PORTLAND, Maine — University of Maine System officials and University of Southern Maine President Theo Kalikow on Wednesday morning tried to put an upbeat spin on a dramatic restructuring of the school, couching talk of deep budget cuts in the context of a renewed vision of the institution’s identity as the state’s “metropolitan university.”

Kalikow trumpeted opportunities for the school to emphasize an urban brand, and hinted at potential future investments in new programs in perceived growth areas such as cybersecurity and entrepreneurship, as well as new health- and business-focused adult completion degree programs.

But audience members at the all-campus forum in Portland largely remained focused on the proposed elimination of four USM programs, between 20-30 faculty jobs and between 10-20 staff positions. Kalikow introduced those recommendations at a Faculty Senate meeting Friday in response to a $14 million budget shortfall at the school.

USM’s $14 million budget gap for fiscal year 2015 is the largest part of a $36 million gap systemwide. Though USM will have to make up for the largest portion of that gap, all seven of the system’s campuses are looking for ways to reduce spending next year.

University officials attribute the shortfall to declining student enrollment plus stagnant revenue, as both tuition and appropriations from the state have been held flat in recent years, while the costs of running the institutions have increased.

System Chancellor James Page reiterated at Wednesday’s forum that he will lobby the board of trustees for some stopgap funding from the system’s $15 million budget stabilization fund, but that one-year boost won’t be enough to negate the need for the program and job cuts outlined Friday.

He also rejected suggestions made by some faculty and students Wednesday that the financial challenges are being overblown by system administrators to rationalize payroll cuts and structural changes they want to implement.

“This crisis is not manufactured,” Page said. “Despite urban — or rural — myth, there’s not a pot of money we’re sitting on up in Bangor and manipulating to redirect costs.”

Former state lawmaker and system trustee Karl Turner told forum attendees Wednesday that if the university’s campuses aren’t restructured to run at lower costs, the budget gaps will balloon up to nearly $90 million by 2019. He added that, with U.S. student loan debt reaching crisis levels, post-secondary schools cannot rely on tuition increases.

“Living with a gap … is not an option, and nibbling around the edges is not going to solve the problem,” Turner said. “Our students and their family budgets cannot be our savior either. Our students and their families, if you excuse the expression, they’re tapped out. The only solution I can think of is a major restructuring of our organization.”

Kalikow did not offer specifics about the breadth of the proposed cuts — which could still be affected by the Legislature’s funding choices and how many faculty and staff decide to retire in the coming weeks. She also offered no specifics on investments the school might make to realize its vision of becoming Maine’s “metropolitan university.”

But she hinted at the potential future introduction of cybersecurity, entrepreneurship and design, consolidating a “small array” of science-based graduate programs under an umbrella master’s of science degree, as well as more adult degree completion programs — “health and business are two we don’t have yet but we should,” she said.

On Friday, Kalikow characterized the push toward a metropolitan university branding as including a focus on “flexible, adaptive and accessible” courses of study for busy, nontraditional urban students.

She also talked about greater collaboration and shared efficiencies between USM’s three campuses — in Portland, Gorham and Lewiston-Auburn — and more use of online courses.

Kalikow said in May she will assemble a committee of faculty, staff, students and community members to guide the university’s move toward its “metropolitan university” vision.

Discussion of those efforts on Wednesday, however, were overshadowed by the looming program and job eliminations.

Kalikow announced on Friday she is proposing to eliminate four programs: American and New England studies, geosciences, arts and humanities at the school’s Lewiston-Auburn College facility, and recreation and leisure studies.

USM Provost Michael Stevenson has said there are about 120 students designated as majors in the programs under consideration to be cut.

David Jones of the university’s recreation and leisure studies program told Kalikow on Wednesday his program generates $50,000 in revenue annually.

“If you look at a graph, we’re on the far right in terms of profitability and popularity,” Jones told Kalikow at Wednesday’s forum. “I’ve given my heart and soul to this system. You have never invited me into your office to talk to me about what I do or who I am. Neither has the provost, yet you recommended the elimination of my program.”

Kent Ryden, head of the free-standing American and New England studies graduate program being considered for elimination, defended his program as being unlike any other between University of New Hampshire and Maine’s flagship campus in Orono.

Cutting the school’s only graduate program in the humanities, he argued, would undermine its placement as Greater Portland’s go-to higher education institution.

“The notion of a ‘metropolitan university’ … rings very hollow,” Ryden said.

Many forum attendees who spoke bristled about suggestions made by trustee Turner and Lewiston-Auburn College advisory board member Rick Vail that USM needs to be run “like a business.” Vail’s straightforward statement that “USM is a business” was greeted by scattered boos.

Others on hand Wednesday morning also took issue with system officials’ suggestions that faculty members have been too combative in recent newspaper commentaries, or that the school’s student-faculty ratio is inefficiently low.

Associate professor of classics Jeannine Uzzi said a university goal of reaching a 23-to-1 student-faculty ratio is misguided and unfair, considering the 15-to-1 ratio found on the Orono campus.

“It never benefits students to get less access to faculty,” Uzzi said. “Students in this region deserve the same access to faculty as those in Orono get.”

Seth has nearly a decade of professional journalism experience and writes about the greater Portland region.