About 50 people turned out Thursday to protest a plan by University of Southern Maine officials to cut 50 faculty positions and eliminate two academic programs.

“Whose university? Our university!” chanted the crowd, gathering next to USM’s Hannaford Hall in Portland.

“This is my USM, and at my USM, student interests trump business interests. You don’t get to dismantle my USM,” said USM graduate Kelley McDaniel, to cheers and clapping in the crowd.

The cuts are expected to shave $6 million off the university’s $16 million budget shortfall for the next fiscal year, according to USM President David Flanagan, who unveiled the plan Monday. The remaining $10 million will gained through cuts to the administration and staff, to be announced by mid-November, and a plan to reorganize academic programming, to be announced by the end of the year.

The administration wants to cut the master’s program in applied medical sciences and its five faculty, and the undergraduate French program, with three faculty members. Any program eliminations must be approved by the University of Maine System Board of Trustees, and on Thursday system officials announced a special board meeting at USM on Oct. 24 to vote on the proposal.

The trustees have a regularly scheduled meeting at USM in mid-November, but Flanagan said Thursday that the trustees need to vote before an Oct. 31 deadline for laying off faculty in the two programs being cut.

The system also added two meetings of the Academic & Student Affairs Committee, on Oct. 14 and Oct. 22, so members can review and vote on a recommendation regarding the program eliminations, he said.

About a dozen students and recent USM graduates took turns addressing the crowd, saying the cuts would radically change the culture and prestige of the university. Several said they had talked to fellow students who are thinking of transferring because of the cuts.

“The best and brightest minds will leave this state because of these actions,” said Whitney Parrish, 27, an anthropology major. “We deserve better than this.”

The entire seven-campus system has been in a financial crisis for years, with each campus closing budget deficits by making deep cuts to staff, putting off capital improvements, cutting services and not replacing retiring faculty. Officials say the deficits are the result of changing demographics, flat state funding and a three-year tuition freeze.

Flanagan says he will present a balanced budget to the trustees by January, closing the projected budget gap for the fiscal year that begins July 1, 2015. Earlier this year, the trustees had to give USM $7 million in emergency funding to help close a $14 million gap in the school’s $134 million budget for the fiscal year that began July 1.

Without changes, officials say the system faces a projected $69 million deficit by 2019. For 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.

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