University Politics 101: take it before they cut it

Jerry LaSala, chair of the faculty senate, votes Friday during a faculty senate meeting to resume meetings after USM faculty decided last year to stop meeting under work-to-rule.
Alex Greenlee | The Free Press
Jerry LaSala, chair of the faculty senate, votes Friday during a faculty senate meeting to resume meetings after USM faculty decided last year to stop meeting under work-to-rule.

Posted on September 23, 2013 in News, Politics on Campus
By Kirsten Sylvain, and Sidney Dritz

Physics not cut but still on the table

 

Headlines across the state last week led with news that USM officials had announced a plan to cut its physics major, but the document that had led to public outcry from the community, faculty and students over the decision, Provost Michael Stevenson made clear, was never meant for public eyes.

The twist came out Friday at the first USM faculty senate meeting of the year that the administration had not intended to release the information yet. The document, titled the “Draft Physics Action Plan,” was dated from the physics program review meeting on Sept. 11 between Stevenson, physics department chair Jerry LaSala and Professor Paul Nakroshis.

According to both LaSala and Nakroshis, the document was handed out in physical form at the program review meeting to the two physics professors who have both, in recent years, had to defend the physics degree during program reviews. The document, Stevenson explained on Friday, was meant to spark conversation at the time about the future of the department, but Nakroshis and LaSala did not recall any discussion about the draft at the meeting.

“The impression that Provost Stevenson gave was that his mind was made up, and the negotiations would be on our side. He did not demonstrate flexibility that we could see,” said LaSala.

The document outlined an “action plan” to be complete by May 31, that included the suspension of enrollment of new majors, “effective immediately,” and a plan to “integrate with faculty in other departments.” The news of the plan, LaSala explained, seemed to have been leaked to the Portland Press Herald by an unknown physics student after Nakroshis had discussed the provost’s proposal with his students in class.

“We were not instructed that this was in any way secret, and the idea that it wasn’t going to make the news at some point is of course absurd,” said LaSala.

The public outcry that resulted after the news came out last week, LaSala suspects, may have forced some accountability on the part of the administration for the cuts. “I think that [Stevenson] and the president have recognized that [Stevenson] came on too strongly, that if we were going to have a conversation, we have a conversation; we don’t start with conclusions. When the second sentence is, ‘We will stop enrolling student effective immediately,’ that doesn’t give a lot of room for discussion.”

The provost, on Friday, explained that the issue “got kind of confounded in the press” and publicly apologized, explaining that he had “no intention of provoking the kind of emotional response” that the draft received. He did not, however, debunk the claim that he may intend to cut the physics major still. He only explained that he “has no intention to have USM move forward without physics teachers.” Many faculty at the meeting considered moving forward with physics classes but no major  to be a step in the direction of a lower quality physics education for students. They argued that more qualified physics faculty would not remain at a university that did not offer a physics major.

Nakroshis, not unlike others at the meeting on Friday, did not seem to leave with a sense of closure. “I had a hard time accepting his apology as genuine because I don’t feel like he treated us as genuine in the meeting. I don’t think he treated it as a genuine discussion,” he said. Nakroshis, like others, felt that the administration has disregarded the Faculty Senate constitution, making key decisions about cutting academics without discussion with faculty. English Professor Nancy Gish cited article one section three of the university governance document, which states that administrators “shall counsel directly with appropriate bodies established by this constitution before making major decisions.”

As the provost and president stated that the conversation will be opened up to faculty and the community starting at the university-wide “Direction Package” unveiling on Tuesday, many faculty responded that they felt they were entering the conclusion of a conversation and not the start of one.

Nakroshis referred specifically to Theo Kalikow as quoted by the Portland Press Herald saying that “It’s their [the physics department] turn. There are other programs in different areas, and it will be their turn [to be cut], too.”

Nakroshis said, “‘It will be other people’s turn’ made it pretty clear that they’ve been coming up with those plans independent to the faculty and with no involvement, and I think that’s really a problem.”

 

Faculty senate resumes after work-to-rule

 

Friday, the faculty senate moved to change its decision about the definition of “work” as it relates to the Associated Faculties of the Universities of Maine’s “work-to-rule” motion, moving for the faculty senate to resume regular meetings in an almost unanimous vote.

While the faculty senate stands by the decision to endorse work-to-rule, which was voted in unanimously in last February’s faculty senate meeting. However, Friday it revised its opinion that the faculty senate’s own meetings fall into the category of work beyond that which is necessary for the university to function, which should be abstained from under work-to-rule as a protest against the full-time faculty’s long unresolved lapsed contract issues. The senate moved to resume meeting for the year, in the words of the chair of the faculty senate, Jerry LaSala, “on the precedent that governance is not work.”

Christy Hammer, president of the USM chapter of AFUM agreed that, rather than falling under work-to-rule jurisdiction, “governance is part of our work plan.”

Student Body President Kelsea Dunham weighed in on the matter as well, speaking on behalf of the student body to say, “as a body, you are harming us by not meeting.” Dunham went on to list certain issues that the student government has, in the past, moved to try to take action on, such as parking and the common hour which was passed by referendum in the last student election. “Because we can’t come to you to collaborate on this issue,” Dunham said, “we can’t move forward.”

The motion to resume faculty senate meetings was passed with 33 for, no abstentions, and a single opposing vote from Associate Professor of psychology Donald Sytsma, who declined to comment to the Free Press.

 

Loose ends: the ghost majors

 

USM’s physics department is, the administration was quick to assure at Tuesday’s faculty senate meeting, far from the possible eventuality of its closing, but the document which brought the question of the physics major’s longevity into the public eye assures that current physics majors will be fully able to complete their degrees.

In this, they would receive the same consideration as other students of cut major departments at USM–for instance, the Russian and German studies majors, which were cut in the past few years, following the “rule of five” review, in which majors with less than five students enrolled in them came under scrutiny.
The second item of the draft of Provost Michael Stevenson’s “Physics Action Plan” listed the next step forward for currently enrolled physics majors, saying, “The department will develop, by January 2014, an advising plan for each current major that will allow them to complete the major as quickly as possible.”

Said Dean Lynn Kuzma of the College of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences, “Any time you decide that a program is not going to accept majors, you have to make arrangements.” Kuzma said that in order to help the student who was enrolled as a Russian studies major complete her degree, the college worked out a deal with Bowdoin for the student to take some classes for her degree there, and even temporarily hired a new part time faculty member to teach the one student. Kuza said that her office had been in contact with the student, and that, “she was happy with the arrangement in that case.”

Provost Michael Stevenson said of students whose degree programs are phased out, “we are obligated, ethically at least, if not otherwise, to help them finish their degree.” Stevenson suggested that, in the event that a degree program is cancelled, students might make up for gaps in their required course loads through online classes or classes at local community colleges which could be transferred in for USM credit, or through independent study. When asked about the faculty member who was hired to teach the Russian studies major, Stevenson said, “I’m certainly not aware of that.”

At the faculty senate meeting Friday, English Professor Nancy Gish countered a number of these potential substitutions for classes by pointing out that, for one a significant portion of USM students, commuting to other regional schools is not an option. “My students are heroic,” Gish said, pointing out that many USM students have families and jobs in the area of the school, and do not have the luxury to hunt down the disparate pieces of their degrees. Gish said that cutting the physics department and, effectively, cutting off the option of the physics major to USM students would be, “a terrible class division that a university can’t make a statement about.”

Kuzma pointed out that USM is not alone in considering the option of cutting departments, especially in the current financial climate of cuts to education. “It’s not this unique, unusual thing that USM is doing, unfortunately,” Kuzma said. “All universities are faced with these really hard choices.”

 

Physics & beyond: what’s next?

 

“Although it’s about physics now, it’s ultimately not just about physics. It’s about education at the university and maintaining ourselves as a comprehensive university that is affordable for people that live in southern Maine,” said Paul Nakroshis, USM physics professor.

Sociology and women and gender studies professor Wendy Chapkis elaborated on that point, saying, “We can’t cut our way out of this hole we’re in.” Chapkis said that USM has cut out everything that is expendable already, and that further cuts are not the answer, but rather the solicitation of more reasonable funding for the university. “We have cut everything we can cut and then some,” Chapkis said, before expressing confidence that the southern Maine community does want an excellent university in the area. “We havent been articulating that message,” Chapkis said, “We have been saying ‘what can we cut next?’”

Associate professor of classics Jeanine Diddle Uzzi had a more numerical objection to the notion of cutting the physics major. “Education is not a for-profit business,” Uzzi said, “But physics is a for-profit department.” She went on to say that the “rule of five” review of 2011 revealed that the physics department was $300 thousand in the black, and nearer to $500 thousand including summer classes. “It’s really naive of us to think we’ll still get that revenue if we cut the major,” Uzzi said.

Provost Stevenson reiterated his stance that he had not proposed cutting physics classes, simply the physics major. “There’s still plenty of physics to teach,” he said to the Free Press the morning before the faculty senate meeting. “What we need to avoid is having physics classes with four or five people.”

Associate professor of electrical engineering Carlos Luck did not say that losing the physics department would certainly threaten the accreditation of other departments at USM with physics prerequisites, but he did say that it was possible. He said that while the university’s accreditors did not require a physics department, its lack, and the effect that lack might have on physics prerequisites might eventually be troublesome.

More immediately, though, November’s election will feature a referendum question for a bond package which would fund, among other things, renovations for laboratories at USM, in the form of a $4 million grant to USM to be divided between the three campuses. At the faculty senate meeting, President Kalikow said to the faculty “It would be a very wonderful thing if the bond issue were to pass … for stuff like chemistry and physics and biology and things like that.”

In “Faculty contracts may be in sight,” (Sept. 16) USM bargaining representative to the faculty union John Broida said the impending vote on the bond package put pressure on the UMS to resolve issue of the long-overdue faculty contracts because the issue inspired a lack of confidence in the system.
At the faculty senate meeting, Mark Lapping, professor at the Muskie school of public service and former USM provost took Provost Stevenson and President Kalikow to task for the image of USM they have projected throughout the past week. Referring to a quote of Kalikow’s to the Portland Press Herald earlier in the week, Lapping said “It’s just not a good idea to have it out there that there will be more to come.” He went on to say that statements like that will make USM a hard sell for admissions officers looking to boost dropping enrollment, and that a “message” which includes the possibility of further department cuts will not leave confidence in the university high.

 

Students speak up about physics

 

Students have played a pivotal role in the conversation that’s gripping the university community now over whether or not USM is making a poor choice considering cutting its physics major.

An unknown student started the conversation by disclosing the information to the Portland Press Herald, prompting vocal opposition online and in local newspapers and Provost Michael Stevenson’s public apology at Friday’s faculty senate meeting.

One student, senior chemistry major Patrick Wallace wrote in a letter to the Free Press that, “Our state has many bright young minds, and this decision sends the message to students pursuing a career in STEM fields that there is no place for them here,” he wrote. “Those prospective physicists who don’t wish to attend college far north in Orono will be forced to attend schools out of state where they will most likely remain.”

A number of students were also present at the faculty senate meeting on Friday at which faculty moved to either take the proposal off the table entirely or replace it with an alternate plan. Student senator and third year leadership and communications double major with a minor information technologies, Dan Jandreau, addressed the entire body at the faculty senate meeting on Friday.

“I’m very connected on campus,” he said. “And students are in a mass hysteria. What we need are open lines of discussion.” He cited social media as an encapsulation of the student body’s reaction to the issue, referring to one picture that had been shared 57 times on Facebook.

Despite Stevenson’s efforts to stress that the information released was a proposal and not a mandate to be effective immediately, student and faculty still cited a growing feeling of uncertainty and of more cuts to come. Student Body President Kelsea Dunham, who was also in attendance, and Jandreau both mentioned when addressing the senate that they knew of physics majors who were already beginning the hunt for news schools to transfer.

Dunham later wrote in an email to the Free Press that she thought a major issue during this process has been a lack of transparency on the part of the administration. “I thought the meeting today was indicative of the general feeling that students and faculty have, which is that they are not part of the processes happening at the university. I think this is an excellent opportunity for collaboration between faculty, students and administrators,” she wrote.