This guest post was written by Michael DeCesare, Chair of the Department of Sociology at Merrimack College and President of the AAUP Chapter there.
At a special meeting of the University of Southern Maine (USM) faculty senate on March 14th, USM President Theodora Kalikow announced her plan to eliminate four academic programs and lay off 20 to 30 faculty—including tenured and tenure-track professors—along with 10 to 20 staff. What was the ostensible purposes of these unilateral decisions? To “re-brand” USM from a liberal arts institution into a “metropolitan university” and to make up $7M of a $14M shortfall. Martin Kich reported on these austerity cuts on this blog a week ago.
To this point, neither USM nor the University of Maine (UM) System has declared financial exigency. The supposed severity of the budget shortfall was quickly shown by Susan Feiner, a professor of economics and women’s and gender studies at USM, to be a flimsy justification for firing faculty and closing programs. As Paul Krugman put it in his New York Times blog last week, USM’s administration “seems eager to downsize liberal arts and social sciences for reasons that go beyond money.”
Dismissing faculty, negating tenure, and slashing academic programs amounts to robbing USM’s students of their educational experience and their tuition money, especially in light of widespread administrative bloat throughout the UM System. To their great credit, the students at USM understand that they are being robbed. They understand that their professors are being robbed too, not only of their tenure and academic freedom but, in the case of those whose jobs are on the chopping block, of their livelihoods.
The students’ understanding has led them to collective action. USM Provost Michael Stevenson’s attempt to carry out the faculty firings dictated by President Kalikow was partly foiled on March 21st, when more than 100 people showed up to protest outside of his office; most of them were students. USM’s students have continued to perform bravely and admirably in defense of the academic integrity of their institution and in support of their professors, taking a vote of no confidence in President Kalikow, staging a 2-hour walkout, enlisting the help of Rep. Ben Chipman to introduce an emergency bill in the Maine legislature calling for a one-year moratorium on the implementation of cuts within the UM System, and performing a flash mob on campus. Some alumni have weighed in as well; Martin Kich reproduced on this blog a few days ago a particularly powerful letter from an alum to President Kalikow.
Administrative heavy-handedness and malfeasance are, unfortunately, not new at USM. President Kalikow’s predecessor, Selma Botman, faced her own vote of no confidence from the faculty in 2012 over her unilateral proposal to combine departments. After being forced out of office as a result of that vote, Botman was assigned as a “special assistant to the chancellor on global education,” a one-year position in which she earned a salary of $276,000. Perhaps President Kalikow will ultimately be rewarded for her penchant for top-down decision-making that hurts faculty and students, as her predecessor was: Botman will become Provost at Yeshiva University effective July 1st of this year.
As if the latest administrative robberies at USM—of the curriculum, of faculty members’ tenure and livelihoods, of students’ educational experience and tuition money—weren’t deplorable enough, the situation has recently taken a menacing turn. Lucinda Cole, a professor of English at USM, reported on her public Facebook page on March 30th that at the last three faculty meetings she attended, “armed guards hovered outside the door or circulated through the rooms, hands moving to their hip holsters whenever faculty members raised their voices.” Such a bullying tactic, on a university campus no less, is despicable, cowardly, and unacceptable. It represents yet another new low for a university administration that has been near the bottom of the barrel for a while now (see this YouTube video on the history of austerity budgeting at USM).
What’s worse is that the cops and the robbers at USM are now openly on the same side—against the university’s students and faculty, and against the purpose and values of every institution of higher learning worthy of the name.