PORTLAND, Maine — Faculty and students are fighting back one week after University of Southern Maine President David Flanagan announced a plan that would cut $6 million from the school’s budget by eliminating 50 faculty positions.
His plan, which is the first phase of an attempt to cut $16 million from the budget and reshape the university into a leaner, more “metropolitan” university, would eliminate two programs — undergraduate French and graduate applied medical sciences. That’s in addition to three programs that the University of Maine System’s board of trustees voted to cut in September.
At a meeting on Oct. 10, the USM Faculty Senate supported exploring alternate plans, including one that would eliminate the university’s campus in Gorham. That proposal was presented by business computing professor Tom MacDonald, who acknowledged that his plan may be just as disruptive as the one presented by the administration.
“We have to tell the citizens of southern Maine we can no longer afford to support three campuses,” MacDonald said. “Although I’ve done no research on this, the elimination of a campus would go a long way towards ending our deficit problem.”
USM’s director of public affairs, Chris Quint, said there is no way the university is going to close one of the campuses.
The USM Faculty Senate also supported a student senate resolution which specifically condemned the proposal to cut the French program. The Bioscience Association of Maine has come out against the plan to cut the applied medical sciences program, which it says boosts a growing industry in the state.
French professor Nancy Erickson has launched a letter-writing campaign in an effort to save the program. She said she’s reached out to 32 different constituencies including foreign governments, high school teachers, lawyers who work with immigrants and on Franco-American issues, the university system’s board of trustees and local politicians.
“I think it’s really a dreadful message,” she said of the administration’s effort to cut the program. “Historically, there was so much racism against the French.”
Darien Brahms, a USM student who is in her third year majoring in history and minoring in French, echoed that sentiment in an email.
“Eliminating the French major at USM is essentially sending the message that we, as southern Mainers, care nothing about an integral part of our history as a state and that we choose to ignore the Franco-Americans who make up [20 percent] of our state’s population,” she said in the email.
“French, culturally, is very important to this region,” Quint said. “However, if you look at the criteria that the Provost put out … the French program did not meet the criteria.”
Those criteria are that the programs have student interest and make a financial contribution to the university, Quint said.
In his rationale for cutting the program, USM Provost Joseph McDonnell said that the program had graduated an average of only 4.8 students over the past five years, “making this program too expensive to justify a major.”
Gov. Paul LePage, who is of French descent, weighed in on Monday.
“I don’t mind if they cut it, but they better have one somewhere,” he said on the steps of the University of Maine’s Fogler Library in Orono. He was attending a campaign event with the Youth for LePage Coalition.
LePage said he was in favor of reducing redundancy across the system’s seven universities, a strategy UMS Chancellor James Page has spoken of frequently.
UMaine’s French program graduated an average of 9.2 students over the last five years, including both graduate and undergraduate students, according to the office of institutional research. The University of Maine at Fort Kent also has a French major.
USM students say that French courses are integral to many majors, even if not many chose to focus on it.
“I’m a political science and history major,” said Tom Bahun, who is a student senator at USM. “I’m interested in international diplomacy, and French is the main language for that.”
Quint said the university is committed to offering French courses even if the major is eliminated, which could be taught by part-time faculty or adjunct professors.
Bryan Bozsik, president of the Bioscience Association of Maine, said plans to close the graduate-level applied medical sciences program came as a surprise. His organization works with employers in the industry that includes big names such as the publicly traded companies Idexx in Westbrook and Immucell in Portland.
“If you look how the industry is adding jobs, it doesn’t line up with what they are saying about the direction of the university,” Bozsik said, referring to the stated goal of creating a
Bozsik raised concerns about the timeline for the decision as well. The board of trustee’s Academic and Student Affairs Committee met from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. Tuesday to take public comment.
“One of our biggest concerns is that the university is talking about eliminating the program with 10 days of public input,” Bozsik said.
A decision to close that program, he said, stands to affect a range of businesses in bioscience, from manufacturers to environmental research firms to health care.
Bozsik is taking classes in the program as he pursues his master’s in business administration at the university and said that they have given him unique access to specialized training that’s aided him in his job at the medical diagnostics company Alere in Scarborough.
“[A graduate degree] is essential to get ahead in the life science industry,” Bozsik said, noting that’s not just for technical reasons but also for insurance reasons, as companies demand more advanced training for employees who are making decisions with more risk at stake.
Anne Breggia, who graduated from the program in 1986 and went on to get a Ph.D. in biochemistry and molecular biology at the University of Maine, attended the committee meeting Tuesday and said she reiterated how important the applied medical sciences courses were to her career. She’s the research program director at the Maine Medical Center Research Institute.
“Without that program, I would not be in this position today,” Breggia said in a phone interview.
Flanagan said last week that $10 million more will be eliminated from USM’s budget through cuts in administration and capital expenditures. The cuts are part of a system-wide effort to cut $69 million from the budget by fiscal year 2019.
The full board of trustees will likely vote on the cuts at their special meeting on Oct. 24.
BDN staff writer Darren Fishell contributed to this report.