Tensions over cuts linger into new semester at USM

Posted on September 09, 2013 in News
By Kirsten Sylvain

Sophomore history major Lou Arseneault explains to the Free Press how he was affected directly by the budget cuts last year.
Alex Greenlee | The Free Press
Sophomore history major Lou Arseneault explains to the Free Press how he was affected directly by the budget cuts last year.

After the university cut over $5 million last year, the administration and many faculty members still do not see eye to eye on the direction the university is headed.

Last spring, Chief Financial Officer Dick Campbell projected that the university would be forced to make over $12 million in cuts over the next four years. During 2013-2014 school year, $3.1 million in cuts and reallocations came from wages, salaries and benefits, and the remaining $1.1 million came from savings on utilities, travel, supplies and other non-personnel areas. President Kalikow identified 22 positions that were to be eliminated from faculty and staff in April. Another round of position eliminations in May and June followed, leaving the USM in the black at the end of the fiscal year on June 30. In total, nine university staff were eliminated, and in August, the president also announced the elimination of three bookstore staff.

Among the cuts were decreases, and complete eliminations, of faculty research, travel and sabbatical funding, a point of contention between faculty and the administration. Since the cuts began last semester, faculty seem, as much as staff, to feel uncertain and threatened. In a faculty senate meeting last March, the tension between faculty and the administration over the cuts became clearer. At the meeting, faculty questioned the administration’s justification for the cuts and seemed dissatisfied for the most part with the explanations they received.

Despite Kalikow’s assurance that the situation is not as bleak as many believe it to be, many USM community members, from faculty and staff to students, are still ambivalent about the future of the university. “It’s gotten to the point now where USM feels like it’s a sort of runaway train with parts flying out here and there with very little rhyme or reason,” said Professor Jeannine Uzzi, chair of the classics department.

Uzzi feels that the recent changes at USM have compromised her ability focus on her students’ needs. Her concerns are reflective of many faculty who are worried about the direction of the university.

“I need to think about what’s best for me professionally, and that is such a big change from where I’ve spent the last 15 years,” she said. “I’ve spent the last 15 years as a faculty member thinking about what’s best for my students, what’s best for the discipline [and] what’s best for USM.”

In an interview with the Free Press, President Kalikow was asked how she felt about faculty and staff fear at the prospect of losing employment. To this, President Kalikow responded, “and they should be [afraid].”

“Everybody in the world here should be frightened about jobs,” she continued, “not just at USM. This is higher education today. We’re in the middle of disruptive change. It’s never going to be the way it was. It’s happening everywhere.” Kalikow attributes this change to state and nationwide economic hardships, new technology’s role in higher education and demographic decline in the college-age population.

However, Professor Uzzi said that she is not afraid of these changes in higher education, especially the rising role of technology in the classroom. In fact, she claims that she’s excited to incorporate new methods of teaching into her classes. Uzzi’s greatest concern is what she perceives as the administration’s changing mission for the university, or more specifically, that there is less push from the administration for professors to produce research – a trait that Uzzi sees as putting USM in a different league.

“I think our administration thinks we should be more like SMCC, where as in my opinion, we don’t have to compete with SMCC,” she said. To Uzzi, the fundamental difference between USM and a community college or trade school is the emphasis on research.

“The expectation at USM is that faculty do research and that we engage students in our research.” With administration cutting research, sabbatical and travel funding for faculty, Uzzi argues, not only students but faculty and the entire USM community will get the raw end of the deal. Rather than just getting the perspective of someone who has a master’s degree and is well-read on a subject, she argues, students get to hear the perspective of a scholar who has researched, possibly translated and published on it.

One of Uzzi’s main concerns with many of these changes, she said, is that they act to exacerbate class distinctions, among faculty and students. Currently, if USM faculty members want to take a full year sabbatical for research, the university will pay only half a year’s salary to them while in previous years they have paid a full year’s salary. This change, many professors have argued, makes going on sabbatical less feasible financially for professors without access to independent funding. Uzzi explained that competition for funding in the humanities is exponentially greater than in the sciences, business and professional areas.

“Independently wealthy [professors] can say ‘Fine, I’ll pay for it myself,’ but I can’t do that,” Uzzi said. “Then you have a situation where if you’re a wealthy faculty member you can still provide your students access to the cutting edge in your discipline, but if you’re a poor faculty member, you can’t So, then the class distinction trickles down to the students.”

When asked what she would say in response to Uzzi’s concern that USM is becoming more like a community college, Kalikow answered, “I mean, god forbid. We are so far from being a Kaplan or a trade school that it’s not even funny.” She did not, however, mention research in what distinguishes USM from community colleges.

Uzzi also explained that she believes many of these new changes are harmful especially to the humanities. “Our president doesn’t really seem to believe that humanities degrees are marketable,” she said. She said that she’s concerned that the administration is supporting research that is geared toward corporate or political interests.

To that, President Theo Kalikow responded, “That’s a lot of horse sh-t. That’s baloney. The faculty might think that because they’re used to feeling bad.” She continued, “because everyone in the world has been telling everyone in the humanities that there are no jobs, but actually English majors rule the world.”

After this complicated back and forth, the only question left seems to be, ‘So what do the students think?’

One student, Tai Infante, an undeclared sophomore and April Corbo, a freshman social work major, described feeling confused by the news of the cuts. “It’s so high school. Can I get a direct answer?,” Infante said.

Corbo admitted that her first impression of USM was that it was well-off. “Everything seems like it’s running smoothly,” she said.

Another student, sophomore history major Lou Arseneault was affected by the cuts last year when European history professor David Kutcha’s position was eliminated, leaving the university’s history department without a single specialist in that area. “I was actually pretty upset about that,” Arseneault said. As a history major, he said, he would have liked not to have seen that change carried out.

President Kalikow plans to engage students, faculty, staff and the community in the conversation on changes at the university in a series of university-wide meetings planned for the end of September and early October. The “direction package for USM,” Kalikow said, is in its final stages, but she would like the rest of the university community to weigh in, and she hopes that the students will join in the conversation as well.