Spurred by a mandate to cut $6 million from the budget, University of Southern Maine officials began notifying faculty members Tuesday that they were being laid off, a university spokesman said.

The prestigious Muskie School of Public Service is targeted for substantial cuts.

USM President David Flanagan said cutting 50 faculty positions will close $6 million of a total $16 million budget gap for the next fiscal year.

Twenty-five faculty members have taken an enhanced retirement package, and the remaining 25 people will be laid off this week, USM spokesman Chris Quint said.

Starting Tuesday, deans were notifying the affected faculty members – several by messages left on their voicemail – in their colleges, and USM Provost Joseph McDonnell will send each laid-off faculty member a letter by Friday, Quint said. The layoffs are effective at the end of the semester.

The layoffs include faculty in five academic programs cut by the University of Maine System board of trustees: the master’s program in applied medical sciences, the undergraduate French program, the American and New England studies graduate program, the geosciences major, and the arts and humanities major at USM’s Lewiston campus.

Economics professor Bruce Roberts said his dean notified him that he was losing his job by leaving a phone message while Roberts was teaching a class. Another economics faculty member, associate professor Rachel Bouvier, was also teaching a class Tuesday when the dean left her a similar message, Roberts said. In the message, he told the professors that he was available to meet if they wished.

“One suspects that this was conscious,” said Roberts, who has taught economic theory at USM for 20 years. “If he had actually been on the phone he would have gotten an earful, let me tell you.”

Some of the other laid-off faculty members said they were notified by phone message as well.

Roberts, 66, said he was eligible for retirement but did not take it. Under the contract, all laid-off faculty get 18 months of pay and benefits.

He said the administration’s cuts to the economics department – cutting two of five faculty positions – will ultimately hurt the students.

“I feel terrible for the students,” he said. “This was driven by numbers on a sheet of paper. They don’t give a damn about the students.”

Students and faculty plan to hold a press conference on the cuts at 11:45 a.m. Wednesday outside Payson Smith Hall on the Portland campus.

Another wave of USM layoffs is expected next month, when the administration plans to cover the remaining $10 million shortfall through staff and administrative cuts, and an academic reorganization that will cut costs and add revenue. The academic reorganization plans will be announced before the end of the year, officials say.

Last year, USM closed a $14 million gap in its $134 million budget for the fiscal year that began July 1. Without changes, the entire University of Maine System faces a projected $69 million deficit by 2019. In the most recent budget, approved in May, officials cut 157 positions and used $11.4 million in emergency funds to close a $36 million deficit in the system’s $529 million budget.

DEEP CUTS AT MUSKIE SCHOOL

A total of about 20 USM departments are cutting one or two faculty members, but some of the deepest cuts are in the Muskie School of Public Service, one of the highest-profile programs at USM and home to three graduate programs.

In two of those programs – community planning and development and public policy and management – six of the eight faculty positions have been cut, leaving only one full-time faculty member in each graduate program. There are no direct cuts to the school’s master’s program in public health, which has been increasing enrollment, officials said.

The cuts at Muskie have prompted alumni and students to launch an online petition to fight the changes.

“Many of the alumni of the (community planning and public policy) programs were blindsided by the draconian cuts that have been proposed,” read the petition, which as of Tuesday had been signed by more than 70 people. “As graduates of these programs, we have intimate knowledge of what has and has not worked well at Muskie, and we are invested in seeing it succeed and improve long into the future. We strongly disagree with the proposed plan for Muskie’s future.”

The Muskie School is named after the late U.S. Sen. Edmund S. Muskie of Maine, and on Tuesday night his son Edmund S. “Ned” Muskie Jr. of Washington, a member of the school’s board of visitors, reacted to the cuts.

“My father gave his name to the Muskie School of Public Service because he hoped that his legacy of public service would inspire the next generation of students to dedicate themselves to make a positive difference in the communities in which they live and work,” Muskie said in a statement. “I am, of course, concerned with the proposed cuts as they would impact programs that produce meaningful and positive results throughout the State of Maine and throughout the nation.”

McDonnell said the administration’s plan is to reorganize the Muskie School around the environment and health, drawing in faculty from different programs in the university in the humanities, social sciences, and business.

“We will eliminate one of the Muskie graduate degrees in January at the end of this process,” McDonnell wrote in an email to the USM community.

The changes, he said, will result in a “very strong program.”

“I understand that people are concerned with change and moving into a different era in the life of the Muskie school,” McDonnell said Tuesday. “But I think if we look back a few years from now, we’ll see an extraordinary amount of continuity between what we’re doing now and what will take place in the future.”

Among the faculty leaving the Muskie School is Charlie Colgan, known in Maine for his economic forecasting work and as a regular speaker in business and political circles.

He said Tuesday that given the plan to change Muskie’s focus, he decided to retire and take a new job in California.

“The timing of my departure is very much driven by these changes,” Colgan said. “USM’s essentially reached the end of the line. I’d prefer (the changes to Muskie) be reconsidered but I don’t see it happening.”

STUDENTS PROTEST CUTS

Muskie student Jennifer Nelson, who chairs the Muskie Student Organization, said her group is also against the changes and wants the school to continue to offer policy, management and planning courses.

“It’s very shortsighted,” said Nelson, arguing a narrower scope could drive away prospective students. “My fear, and others’ fear, (is) that at the next meeting the trustees could be voting to eliminate a degree program at Muskie. No one wants to see the legacy of Ed Muskie go away.”

“The faculty we are losing are extremely distinguished,” said Andrew Coburn, the associate dean at Muskie. He pointed out recent public policy work done by several departing faculty members, including Mark Lapping, who is working on food systems in Maine, and Jack Kartez, who specializes in dispute resolution.

“Those are the kinds of contributions that the Muskie School has made over the years and there’s a diminished capacity for us to do that going forward, there’s no question about that,” Coburn said. Muskie is in financial straits, he said, because it is a small graduate program without support from a larger pool of undergraduates to bring in additional revenue that supports the graduate program.

“USM has never done that. What’s really different about us is (the faculty) are very engaged in the community and in mentoring and in giving students experiences. It’s a hallmark of what we have done. Whether that’s sustainable or not remains to be seen,” he said.

Muskie is also unique, a factor for campus and system administrators as they consider consolidating programs offered at several campuses in the system. There is no other public affairs or public policy program in the University of Maine System.

“There is some possibility that if we make the wrong decision (in reorganizing the school) we could lose the one entity in the University of Maine System that does what we do, and that would be a terrible loss,” Coburn said.

“It’s akin to going through bankruptcy. Hopefully we come out the other end stronger.”