A University of Southern Maine plan to eliminate all three faculty positions in the Modern and Classical Languages Department means the university is not just cutting the French major but effectively two other programs as well, Spanish and Classics.

“President (David) Flanagan told me Classics is just not a growth area,” said associate professor Jeannine Uzzi, who teaches several courses, such as Latin, Ancient Art and the occasional honors freshman seminars. Her job is targeted for elimination.

“The administration doesn’t seem interested in anything that’s not going to make a lot of money,” Uzzi said.

The language associate professors say they serve a vital role, particularly at a school that is molding itself into a “metropolitan university” closely tied to the needs of the community. The work they do ties into the university’s role in the community, they say.

“They think we are esoteric, but we’re the ones teaching the teachers around here,” said associate professor Charlene Suscavage, who teaches Spanish and is targeted for layoff.

The cuts are part of a plan to eliminate 50 faculty positions to shave $6 million off the university’s budget gap of $16 million for the next fiscal year. The remaining $10 million will come from staff and administrative cuts, and an academic reorganization that will cut costs and add revenue, to be announced in the coming months.

On Friday, the University of Maine System board of trustees voted to eliminate the French program, thereby cutting the position of associate professor Nancy Erickson, the sole faculty member who teaches French. The trustees also voted to eliminate the graduate applied medical sciences program.

Last month, the trustees approved cutting USM’s American and New England studies graduate program, the geosciences major, and the arts and humanities major at the Lewiston campus.

Flanagan has repeatedly said that all academic programs at USM are valued, but some must be cut because of the school’s dire financial situation.

Not everyone agrees. The program and faculty cuts have prompted protests, a letter-writing and online campaign to save the French major, and criticism from some local business owners.

“Some of the (layoffs) are turning the already thin departments we have into really anemic offerings,” said Alex Greenlee, the USM undergraduate student representative to the university system board of trustees. “Some (layoffs), such as to Classics, amount to quiet program eliminations. There are 20 students or so who are losing the only person (Uzzi) who is able to advise them.”

Suscavage noted that many of her students are from the college of education who go on to become Spanish teachers in K-12 schools. Several critics of cutting USM’s languages department have noted that starting with the graduating class of 2017, all Maine high school graduates are required to be proficient in a second language.

That means there will be more incoming students with some language skills – and more demand for language teachers in Maine’s high schools.

Beyond teaching, many fields, from international studies to social work, require students with language skills, particularly with the emphasis today on working and competing in a global economy.

Earlier this month, the U.S. Department of Education awarded more than $63 million to colleges and universities for foreign language training, with Secretary of Education Arne Duncan calling it a “21st century (skill) needed to preserve a rich, multicultural society and thriving democracy right here at home.

“To help keep America safe, partner effectively with our allies, and collaborate with other nations in solving global challenges, we need professionals with solid cultural knowledge and language skills that cover all parts of the globe,” Duncan said.

The Census Bureau’s 2013 American Community Survey indicates that 20 percent of the U.S. population speaks a language other than English at home. More than 38 million people in the U.S. speak Spanish at home.

Flanagan, who regularly begins his remarks to the board of trustees in French, and has swapped comments in Latin and Spanish during other meetings, has said that language courses will continue to be taught at USM by part-time and adjunct faculty members. Current students majoring in eliminated programs are guaranteed a plan that allows them to finish their degree.

Uzzi said she had 17 majors in her Classics program, and Suscavage said she had six or seven Spanish majors, along with about 20 minors. The French program has seven majors.

All three faculty members said their courses also attract many non-majors who take the classes as electives or to satisfy general education requirements. Most colleges require students to take a third of their classes within their major, a third in general education and a third in electives.

The trustees must approve any program eliminations in the system, which is why they voted on the French program last week. But Hispanic Studies and Classics degrees are not considered full majors by the system, even though Classics is listed as a bachelor of arts degree program on the campus website and graduating students are given diplomas that list the program as their major. Eliminating these so-called “self-designed group contract” majors does not require action by the trustees.

Cutting 50 of the university’s 343 full-time faculty members would shrink the full-time faculty by almost 15 percent – and represent a 23 percent drop in full-time faculty since the fall of 2010.

CUTTING A LINK TO THE COMMUNITY

Some students said they worry that the faculty cuts are just the beginning.

“I don’t know when it’s going to stop,” said Kristina Glanville, a communications and media studies major who is taking intermediate Spanish this semester. “If things keep being cut … then I feel like I’m going to a school that doesn’t have my best interests in mind.”

Eliminating the only Spanish faculty member “shocked” her, Glanville said.

“Growing up, everyone has pushed language as something that’s so important,” she said. “We’ve had to take a language and, on top of it being a requirement, you just learn so much about the world.”

Having a full professor with a deep knowledge of both language and culture makes a difference, even in lower-level Spanish classes, she said.

During a recent intermediate Spanish class, Suscavage peppered Glanville and other students on vocabulary, throwing in cultural references along the way.

“Do you know what this gesture means?” she asked, tapping her bent elbow. “It means ‘stingy.’ Or this? How do you tell someone, ‘Watch out’? You do this,” she said, pointing just below her eye.

In addition to training would-be high school Spanish teachers, Suscavage said her students mentor immigrant high school students, act as translators and go on to various fields such as nursing, education or social work where the ability to speak Spanish is an asset.

Uzzi says she has arranged for her students to go into a local school to tutor Latin students, and she leads a “Coming Home” combat veterans book club at the Portland Vets Center on Homer’s epic poem “The Odyssey,” about Odysseus’ effort to return home after fighting in the Trojan War.

Uzzi has been held up by university officials as an example of how USM and other campuses will move toward more online offerings, a high priority systemwide. System and campus leadership is currently working on an overhaul of all academic programs across the system, centralizing some majors at certain campuses.

Uzzi thought USM would house the systemwide Classics program, since she was asked to develop the online classics major and the Orono campus cut its program a few years ago.

“They asked me to build that,” said Uzzi, 43, who has worked at USM for 18 years.

Now, it’s hard to imagine staying at USM, even if her position is ultimately spared.

“I come every day and invest every bit of my care and energy into this, and I don’t see the university returning that,” she said. “I need to be at a place that I know my work is valued.”

SERIES OF SYSTEMWIDE CUTS

The financial crisis has been unfolding for years at USM and other University of Maine System campuses, which have made deep cuts to staff, not replaced retired faculty, put off capital improvements and cut sports teams.

But USM has been the only campus to lay off faculty so far this fiscal year. Last year, USM proposed layoffs, then reversed them, and ultimately got emergency funds to close a $14 million gap in its $134 million budget for the fiscal year that began July 1.

On Oct. 16, Orono officials announced that they must cut next year’s $242 million budget by $7 million, but will not eliminate any academic programs and will try to avoid layoffs.

Flanagan said 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.

Without changes, the entire university 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.

At USM, it remains unclear how many faculty members will be laid off. Under their contract, laid-off faculty members receive 18 months of pay and benefits. The administration has targeted 50 specific layoffs by department, and is calculating how many will be needed after the latest round of faculty members take an enhanced retirement package.

Officials say 36 faculty members are retiring this year, 24 of them in departments targeted for cuts. The 24 retirements could offset layoffs in targeted departments, but the administration has to determine whether some positions need to be replaced. Any layoffs must be announced by Friday.

Because of the ongoing crisis, all the campuses have lost many faculty members to attrition.

Suscavage said that when she began teaching at USM in 1985, there were more than 10 faculty members in the languages department.

“I’ve seen one go and one go and one go,” said Suscavage, who is taking the retirement package. “I’m the only one left standing.”

The proposed cuts will have a long-term impact on USM, Uzzi said.

“In five or 10 years, students who want a rigorous education in liberal arts will not be at USM,” Uzzi said, echoing concerns from student protesters and others opposed to the cuts. “Students will be in the professions – nursing, engineering, many media studies – but they’ll be studying things that have a direct and clear career pathway.

“And the liberal arts faculty who remain will be teaching general education courses.”


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