ORONO — As is well known, interim University of Southern Maine President David Flanagan, with the hearty approval of the University of Maine System’s top administrators and its board of trustees, fired 26 tenured USM professors effective Dec. 31. Although “retrenched” was the official term, it hardly mattered.

Nearly as many other USM professors chose retirement. Some of them will depart by the end of the spring 2015 semester. These two groups constituted the roughly 50 full-time faculty required to be gone in order to achieve a crucial budgetary benchmark as USM is transformed into Maine’s so-called “metropolitan university.”

One can debate the budgetary figures offered by the university system and by its critics. Critics insist that those budgetary figures are, in effect, invented, providing cover to eliminate programs and professors that do not find favor with the higher-ups.

As Karl Turner, a powerful university system trustee, put it last spring, when USM was still debating possible program and faculty cuts, USM needs to be run “like a business.” And as Rick Vail, a member of USM’s Lewiston-Auburn College advisory board, proclaimed on the same occasion – during an all-campus meeting of USM students, faculty and staff – “You are, in fact, a business.” Nothing more.”

After all, who needs even the last remaining tenured French professor when poorly paid adjuncts can replace her? Who needs the distinguished graduate program in American and New England studies when it doesn’t lead directly to job interviews with respectable corporations? And who needs economics professors who might question the growing gap between the 1 percent and the rest of us? Other faculty and program eliminations have also generated related questions about ideology as much as about finances.

If legal action on behalf of the “retrenched” faculty is taken, light may be shed on the debates over budgets, reserve funds and the basis for these and other cuts, including professional and classified staff members, at the other seven system campuses. For now, those of us without statistical and budgetary expertise must remain on the sidelines and hope for eventual clarifications.

What, alas, is beyond debate is the shabby treatment of those USM professors whose careers may now have ended. True, all of those 26 will receive an additional 18 months of their current salaries and existing benefits. But they have lost any formal affiliation with USM and were forced to turn in their building and office keys Dec. 31. The apparent absence of a place in which to turn in their keys was surely not an accident.

Nor was it an accident that those 26 faculty and other “retrenched” professional and classified staff members were included in the university system’s holiday message.

The message expressed “heartfelt appreciation for your service and steadfast commitment … to our cause.” I don’t know what precise “cause” is referred to here, but I am sure that the good wishes to “you and your family” for a “merry and happy holiday season” were not appreciated by those who would be separated from their jobs and professional identities a few days later.

One might, of course, say that because this message was sent to all system employees as of December, the “losers” at USM were not singled out for further humiliation.

However, given the relentless centralization of information technology and other technical services by the system in recent years, would it not have been possible to exclude those soon-to-be-former employees from the holiday mailing list? But that would have required compassion, and the system’s governing business model has no room for compassion.

Lest the powers that be think that these terminations of long-serving and dedicated faculty and staff don’t interest those “from away,” what has happened at USM has become a hot topic among academics throughout the United States.

Those of us who have recently attended national meetings of, in my case, the American Historical Association and, in other cases like the Modern Language Association or the American Studies Association, have found themselves surrounded by faculty and graduate students wanting to know more. Those of us at Orono try to make clear that the flagship campus is in an entirely different situation, with steady enrollments and with dedicated and able top administrators.

Unfortunately, the classic Hollywood phrase that “There’s no such thing as bad publicity” rarely applies to academic life.

— Special to the Press Herald