The University of Southern Maine has one professor who teaches French full time, and 10 students majoring in the language. Even so, USM’s decision to cut the French department will have wide-ranging implications far beyond the classroom, critics of the move say.

As news about the university’s proposed budget cuts circulated Monday, USM students, alumni and leaders in the Franco-American community said they were saddened and outraged. Given Maine’s strong French-Canadian roots and the recent influx of French-speaking immigrants from African nations, French education has never been more important, they say.

Nearly one in five Mainers consider themselves French-Canadian, according to a June 2014 Portland Press Herald poll conducted by the University of New Hampshire Survey Center.

“I’m terribly sad,” said Elaine Roop, president of the Franco Center in Lewiston, which was established to celebrate and preserve the state’s Franco-American heritage. “You’ve got a lot of ‘old-timers’ who have grown up in Lewiston/Auburn, and are coming from a bilingual home. And we’re welcoming so many different cultures. So there is such a resurgence in interest in people’s roots and culture. What USM offered just reinforced and ratcheted that up.”

The Franco Center has been expanding programming for first-generation immigrants from French-speaking African countries like Djibouti.

“We have a whole new generation of French-speaking people in our community,” said Mitch Thomas, executive director of the Franco Center.

“They’re doing the same thing that the traditional Franco-Americans did half a century ago. We’re trying to find ways to keep their kids in touch with their mother language and culture. My concern is, if you cut a program at the university level, where are the French teachers in the public schools going to come from?”

Many pointed out that French is important to help students compete globally.

“It’s not just about using particular words,” said Mary Rice-DeFosse, a French professor at Bates College in Lewiston. “French is still an international language of business diplomacy and I don’t think people realize the extent to which French is useful at home and abroad.”

A 2011 survey by Bloomberg News ranked French as the second most useful language, behind Mandarin Chinese, for conducting business around the world.

Nancy Erickson, associate professor of French at USM, who has taught 37 classes at USM in the 18 years she’s worked there, was still waiting Monday to hear whether her job was on the line. Though there are just 10 students majoring in French, her classes are an integral part of other majors, like education, business, history, music, art and political science.

Erickson also teaches high school students who take classes at USM. She noted that those students who take French aren’t just going into academics, they’re likely to use their bilingual education in professions like medicine, community health and social work.

“Cutting the program has a much bigger impact than you would think,” Erickson said.

“For me, this is so much more than a job,” she said. “It’s a special lifelong commitment. It’s not just getting a check.”

Current and former USM French students were saddened to hear the news.

“They’re turning this into something other than a university,” said Tracey Berube, a senior history major who had traveled an hour from her home in Denmark for French class Monday. “Who ever heard of a university without French? It’s hard enough as it is to get classes because there aren’t enough teachers to teach them. This is really, really awful.”

Sophomore Brendan Butler, an international relations major from Old Orchard Beach, said that he had taken four years of French in high school, and had hoped to travel abroad.

“You just have to know conversational French in order to get a good job,” Butler said. “French is pretty pertinent to me from an economic standpoint. And it’s pretty integral to what makes Maine Maine.”

Emily Davison, who majored in French at USM and has been teaching for 14 years, was mystified by the move, especially since the state is requiring that all students graduate high school with proficiency in a foreign language.

“We need to have qualified teachers to be able to teach them. And by eliminating the French major at USM, you’re taking away that resource for qualified French teachers,” said Davison, who studied with Erickson at USM, and now teaches Spanish and French at Yarmouth High School.

“We live in such a globalized society,” she said. “The need to speak another language is a job skill, and it’s a life skill. To cut a language major to me just goes so counter to the world we’re living in right now and the whole idea of cultural competency. If you’re cutting languages off at the top, you’re sending a really sad message to the schools that language is not valued.”


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