Two weeks after over two hundred students stormed the law building to protest faculty layoffs, the #USMFuture movement has broadened its focus and is looking to gain support from other Maine universities and the Portland community.
On Tuesday, #USMFuture supporters will take to the streets of Portland and march between Monument and Congress squares to raise awareness for their cause. Meaghan LaSala, a student organizer and junior women and gender studies major, said that she hopes the march will keep students involved as they come back to USM from spring break.
“This [the march] should get students back on track when they return,” said LaSala. “We’re giving them a chance to get involved immediately.”
“Students will show up,” said Marpheen Chann, USM student vice president, when asked if he was worried at all about student involvement coming out of the spring break. “Students love events with energy where they can be vocal.”
The protests at USM have sparked interest around the state, and organizers are working toward forming a statewide coalition of University of Maine System students, called #UMaineFuture, to bring funding for public education in Maine to the forefront of every Mainer’s mind.
The ‘about’ section of the #UMaineFuture website, www.umainesolidarity.org, reads, “As students, we see our futures, as well as the future of Maine, being eroded by the negligence of big business interests that have taken over the governance of higher education.” While only the USM and UMaine Orono campuses have working student groups currently, UMaine Farmington is currently organizing and other campuses are beginning to as well, said Chann.
“Our work here at USM has started the discussion, but think of what we can accomplish as seven united campuses,” said Chann.
Student organizers gathered at the Woodbury Campus Center on Friday, March 28 to discuss their goals as they move forward. Senior classics and history major Brittany Goldych noted online comments posted to recent media coverage of their protests, many of which said student protesters were simply complaining and had no direction. She said that the public
response has opened up a discussion on what the group’s short-term and long-term goals are.
“We want solidarity in the fight to promote institutional changes that will save and better Maine’s educational system, not just for students, but for the future of the state in its entirety,” said Goldych. “Most importantly, we know we can do this, the administration and the people in Augusta know too.”
“We’re not whining anymore,” said Chann. “We’re working toward offering a solution and looking for community partners. We’re going to make public higher education an election issue this year.”
That Wednesday, students drafted a bill that called for a temporary moratorium on budget cuts while allowing time for a study into the distribution of funding across the UMS. While advancement of the legislation was denied on Thursday, it helped focus the group’s efforts, according to Goldych.
At the Friday meeting the same week, the group decided that one of their primary goals would not only be to address state funding for higher education in the state of Maine, but also to advocate for it nationwide.
“One thing I really love about this is how quickly everything comes together,” said student organizer Jules Purnell said. “It’s pretty inspiring, honestly.”
The Woodbury Campus Center Amphitheater has been reserved tonight for all students to gather and share stories about their experiences with USM faculty and staff. The goal is to bring students together and focus on their experiences rather than the budget issues.
“We all have a lot more in common than we think when it comes to our USM experience,” said LaSala.
This Friday, the #UMaineFuture coalition also plans to host a teach-in for students in Augusta. Organizers of the event are aiming to educate students from around the state about their goals, including information on the UMS budget deficit and how funding for higher education works at the legislative level, among other things.. They also hope to use the event as an opportunity to gain support from new students and legislators, said Chann.
Students have attended department meetings with deans to show their support of programs, faculty and students affected by the cuts, and a group also created the “change your major” Facebook event, in which students are invited to change their majors to a threatened program in a show of symbolic support of threatened programs.
President Theodora Kalikow said that she is glad students are getting involved in the discussion of public education funding, which she says has been on the decline over the past 30 years.
“I’ve been wondering if the students were going to get organized for years,” said Kalikow.
Kalikow knows that students are also partially protesting recent cuts made by the USM administration.
“Their [the student’s] protests show that USM is doing right by them in terms of faculty-student relationships,” said Kalikow. “Unfortunately, what we have now isn’t sustainable, and we have to work on balancing a lot of good things right now.”
“Students will make sure their voices are heard,” said Chann. “There’s no doubt about that.”
Michael Bailey, a UMaine Orono student and organizer of the #UMaineFuture coalition Skyped USM students during their meeting, applauding them for the work that they’ve done so far.
“We are the future of Maine,” said Bailey to students. “Your protests have sparked a larger movement, and I wanted to thank you. I’m excited to have so many students working together.”