year plan to reorganize the campus, build enrollment and boost resources for key areas where UMaine has been recognized for distinguished programs. Hunter emphasized that she was at Orono when the plan was created, and being president will allow her to see it through.

Hunter has been in the system office since September. She said she will retire after her two-year term and not be a candidate for the permanent position.