Over two hundred students protest university budget cuts, sit-in

Posted on March 24, 2014 in News
By Kirsten Sylvain, and Sam Hill

Update: 9:00 p.m.

After nine hours of demonstrating, starting at the Law Building and moving into the Woodbury Campus Center, all but one of the protesters had left for the night.

Update: 4:00 p.m.

A smaller group of protesters remain at the Woodbury Campus Center, but they told the group they plan to be in it for the long haul. Jules Purnell, one of the students who helped organize the efforts, responded to questions about how long the protest in the Campus Center would go on.

“I brought a sleeping bag,” they said.

Update: 2:30 p.m.

Students and faculty listened to several speakers at the Woodbury amphitheater, including state Representative Ben Chipman, who vocally supported their efforts and said that the school needed more from the state.

One of the students who organized the protest efforts,  Meaghan LaSala, also addressed the crowd of more than 100 students and faculty, asking for protesters to take what she saw as the next step forward.

“It’s not enough to understand the problem,” she said. “We need to take it one step further and get organized. We need to talk about what are our next steps are.”

With LaSala moderating, students broke off into six committees that had been formed during Friday’s protest.

The committees are in media and messaging, letter writing, legislative outreach, political education, USM community outreach and research.

Update: 1:30 p.m.

Students, faculty, and alumni protesters marched to the Woodbury Campus Center. They have now gathered in the amphitheater where they are listening to speakers.

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Over a hundred students have gathered outside of the University of Maine School of Law building to protest recent faculty cuts and budget decisions.

Students, faculty and alumni have set-up a podium outside of the law building’s main entrance and are taking turns speaking to the crowd. They have been shouting because they don’t have speakers and microphones available to them.

“This is is not just a budget issue, this is not just a USM issue, this is a human issue,” said senior English major Martin Conte to the crowd.

Women and Gender Studies major Jules Parnell has been helping to organize student protest efforts as a part of a group called Students for #USMFuture.

“The faculty layoffs are unnecessary. We do not support them. We demand transparency from the administration,” she said in a press release issued this morning. “The condition of USM right now mirrors the devaluation of public education on a national level. Our professors at USM matter.”

That same press release stated the following:

The students believe the answer is not continued budget cuts and departmental dismantling. Many of the layoffs are strategic, enabling President [Theodora] Kalikow to follow through with the proposed plans to eliminate more programs. Students assert [sic] there is no reason to remove vital and energetic faculty members from this campus and point out that a disproportionate number of the professors who have lost their jobs are women, people of color, and members of the LGBT community. In some cases, all three.

“We’re told that the way USM ‘does business’ fails to sustain a successful university, yet the truth is that USM fails to generate a large enough profit margin to sustain the Board of Trustees’ business model,” said student organizer and Women and Gender Studies major Caroline O’Connor.

President Theodora Kalikow was set to host a meeting to discus student concerns at the Sullivan Sports Complex, but most students have refused to go.

“We don’t want to have to go where they want us and hear the same things she [Kalikow] has been saying all along,” said senior political science major Brittany Hill. “It’s not okay that they’re trying to control where our voices will be heard.”

Hill said that students should not have to put up with a single free-speech zone set by administration, because it could be considered unconstitutional. Hill is a part of a group of students who will be specifically protesting in reaction to the termination of professors Rachel Bouvier and Vaishali Mamgain from the economics department.

Director of Public Affairs Robert Caswell said that around 10 students came to speak with Kalikow at Sullivan.

“I expected them to be cold and to want to come talk,” said Kalikow. “They [the students] have a lot of emotion to get through. The relationships with their professors is beautiful and powerful, and it’s what higher education is about, so no wonder they’re upset. If my favorite professor was being cut, I’d be upset to.”

Kalikow said that it is always very important to find out what students are concerned about, and that she would rather do so in a two-way conversation instead of a protest.

“Higher education is all about critical thinking and dialogue and who better to do it with than the students,” said Kalikow. “Right now we’re balancing good things and bad things and when you make choices like this, there’s always a balancing act.

Junior finance major Naseem Habibzai was one of the student who chose to speak with Kalikow and voice his concerns and get her perspective on recent events. Habibzai said speaking to Kalikow was helpful, but the lack of student involvement hindered the conversation.

“I think it would’ve been a lot better if they had came,” said Habibzai. “It could’ve been a nice back-and-forth.”

Habibzai said that there is a lot of data going around, both from administration and the Students for #USMFuture group and that there needs to be clarification.

“Straight numbers would be nice,” he said.

Access to the interior of the law building, specifically the 7th floor where the president and provost’s offices are located, have been shut down completely. USM Public Safety officers are on scene and blocking the entrances.

“It says a lot that the doors are locked and that the police are here,” said assistant professor of marketing Robert Heiser.

Caswell said that the decision to close the law building was strictly an issue of public safety, and he has heard that the protests today will be much larger than they were last Friday.

“Obviously the law building is a public building, but that does not mean that large groups can occupy it whenever they want,” said Caswell, who noted that the offices and library at the building and that a lot of business is still being conducted. “It’s not a building that was designed to accommodate a lot of people, especially on the upper-floors.”

Caswell also said that Provost Michael Stevenson, who has been a partial target for recent protests, is in Machias today. He attended the board of Trustees meeting there yesterday and is still away.

Due to the protests, all classes at the law school this afternoon have been canceled.

“USM students have announced they intend to gather in large numbers outside the Law Building, and they have chosen this location because the USM President’s and Provost’s offices are on the seventh floor,” wrote law school Dean Peter Pitegoff in an email to all law students this morning.

First year law student James Spizuoko said he was asked what classes he was attending when he entered the building this morning.

“I fully support the USM students and protests, however, we are a separate institution and it’s a shame protests are going to disrupt classes,” said first year law student Isabell Mullin. Mullin went on to say that protesters should be looking at a state level for answers and examining state funding for public education, because that is what will effect everyone in the long-run. She said that there is an overall theme in recent budget issues of the state not supporting public education.