Student Life lays off Portland director Christopher O’Connor in downsizing efforts

Christopher O'Connor, the former director of Portland Student Life, said that he was somewhat relieved to be laid off and didn't want student protesters to fight for his job.
Randy Hazelton
Christopher O'Connor, the former director of Portland Student Life, said that he was somewhat relieved to be laid off and didn't want student protesters to fight for his job.

Posted on July 08, 2014 in News
By Sam Hill

An interim organizational chart for the Student Life department.
Courtesy of USM Student Life
An interim organizational chart for the Student Life department.

The department of Student Life announced recently that it would be eliminating the director of Portland Student Life position in an effort to downsize amidst recent budget cuts.

Christopher O’Connor, the now former director, said he could feel something going on within the department and that he almost expected being laid off.

“The way the structure of student life has changed over the past year and recent responsibility changes, I knew something was going to happen,” said O’Connor.

According to Susan Campbell, the chief Student Affairs officer, the decision was made based on changing demographics in USM’s enrollment and the need to work with less with the university’s current financial state.

“It wasn’t based on any individual, it was based on programmatic decisions,” said Campbell. “We’re trying to flatten the administrative structure and put more people directly in contact with students.”

“Our enrollment is dropping,” said Judie O’Malley, assistant director of Public Affairs. “You have to size your organization to fit the number of people you serve.”

Members of the group Students for #USMFuture reached out to O’Connor and asked him if he wanted them to fight for his job as a part of their recent protest efforts.

“You couldn’t have been more deliberately offensive to students,” said Philip Shelley, a member of the protest group, of O’Connor’s firing. “We’re asking them to look at administrators’ salaries and the cut the very active and very loved student life director.”

O’Connor told protesters to fight for the position, but not him.

“I don’t care about me. I care about the students,” said O’Connor. “I personally don’t agree with putting students in that place. They shouldn’t have to rally for our jobs. I don’t want my job back. In many ways, I’m relieved to be out of there.”

Joy Pufhal, the executive director of Student Life, said that the decision to let O’Connor go was not easy.

“It was a great loss for me personally, for the department and for USM,” said Pufhal. “These  are hard decisions that unfortunately have to be made. We have to get out of these times at USM where we’re cutting and cutting and cutting.”

O’Connor’s responsibilities have been divided between other Student Life employees and the department has been restructured. Jason Saucier, the former director of Gorham Student Life, will now lead student life as a whole.

O’Connor was skeptical of the restructuring, and spoke about the ‘boots on the ground’ initiative that began when Theodora Kalikow became USM’s president two years ago.

“I didn’t know how I could be anymore involved with students,” said O’Connor. “We’ve barely kept enrollment up in Gorham. Gorham has been spiraling for the past four or five years, and now we’re taking that staff, no disrespect to them as professionals, and task them with maintaining Portland as well? It just doesn’t make sense to me.”

Pufahl said she was very confident in the new structure and believes that they can deliver the programs students are used to with a smaller staff.

“Some folks are going to panic, but the sky’s not falling,” said Pufhal. There’s a lot of work to get done, but we will do it. We must do it. I care very deeply about the students and I will do everything in my power to deliver the best student experience possible.”