Friday, September 21st, 2018

Revisiting Retrenchment: Hardships of the past lay foundation for USM’s future

Posted on March 05, 2018 in News
By USM Free Press

Lauren Kennedy
Lauren Kennedy

Sam Margolin, Staff Writer

From 2007 to the present, five different presidents with slightly different visions of what a successful university looks and acts like took the helm of USM. In 2014, under David T. Flanagan, the University of Maine Chancellor’s Office announced that due to a $16 million budget deficit, system-wide cutbacks would have to be implemented. This led to the reduction of USM faculty by 51 members as well as even more staff. Twenty-five of those faculty were given “enhanced retirement options” and the other 26 were retrenched, or laid off. This marked a low-point for USM, in student, faculty, and staff morale and relations.

The motivations and reasoning behind the cutbacks of 2014 were highly debated and protested by faculty and students. The system-wide financial crisis projected a fiscal shortfall of $69 million by 2019. In 2014, USM’s part of the deficit was 39 percent of the total shortfall of $36 million, according to Dan Demeritt, Executive Director of Public Relations for the University of Maine System (UMS). The process started with an announcement made to USM students by President Flanagan in October of 2014 that outlined the administration’s plan “to transform and strengthen USM.” The statement announced the elimination of just two programs and various layoffs and additional efficiencies and the notion that “all this could be accomplished with virtually no firings.”

Flanagan went on to highlight the other drastic options they could have taken such as raising tuition from $7,690 to $10,000 or closing one of the three campuses. These tactics, along with the extreme underestimation of departmental loss, marked the beginning of the friction between faculty and USM administration that would plague them both for the next two years. In spite of Flanagan’s predictions of minimal cuts, the reality of how much would have to be done, was much more substantial.

The five academic programs that were eliminated along with the 51 members of faculty were a master’s program in applied medical sciences, the undergraduate French program, the American and New England Studies graduate program, the Geosciences major and the Arts and Humanities major at Lewiston-Auburn Campus. Elimination of these programs marked a significant decrease in academic opportunity for USM students. Criminology and Sociology were cut from five faculty to three.  

The most frequently cited cause of the UMS financial trouble was falling enrollment numbers and no increase in tuition leading to lack of adequate funds operation costs. Flanagan stated that “USM could not continue to operate as a University serving only 6,040 students with an infrastructure, scope of curriculum, staff and faculty still sized for the zenith of an enrollment of 8,500.” The lack of enrollment numbers could be blamed on any number of different factors yet the investigations into which departments and what faculty to cut were limited and swift.

In response to the layoffs and retrenchments of 2014, the Associated Faculties of the University of Maine (AFUM) challenged the decisions of UMS by arguing that USM was in violation of the union contract. Additionally, an investigation by the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) was “charged with determining whether the program closures and retrenchments were justified and were executed in accordance with AAUP-supported principles and procedural standards.” The report found fault at USM’s hasty firings and concluded that the administration had acted in brazen disregard of AAUP’s major provisional guidelines such as the Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure and Recommended Institutional Regulations on Academic Freedom and Tenure.  

“We will be proposing to eliminate some programs, transforming and improving some to match our vision of becoming a Metropolitan University and combining some with other programs to eliminate duplication. The decisions we have to make will not be easy—but they are absolutely necessary,” Speaking for the administration perspective, President Flanagan stated in a segment from a Greater Portland Chamber of Commerce event called Eggs and Issues.

The AAUP’s report was answered with a nine-page letter from President Flanagan discrediting some of the major points of the investigation. The argument that emerges is about the financial state of USM during and before the time of the layoffs. The faculty claim that the layoffs, which were attributed to financial exigency, were not demonstrated to be “bona fide.” The administration claims the financial trouble is real enough to warrant such measures, without seeking consent or advice from faculty. This fundamental premise on which the 2014 layoffs were built continues to be at the center of labor and student relations issues continued until 2016.

In 2016, an arbitration was conducted to investigate the alleged contract disputes that were put forth by AFUM. The arbitrator, Mark Irving, concluded that USM did follow the contract for 25 out of 26 faculty members laid off in 2014. According to a Portland Press Herald article by Noel K. Gallagher, Irving wrote in the detailed 56-page ruling that, “the overall conclusion is that USM and the system had good faith financial justification for the retrenchments that were announced in October 2014.”

This decision marked the final ruling on the difficult and painful chapter in USM’s history. The faculty and staff who remained at USM or were rehired were left with a feeling of discontentment and grief surrounding their administration’s ideologies. Paul Johnson, a USM professor of Sociology and is the Grievance Chair for AFUM since 2014, heard the brunt of the negativity and knows just how much damage was caused throughout the turmoil. Johnson outlined how this has put extra pressure on faculty who sometimes juggle 60-plus advisees, and full teaching loads along with additional requirements by the university.

“We as a faculty are concerned about the large advising load we have,” Johnson said. “I’ve got 60 students to advise. If you want us to do this advising and do it well, the advising takes time.”

Among the retrenched faculty was Julie Ziffer, a USM physics professor who believes the cutbacks were an “unconscionable and direct attack on students as well as faculty.”  Ziffer’s department was understaffed and were experiencing teaching and advising overloads.

“I was and am angry towards the decision makers at that time,” Ziffer said. “They acted on incomplete information and at the behest of political appointees.”

Ziffer adds that keeping a dialogue open is crucial to help foster better faculty relations. “The administration needs to have face-to-face interactions with faculty, students, and staff,” Ziffer said. “USM is an educational institution and we must have the resources necessary to provide a quality education.”

This idea of open communication and face-to-face interactions is at the heart of a new way of thinking at USM, which arguably began when Glenn Cummings was inducted as the new president in July of 2015. President Cummings is former speaker of the Maine House of Representatives and and member of the USM faculty. Cummings started his new presidency with a $6 million deficit and a 13 percent drop in fall enrollment for the 2015 school year. With a university on the brink of collapse, and a staff and faculty still grieving from layoffs, arbitration and rehires, Cummings began to right the ship.

With a bold and meaningful statement about what he valued as a leader of an academic and community institution, one of President Cummings first acts was to reinstate former USM Classics professor, Jeannine Diddle Uzzi, to the position of Provost. The Provost of a university or college is a chief academic officer who handles budgetary and academic affairs. The Provost collaborates with the President as well as Deans, Faculty and Staff to set overall academic priorities. At schools struggling with labor relations and rapid employee turnover, the position for a Provost is significant.

What President Cummings was looking for was someone who was, first and foremost, an excellent teacher who loved her students. “She was a great advisor and a great teacher, and her students loved her back.” Cummings said. He pointed out the fact that she had two books published with Cambridge University Press and holds a Ph.D. in Classical Studies from Duke University, which also helped her gain credibility with the faculty. “For me, I look at the character of the person and if they take care of their students, where they graduated from and stuff like that are less important to me but the fact that she was credible with the faculty on that level was really good,” Cummings said. This philosophy of putting the student’s experience first instead of at the bottom line is at the heart of USM’s newly regained ideology.

“I also chose her because I wanted to make a statement to this USM community and to the state of Maine that of those 51 faculty that lost their jobs three years ago, many of them were excellent.” Cummings said. “They were some of the top-quality professors and educators at this university.” President Cummings wanted to show the community that he understood the hardships affecting faculty and students and wanted someone internally symbolic of this past struggle.  

By aligning himself on the same side of faculty instead of opposing them, Cummings opened up the lines of communication that were damaged from the rapid turnover of the past four USM presidents. Provost Jeannine Diddle Uzzi was terminated as part of the 2014 layoffs from her position in the Classics Department of USM. When President Cummings contacted Provost Uzzi about coming back, she had already been hired at another job and was reluctant, to say the least, about returning to the university that had hurt her.

“I had only met him once and we had never worked together,” Uzzi said of Cummings. “My name kept coming up as someone who was strong in teaching and strong in academic advising. I think he knew I would be compassionate.”

Uzzi was the perfect candidate for such a position due to her first-hand experience with budgetary hardships as well as the grieving faculty at USM. Provost Uzzi acknowledges that grief and mourning can be worse for those faculty that were hired back after the retrenchments. “Grief is cyclical and is still bubbling up in USM,” Uzzi said. The grief that remains can be put to good use to make sure the issues of the past don’t resurface. By using her past experience as a retrenched professor, Provost Uzzi has a unique and valuable perspective that others have to respect.

Provost Uzzi points out that when other faculty or staff are having trouble swallowing a budgetary decision, she has the ability to say no because she has seen what damage a fiscally irresponsible administration can cause. Even President Cummings has witnessed her strength of resolve. “There have been meetings where faculty want money for various positions and I have listened to her say, ‘we are not going to do that right now, we are going to be really careful because we have learned a tough lesson,’” Cummings said. According to Cummings, if the request for money and provision continues from faculty without resolve or rest, Provost Uzzi will say, “One of us at this table has lost their job because we didn’t carefully manage the budget. It was me. I’m not going to let anyone else have that experience.”

Along with a gift for empathetic fiscal discipline, Provost Uzzi is also focused on retention and degree completion. She knows that ethically, leaving students with a large amount of student debt without a degree is wrong and dangerous. Growing retention rates and improved faculty and administrative relations are positive developments, but USM is not out of the woods just yet.

“Until enrolment goes up significantly, the budget will remain conservative,” Uzzi said. “We have to be very careful with spending, but we can make small investments to fix departments.”

Provost Uzzi said that she and President Cummings are trying to add 10 to 12 new faculty to various departments each new year. Provost Uzzi highlights the importance of creating a list of priorities based on need. “When people leave or retire, the leftover money must be used to fill in the gaps with the greatest need.” This is a different strategy from former administrations who try to keep the most popular programs filled and attractive. Benefits from having former teachers becoming the administration help bridge the divide between the wants and needs of a university.

Some faculty praise this new academic ideology and want to see it continue.

“Since President Cummings and Provost Uzzi have taken office, I have no doubt that the success of USM is informed by all of us at USM and that the success of the institution is the driver of their decisions,” Ziffer said. “Even when I don’t agree with them, even when I think they might be making a mistake, I do not doubt their motivation. That is the medicine that they offer.”

“We now work with Glenn, we work with the Provost, we work with HR and we work with the Deans. We talk. We go to meetings,” Johnson said. “We file very few grievances now and most of them stem from the past.”

President Cummings and Provost Uzzi have turned USM around by returning to the roots of the university. Instead of trying to be the “metropolitan university” of the future, USM has shifted back to a community based, openly integrated resource, for both students, local organizations and businesses. The relationship with the community and students is now back at the heart of the faculty and administrative ambitions.

During a visit to President Cummings’s office in Portland this week, he identified three different needs that were strategically outlined by the student body that he uses as a guide for what his goals should be. He said that the students themselves provided the architecture to his academic strategy. The first of his three goals was to build a faculty at USM that knows, likes and cares about students and their professional and academic success. The second need is for more money. Students want more scholarship opportunities such as transfer scholarships and grants, as well as high school presidential scholarships for those with a 3.0 GPA or higher. The last thing is that students want to combine real world experience with excellence in the classroom.

“They didn’t want to just sit in classrooms, they wanted to have real world challenges and opportunities,” Cummings said, “Clinics, internships, co-ops and job shadowing that get our students the networking and the skills they need for their resumes.”

The improvements at USM since the 2014 retrenchments are calculable and apparent. New leadership’s emphasis on improving the inner working of USM’s communication and grievance channels, students have become the focus again. Students experience and success should be at the heart of any educator’s or administrator’s motivations no matter how off track an institution becomes financially. Since President Cummings’ inauguration, the $4 million deficit has improved to a $8 million reserve and has afforded USM some stability and security. USM has also seen its seventh straight semester of growth in enrollment numbers, according to Cummings.

“This means that high school students, transfer students, community college students are saying, ‘that’s the place to be.’” If USM continues to grow and become a more dynamic and interconnected, the future looks bright. Knowledge and understanding flow freely between administrators, faculty and students. Without the open communication, the desire to connect, care, and center the college experience around the students themselves, USM could lose all that it has gained back in the last three years.

Leave a Reply

Please fill the required box or you can’t comment at all. Please use kind words. Your e-mail address will not be published.

Gravatar is supported.

You can use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>