News Analysis: Same deficit, different decade

Posted on April 14, 2014 in News
By Sidney Dritz

As a university news source, the Free Press tries to do a few different things. The ones that are the most relevant to our day to day work for publication are to cover news for and about the USM population more closely than community news outlets and to be a showcase for student work, but underneath those more obvious concerns, there is always the goal to be a publication of record for the university.

When something big happens, like the faculty retrenchments of the previous few weeks, and the retraction of those retrenchments last Friday, we don’t want to just cover the big, dramatic events. We want to have been covering them all along so that when those major developments happen, our readers can flip through our archives or the back pages of our website and see how we, as a university, got to where we are.

Up to a point, we’ve been successful in creating a record of events as they’ve unfolded, but we think there is another aspect to creating this record, and that is not just to store the information we’ve compiled, but to use it well. To that end, we’ve spent this week exploring our own archives, ten six-inch-thick volumes of newsprint dating from 1967 to the present.

In that exploration, we’ve found a series of events that took place in the middle of the 1970s that gave us a dizzying sense of deja vu following events at USM over the course of the past month. From the headlines, it seemed as though history was repeating itself, so we decided to take a closer look.

In 1976, as in 2014, a look at the Free Press shows that students reacted with outrage when more than ten faculty members were cut from the university as a cost savings measure. Nearly 30 years apart, students at USM protested cuts made by their administrations, the Student Senate passed a resolution in support of the faculty, students from the University of Maine at Orono expressed their support for USM (then called University of Maine at Portland-Gorham). Then, like now, students traveled to Augusta to make their displeasure known, and then, like last Friday, the retrenched faculty members were hired back.

The important thing about these parallels isn’t just the mirroring, though. It is the fact that this institution is facing the same problems it faced before. These cycles point to the proposed solutions ––the same ones were proposed in 76 as now –– and indicate that the solutions didn’t work in the long-term.

The faculty cuts in February 1976 were preceded and lead up to in the Free Press, by articles chronicling student dissatisfaction with the budget for 1975-76, in which a decrease in state funding lowered from $90.1 million to $70.1 million.

A lack of adjustment for inflation and changes in the economy in the apportioning of state funding for public higher education compounded with rising costs and falling enrollments today has been cited numerous times as one of the reasons that cuts to the USM budget are increasingly necessary.

In contrast to the University of Maine system’s current promise to the state to freeze tuition, however, the 1975-76 budget decrease came in spite of a series of tuition hikes. First, in April of 1974, UMPG tuition rose by $150, a full 16 percent. Then, in Feb. 1976, the Board of Trustees instituted a $100 increase in tuition throughout the University of Maine schools, in deference to a state-wide budget situation, raising UMPG tuition to $600 per year.

Freeman also instituted a system-wide freeze on hiring and replacing faculty who left the universities without Board of Trustees approval. While Chancellor Page has not instituted a system-wide hiring freeze, USM has been under one instituted by Provost Michael Stevenson for the past year.

The UMPG Student Senate in 1976 were asked for official recommendations for where UMPG budget cut of 10 percent of its budget should fall in late January.

“The senators did accept the task [of giving recommendations about where cuts should fall to have the least negative effect on the student experience] and the one prevalent notion was: the last thing that should be considered for elimination would be academics, even at the expense of student services,” wrote Free Press reporter Eric A. Pippert in “The Senate Hour: Two For The Price of One” on the front page of the January 27, 1976 issue of the Free Press.

Senate recommendations earmarked athletics, transportation, academic chair stipends and police and safety as areas for possible cost reduction. Academic departments were listed as a last resort for cuts.

“What will happen to the quality of an academic program if the teachers know that in four years their programs will be phased out of existence?” Pippert recorded the senate as wondering.

While the USM Student Senate of 2014 made no official recommendations to the administration before they began enacting faculty and staff cuts, the senate expressed their sentiments by calling an emergency meeting and voting no confidence in the President’s Council the weekend following the 12 faculty retrenchments.

When Kailkow presented Direction Package in early November this year, she expressed an interest in gathering student feedback on where cuts should fall by reaching out through the student senate. However, most of the gathering of perspectives following the roll-out came from the Direction Package board and in individual comments made on the Direction Package website. It is unclear what impact either source of feedback had on the eventual decision, although the recommendations of the board were more public than the website comments, which were never made visible to the public.

The only student to consistently attend and contribute to the conclusions of the Direction Package Advisory Board was Student Body President Kelsea Dunham.

The ‘76 Student Senate’s recommendations, however, seem to have had little effect. Despite their insistence that faculty should only be cut as a last resort, in February 1976, UMPG President N. Edd Miller announced that he would send pink slips firing all 16 first year faculty members the following month as the first wave of cuts.

Further cuts, including program, followed throughout the next year. In February, 1977, the Student Senate approved funds to bus students to Augusta to watch the state funding hearings for the 1978-79 budget.

“Most observers agree that the legislature is more favorably disposed towards the university than it has been in the recent past,” wrote Neil Genzlinger in the Feb. 1, 1977 issue of the Free Press.

At the beginning of March, 1977, first and second year faculty who had been sent  termination notices were all rehired. “President N. Edd Miller apologized for the termination notices and emphasized that finances were the only reason for the action,” reported David Solomon in the March 1 issue.

In the same issue, the Free Press reprinted a recommendation document of proposed solution for the university as an alternative to faculty cuts which were in the process of being reversed. The proposal for the future of UMPG was compiled by three committees of faculty and staff, and including two students, who focused on the three specific areas of Long Range Planning, Administrative Organization and budget in weekly meetings.

The focus of the three committees bears a resemblance to the focus of the Direction Package Advisory Board, the three committees of which were Vision/Identity, Academic Review and Cost Reduction/Efficiency improvement, though the 1976 committees met and assembled their recommendations in the tail end of the resolution of the faculty cuts, rather than the lead up to them.

Both sought to define a clear place for USM/UMPG within the University of Maine System and the communities it is a part of, and both hoped to make more concrete recommendations than previous groups that had tried to define the university’s future. UMPG’s plan for the future detailed the universally agreed upon need for the school to become what the document calls a “regional university center.” Their definition of a “regional university center,” with its symbiotic relationships with the city and town it is located in, and its focus on providing a comprehensive education for those environments, sounds eerily similar to the Direction Package Advisory Board’s focus on an “urban comprehensive university.”

Committees eventually determined that, after presenting their recommendations, the next step would ultimately be out of their hands.

While events at USM this year have taken place on a shorter timeframe, the rhetoric surrounding both the cuts and negative reactions to the cuts are similar, and so are the recommendations made for how to move the university forward.

“‘We are proud of our belt-tightening efforts.’ Chancellor Patrick McCarthy said, ‘But we have cut back as far as we can without jeopardizing quality,’ although Gov. Longley has continued to eye the State University system as laden with ‘fat,’” wrote Herb Adams in “… And Trimming the Bare Bones Budget,” on Feb. 3, 1976, in the midst of those cuts and budget crisis. USM’s administrators approach the current financial crisis with similar comments.

The current UMS chancellor James Page said something similar in December last year about system cuts. “‘We have to look at everything,’ Page said, when asked what other solutions there may be going forward. ‘I can’t think of any sacred cows,’ he said.”

The problem at the root of USM’s decade-long history with budget deficits that some long-time USM faculty members identify is a lack of funding for a university that in 1970, after taking on more property and facilities in merging with Gorham College, was underfunded from the beginning.

“I don’t think that we were ever adequately funded,” said distinguished Professor Mark Lapping on the Muskie School of Public Service to the Free Press in November, after the Direction Package roll-out. But nearly forty years later, he said, the situation is entirely different. “We’re not cutting any fat. That went away years ago. We’re now cutting into the bone,” he added.

The metaphors for the problem have stayed the same since the ‘70s. The question is whether the proposed solutions should stay the same, too.

Kirsten Sylvain and Sam Hill contributed to this article.