PORTLAND, Maine — Students and faculty of one of the University of Southern Maine’s signature graduate programs say even though theirs isn’t one of four programs slated to be eliminated, proposed job cuts could threaten its survival.

The dean of the Muskie School of Public Service argued, however, that there will still be enough faculty on campus to cover the high-profile public policy and management program’s full course load, and in fact provide capacity for the offerings to expand.

“We are committed to re-energizing this program despite these cuts,” Dean Joseph McDonnell said Tuesday night.

The announcement of President Theo Kalikow’s plan to cut four programs and between 20 and 30 of the school’s 310 faculty members in response to a looming $14 million budget deficit has thrown the university into a state of turmoil, with students organizing repeated protests and calling for the ouster of Kalikow and Provost Michael Stevenson.

Some students and professors in the Muskie School’s public policy and management program at USM, a graduate school track for aspiring government and nonprofit officials, are adding their voices to the unrest.

In a Tuesday night meeting on USM’s Portland campus, they expressed concerns that the loss of five of the program’s six full-time faculty members will damage it beyond repair.

That’s a particular problem, said Associate Professor Carolyn Ball, because University of Maine System officials used the stability of the USM program to overcome objections by municipal leaders to the elimination of the entire department of public administration at the flagship Orono campus.

Ball, who is one of two public policy and management program faculty members to be terminated, told the BDN in an email the system pledged to the Maine Town and City Management Association two years ago it would seek accreditation for the Portland-based program as a way of replacing the similar public administration department two hours north.

The debate over the Muskie School program also comes during a week when the school is recognizing the 100th anniversary of the birth of its namesake, the late former U.S. senator and storied Maine politician Edmund Muskie.

USM’s $14 million budget gap for fiscal year 2015 is the largest part of a $36 million gap systemwide reported by the chancellor’s office. 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.

Rebecca Wyke, University of Maine System vice chancellor for finance and administration, reiterated to the Bangor Daily News on Monday afternoon that USM — like the state’s other public universities — is a victim of stagnant state funding, frozen tuition levels and dropping enrollment.

On Friday, 12 faculty members in seven departments at USM were given notice that they will be laid off effective May 31. That number comes in advance of at least eight more faculty job cuts in July when four programs — American and New England studies, geosciences, recreation and leisure studies, and arts and humanities at the school’s Lewiston-Auburn campus — are proposed to be eliminated.

Kalikow has said additionally that between 10 and 20 staff positions will be cut.

Two of the faculty cuts will come from the public policy and management program, while two of its other faculty members have announced plans to retire and a fifth will be reassigned to a different program. That will leave one dedicated full-time faculty member in the program, according to a letter of protest circulated by students in recent days.

The university has countered that, in addition to the one full-time faculty member, there will still be three part-time faculty members and the program will be augmented by researchers from the Muskie School’s Cutler Institute for Health and Social Policy, as well as faculty from other departments.

“As we look at the number of courses we have in the fall, we will be able to fill all of them with ease,” McDonnell told students Tuesday night.

He also said the Muskie School’s community planning and development and public policy and management programs combined to have 10 faculty members serving a total of 75 active students. McDonnell said those faculty-student ratios are unsustainable, and both programs were considered for elimination before a compromise was made to keep them alive with fewer faculty.

The dean also said the program may put the aforementioned accreditation process on hold while it reorganizes over the next year, but he believes it will ultimately be accredited.

McDonnell said Muskie School officials met with accreditors in recent weeks to discuss the program.

“We’re a small program with financial challenges, but they felt that if we laid out what we want to do well and how we planned to do it, they would be willing to accreditate us under their criteria,” he said.

But while many in attendance Tuesday night offered to help highlight the program’s successes, recruit new students and raise funds as the school seeks to weather the cuts, others remained concerned about its future.

“Students have been given assurances that the [public policy and management] program will continue, that courses will be delivered as scheduled in the fall semester, and that these cuts will help strengthen the long term viability of the … program. It is hard to imagine how this will be possible,” said Muskie School student Clyde Barr, reading a letter that had been circulated among students in advance of Tuesday night’s forum. “The reality is that the [public policy and management] program is left standing with one full-time professor, and three part-time professors who are obligated to other programs.”

Seth Koenig

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