Senate and Chancellor discuss hiring issues

Posted on November 11, 2013 in News
By Sidney Dritz

Faculty aired many of the same concerns they expressed in the October senate meeting at last week’s senate, but this time with University of Maine System Chancellor James Page in attendance.

Page, who was invited to attend the meeting by Faculty Senate Chair and physics Professor Jerry LaSala, arrived in Gorham in time for some of the latter part of the Direction Package Advisory Board meeting. At the Faculty Senate meeting, which followed the Advisory Board meeting, he expressed his support for the Direction Package process. “The work that this group is doing deserves our collective support,” Page said. “It needs to be done and it needs to be done right.”

Page said he would keep his remarks brief in the interests of leaving more time for questions, and the questions that followed lasted most of the rest of the two hour meeting. The first question, posed by English Professor Nancy Gish, addressed concern for the lack of new hires and staffing gaps at the university. The particular example she brought up was the history department’s lack of a European historian, but the issue came up several times, in the contexts of a range of particular departments.

Page responded, “I am a strong believer that we have to find ways, find resources, to bring in young scholars.” He also stressed the importance of the humanities, which, he said, were easy to lose track of in the current educational and financial climate.

Page summarized the issue the university is faced with, saying, “As a university system, we do not have the luxury of saying those things [the humanities] are not important.”

“The trick,” Page went on, “is how do we resource those?”

Page’s answer to that question, which took the language departments at USM as an example, focused around collaboration within the university system, rather than trying to find solutions for one school alone. USM’s department of modern and classical languages currently consists of three full-time faculty members, with a fourth going into phased retirement over the course of the next year. The department has recently voted to cease functioning as a single administrative unit, at the request of Dean Kuzma of the College of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences. According to the dean, they are currently under the administrative umbrella of the dean’s office while other options are explored.

“Those programs are hanging on by their fingernails,” Page said, but went on to say that were they to be cut, it would be an unacceptable loss. He then pointed to the work Jeannine Uzzi, professor of classics, and French Professor Nancy Erickson are doing to develop system-wide language programs as a way to begin to consolidate resources.

Professor Carlos Luck of the engineering department brought the conversation back to the lack of faculty and lack of current hiring going on in the system. Luck cited his own finding from observation of records from the Associated Faculties of the Universities of Maine, pointing out that dropping enrollment, one of USM’s major problems, has fallen in roughly the same pattern as faculty numbers have dropped. Classics Professor Jeannine Uzzi corroborated those numbers later in the meeting, adding, “When you lose faculty, you do lose students.”

“Provost Stevenson made it clear that he can’t approve any new faculty searches if we don’t have the money to pay for it,” Luck said.

Stevenson, who was in attendance at the meeting, did not comment. Luck then went on to say that the Direction Panel advisory board was not expected to reach any conclusions before February, and that if the university waits until then to begin a staff-search, the graduating class of scholars from 2014 will already have been hired elsewhere. Luck said that a university-wide freeze on hiring even in departments where the number of students is growing is not sustainable. “This spiraling down is dangerous and ultimately catastrophic,” Luck said.

“I can’t sit here and make any promises,” Page said to Luck, noting that the Board of Trustees will not sign off on any “blank check” financial support for the university. “I don’t argue with the strength of your concern,” he said.

Other topics of note during the question and answer period with the chancellor included the need for the Board of Trustees to advocate for higher education in the upcoming gubernatorial race, and the geographical limitations to the kind of departmental collaboration within the system which Page offered as a partial solution. Maine, several professors, including Gish and professor of Hispanic studies Charlene Suscavage pointed out, is too large for travel to different campuses to always be practical. Suscavage in particular noted that online classes are not always a viable solution, particularly in the case of dialogue-based upper-level language classes.