The University of Southern Maine did not violate the union contract with faculty when it laid off faculty members during budget cuts in 2014, according to an arbitrator.

The 26 layoffs were part of a broader cost-cutting move that eliminated 51 faculty positions and five academic programs. The Associated Faculties of the Universities of Maine – or AFUM – challenged the decision, leading to arbitration.

Arbitrator Mark Irvings ruled Saturday that the layoffs followed the contract, except in one professor’s case. Irvings ordered USM to pay lost wages and benefits to that person, who was not identified.

USM officials said the cuts were an effort to close a $16 million budget gap. USM currently has a budget of $128 million.

The lengthy arbitration and resulting uncertainty had been hanging over the new USM presidency of Glenn Cummings, because an adverse decision could have been costly. Campus budgets for the upcoming fiscal year were due to the system office by this weekend.

“As a twenty-year member of the USM community, I find it is difficult to adjust to the loss of valued colleagues and faculty partners,” Cummings, who assumed the USM presidency last July, said in a statement Sunday. “While the arbitrator’s decision agrees with the university that financial necessity led to layoffs under our labor contract, we can all support that advancing our university and growing our enrollment is the preferred path to financial stability and good relations.”

Susan Feiner, a USM economics professor and president of the USM chapter of AFUM, issued a statement Sunday night on the arbitrator’s ruling.

“While this is not the decision AFUM hoped for, we are glad the decision has been published,” she said. “The faculty will continue to put students’ interests first. Students, their families and the State of Maine suffer when departments are closed and full-time faculty stripped out of departments. If UMaine System managers hope to recruit and retain students, they must invest in faculty who deliver world class education. This decision is a serious blow to the academic reputation and future vitality of all UM universities.”

Feiner’s statement did not indicate whether the chapter would seek to challenge the ruling in Superior Court.

Historically, it is very unusual for tenured faculty to lose their jobs. However, the recent recession and drop in state funding for public universities triggered budget crises at higher education institutions nationwide, and many laid off faculty members or even closed entire campuses in cost-cutting moves.

At the University of Maine System, more than 500 positions have been eliminated over the past decade.

The system’s current $518 million budget uses $7 million in emergency funds despite cutting 206 positions systemwide. The previous year, the system cut 157 positions.

In 2014, USM eliminated five programs because of budget concerns: a master’s program in applied medical sciences, the undergraduate French program, 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.

The arbitrator examined both USM and system finances in reaching his decision.

“A central thesis of AFUM’s case was that even if USM were under financial stress, the system as a whole was in fine health. A careful examination of all the data belies that conclusion,” Irvings wrote. “Particularly in light of the static state appropriations over this period, it was abundantly clear that the system could not continue to operate without bringing the current budgets of its universities into balance.”

“The overall conclusion is that USM and the system had a good faith financial justification for the retrenchments (layoffs) that were announced in October 2014,” Irvings wrote in the detailed, 56-page ruling.

David Flanagan, the former acting USM president who made the cuts, reacted Sunday to the arbitrator’s decision.

“Reducing the costs at USM, including elimination of a number of faculty positions to better align expenses with the size of the student body, was an unwelcome but a necessary action to balance the budget of the university for the future,” he said. “We took great care to treat all affected members of our community as fairly as possible and to follow the terms of the contract with our represented employees to the letter.”

In his statement Sunday, Cummings struck a note of optimism about the future.

“Faculty collaboration and shared governance is a priority of my presidency,” he said. “We still have challenges to overcome, but, working together, we are making important progress. We’re improving together, and I firmly believe that USM’s opportunities outnumber its obstacles.”