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Maine Lawmaker Proposes to Temporarily Halt UMaine System Cuts
03/26/2014   Reported By: Jay Field

State lawmakers are unlikely to consider a bill this session that would temporarily halt the elimination of teaching positions and programs on University of Maine campuses. The UMaine System faces a $36 million budget shortfall due to declining enrollment, tuition freezes and flat funding from the state. Rep. Ben Chipman, a Portland Independent, introduced the measure this morning, after days of outcry from students and faculty over proposed cuts at the University of Southern Maine. Jay Field reports.

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USM is being asked to cut $14 million. That's 10 percent of the campus's entire budget. Top administrators and a university taskforce had warned the USM community that painful decisions were at hand. But the foreshadowing did little to soften the blow when the cuts finally became public earlier this month.

On Wednesday, after days of protests, faculty and students came to Augusta to try to persuade lawmakers to intervene.

"Two of my professors have been cut in sociology," says USM student Caroline O'Connor. O'Connor has a dual major -Sociology and Women and Gender Studies - and a Theater minor.

"Many of the professors who teach cross-listed courses in Women and Gender studies have been cut. Two faculty members have been cut in Theater," she says.

In all, USM plans to cuts as many as 50 faculty and staff positions. It's also proposing the elimination of four academic programs, including the graduate degree in American and New England Studies. Administrators at the University of Maine at Augusta have cut 24 jobs and phased out two associate degrees. And the system's flagship campus in Orono is being asked to find $12 million in savings.

"There is a crisis right now in our public university system - our students and faculty are asking for help," says Rep. Ben Chipman, a Portland Independent. Chipman is offering help in the form of a bill, quickly thrown together and unveiled Wednesday morning, at a rally at the State House.

The measure would place a temporary, year-long hold on all cuts to positions and programs on UMaine campuses.

"This bill will bring students and faculty together from all seven campuses to find solutions between now and the end of the year," Chipman said. "This group will thoroughly examine the University of Maine System distribution funding to campuses, the amount of money spent on administrative salaries and unrestricted reserve funds, and recommend changes to improve the entire system."

Some USM faculty have accused the university system of being less than forthcoming about its finances. In a guest column in the Portland Press Herald, Susan Feiner, a professor of economics, took the system to task for laying people off and cutting programs, while sitting on a growing, unrestricted reserve fund that now tops out at more than $180 million.

Use that money to plug all the budget holes, Feiner and others argue. The problem with that idea, administrators say, is that a large bulk of the yearly reserves are used for scholarships, deferred maintenance and other needs. The system, they say, only has a true rainy day fund of about $15 million.

"Just trying to tap into it now to reduce the cost to students or save departments, when they should be restructured, is not a good use of revenue," says Joni Finney, a professor of higher education at the University of Pennsylvania's Graduate School of Education.

All over the Northeast, says Finney, states are struggling with the same problem: declining enrollment at flagship public universities. Systems in Maine and elsewhere, she argues, have been slow to cut costs and refashion their academic offerings to attract an emerging population of would-be students that's getting older, not younger.

Finney says Maine would be wise to look at how Maryland dealt with the challenge.

"They reduced a lot of what they called lower-quality and lower-enrollment programs," Finney says. "They trimmed administrative staff and really decided what they needed in terms of teaching. Not only did they do that, they came up with a whole new finance plan for higher education. And it sounds like that's what Maine needs."

Finney says Maryland lawmakers were more willing to engage, once the university system had made these changes.

Late Wednesday, legislative leaders in Maine said they were unlikely to push Rep. Chipman's bill this session. At least for now, it looks like lawmakers here want to let the system slog through the difficult process of restructuring, before being open to talking about new approaches to funding and other challenges.

Photo: USM students protest cuts to faculty and programs, by Caroline Losneck.


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