Our Opinion: Everyone is watching, USM

Posted on April 07, 2014 in Perspectives
By USM Free Press

During the slew of recent cuts at USM, we had to bring you the news, but we can also see the effect that these stories are having on the reputation of this institution.

We can’t change the news, and we can’t alter it to benefit any party –– it’s our obligation to report the facts and search for the truth to present to you so that you, the public, can make informed decisions.

Now, what’s done is done. Thousands of readers have visited our site from all over the world, and media sources throughout Maine and some at the national level have followed this story. So then, the news is out in the open (mostly), and now it’s up to the administration to do damage control.

Some of the press has led to positive commentary –– mostly, though, about the on-going efforts of the students, who, many say, are setting an example for universities in parallel situations the country over.

Positive reviews of the administration are there too, but in general, these cuts have cast the university in a negative light. However, USM administrators may still have an opportunity to promote a healthier and more positive vision of USM, but transparency will be central.

Unless the USM administration makes immediate changes to its relationship with the student body and puts an A+ effort into marketing and openly communicating with the community about its plans, enrollment, which is already down for next year, will continue to decline rapidly.

Press coverage of layoffs, proposals for program eliminations and student discontent is unavoidable and necessary, but how the university responds to students is controllable. On Monday, March 24, when students arrived at the law building to protest faculty retrenchment, they were met by public safety officers.  One law student said he was asked to list what classes he was attending when he arrived for class earlier that morning. All access to the law building was completely shut down, and all law classes were canceled for the afternoon. When the crowd grew, public safety handcuffed the front entrance shut.

While President Kalikow made herself available in Sullivan Gym, it was clear early on that students would not be joining her, and no effort was made to move to where the students were gathered. On Friday March 21, after hours of protest, part of the group was pulled off to meet with Kalikow in Payson Hall in what seemed like an effort to diminish the group while Provost  Stevenson made his exit. The same day, Stevenson promised students that he would schedule a meeting to talk the following Friday, but no such meeting was held, and at this time, Stevenson has not responded to any request for interviews.

On Friday March 28, news that proposal to cut recreation and leisure studies had been rescinded came out, but barely. Announcements that two retrenched faculty members were saved from retrenchment were similar. No formal releases were made to the Free Press.

What this university needs right now is more administrators openly communicating and seeking out student voices.

USM dirty laundry is not only airing in the press, but also visibly on campus in front of passing traffic and prospective students on tours throughout the week. Instead of seeing a supportive USM community, those visitors saw a restless student body and faculty and an absent administration.

It must be a difficult sell for tour guides when they have to explain why the USM experience appears to be budget cuts, uncertainty and upheaval. Why would students enroll at an institution at which it seems their faculty, staff and programs may suddenly be eliminated? Uncertainty isn’t attractive to new students––it’s overwhelming, as if going to college and diving into student debt weren’t enough to deter them from enrolling.

And this isn’t a one time event either. Students for #USMFuture have made it clear that they will be making noise for a long time, and with a march scheduled throughPortland tomorrow, they’re sure to gain even more attention.

Declining enrollment is a trend we need to reverse. Students pay the bills here to a large extent, and the bottom line is that USM needs more students in order to survive. With the current state of affairs, that’s not achievable.

The USM administration needs to take student concerns seriously and be more communicative because it’s the current students who truly have the power to make or break this university.

Our Opinion is written by the Free Press editorial board.