University of Southern Maine President Glenn Cummings has put the finishing touches on his leadership team, laying the groundwork for a “fast rebuild” for the still-struggling campus while focusing on a long-term vision to boost enrollment and stabilize finances.

“Now it’s time to be cautious, and make sure we’re moving in the right direction,” Cummings said, likening USM to a ship traveling in a narrow strait, threatened by nearby shoals. “But 20 months out, I see open ocean.”

USM has faced multimillion-dollar deficits for years that led to deep staffing and program cuts. In protest, students took over administrative buildings, held rallies and marches on campus and in downtown Portland and took over a trustees meeting to object to USM eliminating 51 faculty members and five academic programs.

The financial picture is still troubling, but officials say they expect to get through it without further cuts to staffing or programs.

Chief Financial Officer Buster Neel said Friday that between lower-than-expected enrollment this fall and an upcoming 2 percent base pay increase for all employees next year, USM is facing a budget deficit of almost $6 million for the fiscal year that begins in July, according to early projections.

Neel said USM can cover the gap without layoffs or program cuts by leaving vacant positions open, putting off some building maintenance, cutting administrative budgets and draining almost all of its $3 million in reserves.

“As best we can judge, without taking any drastic measures, we could get through next year,” Neel told the Faculty Senate on Friday. “My concern is that we are starting to run out of options.”

Cummings says that break from the steady drumbeat of layoffs gives the administration “breathing room” to gear up on initiatives aimed at tackling the core problems, primarily declining enrollment. He also wants that time, he says, to rebuild trust and “heal” the campus community.

Cummings’ approach is in contrast to the stark language of his predecessor, interim President David Flanagan, who made deep cuts to close a $16 million budget gap. With a blunt, no-nonsense style, Flanagan spoke of “triage budgets” that reflected the idea that USM “must change or die.”

“The challenge hasn’t gone away, but the strategy of how we as a culture approach that challenge has changed,” Cummings said. “We need to start working together (with faculty) to achieve our goals and not wasting our energy fighting each other.”

That sentiment comes from his own experience as a USM faculty member, and from working in the Legislature, where, he says, “you have to lead from behind.”

Faculty members said they welcomed the new collaborative approach.

“To me it’s just breathtaking the change in the mood in the room,” said USM linguistics professor Wayne Cowart, compared to the “pain and disruption and madness” of the last three to five years.

After Cowart spoke, the roughly 20 members of the Faculty Senate present all started clapping in agreement.

“I don’t know if we can do this, but I feel like there’s a chance and it feels like we’re working together,” Cowart said after the meeting.

RAPID LEADERSHIP TURNOVER

Cummings started July 1 as the fourth president at USM since 2011, replacing one president who broke his contract before he even started. Before that, USM was led by Flanagan, who served one year after replacing Theodora Kalikow, who stepped down after two years as interim president.

Kalikow had came out of retirement to fill the position after Selma Botman stepped down amid faculty unrest.

“The rapid turnover of leadership has created a lack of stability,” Cummings said of the turmoil of recent years at USM. “I want people who are here for the long run.”

Cummings said he sought people for his leadership team who “have a longtime devotion” to USM.

The new provost, for example, is one of the laid-off faculty members from last year: former associate professor Jeannine Uzzi, who is working closely with faculty on academic issues.

Her departure was particularly high-profile because the entire Modern and Classical Languages Department was shuttered when she and two other professors’ positions were eliminated.

Other programs eliminated at USM, which has 50 academic programs, were the American and New England studies graduate program, the geosciences major and the arts and humanities major at Lewiston-Auburn College, which is part of USM.

“I know better than most people what we have been through,” Uzzi said. “I went in (to this job) with my eyes wide open.”

Also on the leadership team is USM alumna Nancy Griffin, who as vice president of enrollment is spearheading the efforts to boost enrollment.

A local business developer, George Campbell, is vice president for advancement and will lead USM’s fundraising efforts. Campbell has served as Maine’s transportation commissioner, state development director and on the Portland City Council. He also was president of Pierce Atwood Strategies and of CBRE | The Boulos Co.

‘IT’S GOOD WORK’

Just six weeks into the job, Uzzi said she is already deep into the work of analyzing where and how to rebuild the academic departments across campus.

In the background, USM officials are in arbitration talks with the faculty union over the cuts last year, and one outcome could be that USM is forced to hire back those employees, throwing off budget plans.

Today, some departments are at a crisis point, Uzzi told the Faculty Senate.

“There are critical needs at the university, where if we don’t hire we will have to cancel the program,” she said, noting that she just approved searches for 13 new positions.

“It’s not easy. It’s hard. But it’s good hard. It’s good work,” Uzzi said.

“No one is telling me I have to retrench, to cut,” she said. “We have a year to talk about our values and where we want to go. And I want to do that. But it is not an easy history to get past.”

 


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