PORTLAND, Maine — Portland city, business and nonprofit leaders said on Wednesday they’re in no position to critique a series of controversial faculty and program cuts at the University of Southern Maine.

But in a news conference at City Hall, the group — which included Portland Mayor Michael Brennan and Portland Community Chamber of Commerce CEO Chris Hall — voiced enthusiasm for a rebranding of the school as Maine’s “metropolitan university.”

That sentiment fell short for USM students and faculty in attendance, who said they came to the event hoping to hear Brennan and others staunchly oppose the cuts.

Wendy Chapkis, a professor of sociology and women and gender studies, told the civic leaders they need to demand that the Legislature provide public universities with more funding to stave off the layoffs.

“Unless there are new resources, the [metropolitan university] plan isn’t going to matter,” said Chapkis, one of a handful of students and faculty to address the group Wednesday. “Stop telling us we need a new plan. We need more money.”

But Brennan, a former legislator, suggested it would be unlikely in the short term to rally enough legislative support to allocate the $36 million in additional funds necessary to patch the budget hole that University of Maine System officials say they’re facing for fiscal year 2015.

As for where the cuts take place to solve the budget problem without more state subsidies, the mayor said, “I’m personally not in a position to show an allegiance to one particular program or another.”

“These are decisions that need to be made by the faculty, by the students and by the administration,” said Brennan, a graduate of USM’s Muskie School of Public Service, from which two faculty members were laid off.

Hall echoed those comments, saying he doesn’t have the background knowledge or expertise to weigh in on which positions or programs are retained at at the university. But Hall said he’s excited about the “metropolitan university” concept, and the prospects for further collaborations between the business community and the school as it seeks to expand research and internship partnerships.

The forward-looking metropolitan university vision is one USM President Theo Kalikow and other school leaders hope will help reduce the sting of 20-30 faculty cuts and the elimination of at least three full programs, saying the savings will help streamline the university’s budget as it rebuilds in that urban image.

However, those cuts, which Kalikow has said come in response to a looming $14 million budget shortfall, touched off a series of impassioned student protests.

The debate was even taken to Augusta, where state Rep. Ben Chipman, I-Portland, joined the student activists to seek legislation that would place a moratorium on University of Maine System cuts and study distribution of funds throughout the network of campuses.

The bill did not receive enough support from lawmakers to be successful, but the local clash over the layoffs rose in profile enough to attract the attention of liberal New York Times columnist — and Nobel Prize-winning economist — Paul Krugman.

University of Southern Maine has campuses in Portland, Gorham and Lewiston.

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, has repeatedly said the universities are victims of stagnant state funding, frozen tuition levels and dropping enrollments.

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

A fourth program that had been on the chopping block, recreation and leisure studies, will be saved from elimination by folding its two degree studies into the USM School of Nursing, Kalikow announced last week.

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

Opponents of the eliminations have argued money could instead be saved through better management of the university, or that the financial crisis has been overblown — or outright fabricated — by system officials.

Brennan and Hall — who were joined at Wednesday’s news conference by Jennifer Hutchins, head of the organization Creative Portland, and Mark Swann, executive director of the homeless service provider Preble Street — steered clear of speculating about the legitimacy of the budget gap.

All four who spoke at the event said it was important that whatever restructuring takes place now is part of a plan to strengthen USM over the long haul, and they argued the “metropolitan university” blueprint is just such a plan.

Amid all the cuts, system officials have announced plans to launch an information technology program at USM, part of a strategy to invest in programs tied to growth industries and appeal to busy, professional and nontraditional city students.

The students and faculty in attendance, however, argued the current faculty and program eliminations will undercut the university’s stability in the future, and hinders the school’s ability to achieve such a vision.

“This doesn’t sound like a metropolitan university, it sounds like a trade school,” Jules Purnell, a student in the women and gender studies program, told Brennan. “And whenever I try to express those concerns, I just get [told], ‘Don’t go negative.’”

BDN staff reporter Nell Gluckman contributed to this story.

Seth Koenig

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