Sunday, April 22nd, 2018

Arbitrator rules faculty layoffs justified at USM

Posted on February 08, 2016 in News
By Krysteana Scribner

Economics professor Rachel Bouvier protests with other faculty before a BoT meeting.
Sam Hill
Economics professor Rachel Bouvier protests with other faculty before a BoT meeting.

During the last weekend of January, the arbitrator reviewed last year’s retrenchments at USM and made a final decision about them, claiming that the process did not violate the collective bargaining agreement USM has with the Associated Faculties of the Universities of Maine (AFUM).

“We are terribly sorry that we could not deliver a better result for you,” Susan Feiner, a USM economics professor and president of the USM chapter of AFUM, stated.“We threw everything of this that we have. It was never a slam dunk but we were very clearly outgunned.”

President Glenn Cummings, who sent out an email to the university’s students, faculty and staff on Monday, agrees with the arbitrator’s decision that the retrenchments were financially necessary.

“I know this arbitration decision will have a mixed response within our campus community, but I am hoping, regardless of where you sit on the decision, that you will agree it is time for us as a university to move forward,” Cummings said.

Arbitrator Mark Irvings, who ruled on Saturday that the layoffs followed the contract, ordered the university to pay lost wages and benefits to one professor whose layoffs did not follow legal procedures. This individual was not identified. USM officials also claimed that the cuts were an effort to close a $16 million budget gap. Currently, the university has a budget of $128 million.

The 26 layoffs were a small cog in the machine of ways to cut costs, which ended in the elimination of 51 faculty positions and five academic programs. AFUM decided to challenge the decision to make such changes, which led to the arbitration. Irvings examined both USM’s and the entire system’s finances, and reached his decision on the basis that the administration was aware of the financial situation and was unable to change it without the cuts.

In the UMaine System, an estimated 500 positions have been eliminated over the past decade, with the most recent changes taking place last year at USM with the cuts of a graduate program in medical sciences, an undergraduate program in French, the American and New England studies graduate program, the geosciences major and the arts and humanities major at Lewiston-Auburn College.

“Reducing the costs at USM, including elimination of a number of faculty positions to better align expenses with the size of the student body, was an unwelcome but a necessary action to balance the budget of the university for the future,” former USM president David Flanagan, who made the cuts, said in an interview with the Portland Press Herald,. “We took great care to treat all affected members of our community as fairly as possible and to follow the terms of the contract with our represented employees to the letter.”

According to the university budget, the system has a current budget of $518 million and uses $7 million in emergency funds despite cutting 206 positions statewide.

During a retrenchment Q&A last Tuesday evening at USM, professors from a variety of departments across USM came together to discuss the outcome of the lengthy process, which lasted from April to September of 2015.

“The arbitrator said, early on, that one of the things that would have helped is that if there had been a court record,”Feiner said. “He said that in his email in mid-January. There is definitely no smoking-gun of evidence but there is suspicion felt toward administration.”

According to the documentation, there is language that states you cannot lay off faculty and then hire the retrenched faculty back to teach the same course load at a lower rate and/or hire newer part-time faculty as adjuncts to teach the same course load. Yet according to Feiner and many other professors at USM, this is exactly what the system tried to do.

“We actually have an ongoing grievance that is pending the outcome that pending the arbitration dealing with just that,” Feiner state. “It’s regarding faculty that were retrenched and that were hired back part time to teach the work. That grievance is ongoing on and will be revisited.”

According to a professor at USM, who preferred not to be named, the most striking part about the arbitrator’s report is his seemingly lack of understanding regarding how academia works.

“What tools do we have to combat that other than resolutions and objections?” the professor said. “As long as the Board of Trustees are such activists for their cause they just vote in whatever they want and ignore shared governance completely.”

Joseph Medley, an associate professor of economics at USM, stated that the university has been suppressing information about the number of employees in the UMaine system. According to his statements, the university used to report this information in October, but last year they reported in the middle of January and have yet to report on this past year’s faculty changes.

“What we’ve experienced with the new budget is that they take functions away from USM and in turn charge us more. That is one of the fundamental problems with the budget,” he stated. “They can cut revenue flows to us, increase charges and manipulate elements of our budget to produce deficits.”

Some asked what would have happened had the university won the decision. “We’d be celebrating,”  Feiner joked. But according to Lorraine Carol, an associate professor of English, it is just as probable that more retrenchments may have happened six months down the road.

“None of us thought we were going to get an outright win,” Feiner said. “I think some of us that are realists were at least hoping for a mixed bag.”

For some, the belief that faculty governance is under national attack is an all too truthful reality. “We’re holding onto faculty governance by a thread,”an anonymous source directly involved at the university stated. “We have to start acting as a statewide organization.”

According to Carroll, USM has to be communicating with other UMaine campuses and use relationships with legislatures to, in turn, build better relationships within the systemand many agreed with her statement.

“We need to get a governor in place who is going to make better appointments to the Board of Trustees,” Carroll said.

 

 

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.