PORTLAND, Maine — More than 100 University of Southern Maine students, alumni and faculty entered a University of Maine System board of trustees meeting on Monday while chanting “Invest in USM” and “Stop the cuts” and carrying signs with slogans such as “Reject austerity.”
The trustees had just taken a lunch break and were about to resume their meeting on fiscal matters at the University of Maine System when the students entered Sullivan Gym, effectively holding up the meeting.
After about 15 minutes, University of Maine System trustee Sam Collins, who is the chair of the board, stood up to address the students.
“I would be concerned if you weren’t here because that would show your lack of passion for your school and your lack of passion for your courses and your professors,” he said.
The chants grew louder and some in the group booed.
Collins then asked USM President David Flanagan to speak.
“We need to address higher education in this state,” Flanagan said over the chants. “We’ve seen a decline in recent years.
“The next Legislature needs to take up this cause,” he added.
Collins then temporarily adjourned the meeting. When the trustees got up from their seats, some students sat down around the table where the board had been sitting and continued to chant.
The students were protesting the elimination of five academic programs that trustees approved in October and the elimination of 50 faculty positions, half of whom have been laid off. Both measures are part of an effort to cut $16 million from the university’s budget.
The group is demanding a reversal of the cuts.
Neal Young, a political science student who led the group to some degree, called the cuts “incredibly ineffective.”
Other students said the loss of faculty members, and resulting loss of course offerings, will force them to transfer.
“I feel as though the school is attacking the liberal arts,” said Hamdi Hassan, a freshman who is studying history. “I plan on transferring.”
She said she’s begun applying to liberal arts schools in Massachusetts.
At 1:15 p.m., after 45 minutes, the students allowed the trustees to resume their work. Some stayed at the gym to listen to the rest of the meeting.
The system office released a statement on Collins’ behalf just before 2 p.m.
“I understand the frustrations that led to the demonstration that disrupted today’s meeting of the board of trustees,” he said. “Our economic and demographic realities are forcing us to make some very difficult choices as we align the University of Southern Maine with the times and position the university as an affordable institution of higher education into the future.”
He explained that there are places for students to have their voices heard, such as the public comment session at the beginning of the meeting and public dialogues that are set up with administrators.
Not all students who have gotten involved with the changes at USM participated in the protest.
“I would like to see more people showing up at the meetings and taking activism into the boardroom in the appropriate way,” Rachel Cormier, a USM student who is studying women and gender studies, arts and humanities and philosophy. She watched the protest from a distance.
Cormier has served on the committee that is coming up with the metropolitan university concept.
“If 100 students were doing what I do, they could create a lot of change,” she said.