University President Theodora Kalikow hosted an all-campus meeting yesterday morning to discuss the future of the university within the University of Maine System, but students and faculty in attendance were set on discussing recent proposals to cut programs and faculty.
Last week Kalikow announced proposed elimination of programs including American and New England Studies, Recreation and Leisure, Geosciences and the Arts & Humanities major at the Lewiston Auburn College. As soon as the question and answer session began, the discussion turned to the proposed program eliminations rather than USM’s distant future, though Kalikow urged the audience early on to focus more on the latter.
Early on, Kalikow spoke on the importance of USM’s intended role as Maine’s metropolitan university that emerged from the work of the Direction Package Advisory Board. Kalikow stated that there needs to be a new way to demonstrate the value of higher education to society, taxpayers and local business, because they benefit from USM’s greatest asset – the students.
Kalikow said that on top of providing students with credentials and jobs after graduation, the university also needs to provide them with opportunities to demonstrate their knowledge and skills while in school. She believes that this can be achieved through intensive community engagement, internship programs and academic programs taking advantage of Portland resources to teach students, which are all goals of the urban metropolitan vision.
“I think what’s happening and what I’m being told is that I’m being sold on this idea that our location is our greatest asset rather than our faculty and the quality of our content,” said social work major and student body president nominee Erin Carlson. “I’m in this room full of faculty, staff and students who are all concerned and scared about what the future of the university looks like, and i’m not hearing enough about what we’re doing to support the faculty.”
The administration has shown support for this future vision, but they are still working on closing the fiscal gap USM faces this year. The reduction of faculty was a point of concern for many who spoke at the meeting.
Carlson went on to mention all of the work and research the faculty does outside of the classroom for the university and the students that she believes is never highlighted.
“The only solution I can think of is a re-evaluation of our costs,” said Karl Turner, a member of the Board of Trustees. “Our priority has to be the student and the people of Maine. They are our customers. They pay our bills.”
Turner said without action the structural gap would be $90 million by fiscal year 2019.
“While I understand the idea of running USM like a business is distasteful, you are a business,” said Lewiston-Auburn College advisory board member Rick Vail to the audience.
This statement was met with scattered boos throughout the crowd.
Chair of the Recreation and Leisure studies program David Jones, whose program Kalikow proposed to cut, said that the research the administration has done is faulty and that the program is one of the fastest growing at the university.
“I don’t know how your decision was reached,” Jones said to Kalikow. “I would like to have an answer as to why we’re being singled out.”
Kent Ryden, director of the free-standing American and New England studies program questioned the notion that his program should be eliminated as well, referencing the slogan from the metropolitan university vision “place matters.”
“We’re all about place. We teach about it, we research it, we write about it,” said Ryden.
Ryden said that the program was the only one of its kind between University of New Hampshire and Maine’s flagship campus in Orono and that cutting the only humanities-based graduate program in the region would undermine the goals of the vision the administration has set forth.
“The notion of a ‘metropolitan university’ rings very hollow,” said Ryden.
“The programs that were chosen were chosen for criteria that depend very much on the individual program, the student-faculty ratio,” said Kalikow. “It is not an easy decision to do this to any program.”
Kalikow said that the Faculty Senate will be working with the programs up for elimination, looking at ways that they can offer reduced programming for student needing to continue their studies.
Professor of history Eileen Eagan noted that there is a gap between Board of Trustees and faculty and how each discusses higher education and that their goals may not always be the same.
USM alumnus Philip Shelley reflected on his time at USM and how he feels about the cuts from a graduate’s perspective.
“Education is not content. It’s not something to be delivered. It’s not a product. It’s a public good,” said Shelley. “I have no doubt about the value of the education I received here, which was invaluable and perhaps the biggest bargain of my entire life, but I do have serious doubts about the value of the degree I received here.”
Many other students expressed concern about cutting programs resulting in a further enrollment decline, as well as support for students who will need to finish degrees for programs that will no longer exist.