Faculty and students launched an occupation of a Maine university building Friday to demand a halt to mass faculty layoffs and department slashes that they say are part of the austerity cuts devastating public education nation-wide.
Over 100 people launched a late-morning occupation of the hallway outside the Portland office of the University of Southern Maine provost Michael Stevenson — the hallway that faculty passed through Friday on their way to receive lay-off letters.
People sat on the floor and leaned against walls as chants and even songs broke out amid discussions about "next steps" for holding the university accountable. "We're using this as a space to organize," said Meaghan LaSala, student in Women and Gender Studies, in an interview with Common Dreams.
Occasionally, laid-off faculty addressed the crowd in emotionally-charged statements just moments before or after receiving notice.
Meanwhile, at a nearby university event for gubernatorial candidate Michael Michaud, students took to the microphone to speak out against budget cuts.
"I'm staying here as long as it takes," Jules Purnell, junior in Women and Gender Studies, told Common Dreams while occupying the hallway. "We're in a scarcity economy, and we are all terrified right now, but we have to think about solutions."
Protesters said 11 to 15 full-time faculty members at the university were handed letters on Friday notifying them that they were being "retrenched" or forced out of their jobs, and USM President Theo Kalikow and Provost Stevenson announced plans to lay off more faculty and staff and 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.
Wendy Chapkis, professor in Sociology and Gender and Women's Studies who participated in the occupation, told Common Dreams that the lay-offs hit faculty of color the hardest. "We've been agitating for years for the university to hire women of color," said Chapkis. "Now they are laying off dozens of faculty members, starting with the most recent hires. Out of the 8 people I know who were laid off, three of them are minority faculty."
John Eric Baugher, associate professor in sociology who received a lay-off notice Friday after 9 years at USM, told Common Dreams that "university management is pressuring senior faculty to retire to save the jobs of younger faculty" — in what he said amounts to "emotional blackmail."
"This is potentially precedent-setting," he warned. "There are colleges and universities across the country modeling themselves on the corporate world. If they can get rid of fully tenured, salaried faculty, what will this mean for other universities?"
Administrators have sought to place the blame on a tuition freeze and a multi-million dollar shortfall as the state of Maine, under Governor Paul Lepage, flat-lines funding for the Maine university system. Students say they are fighting for more state and federal funding for USM and demanding that universities facing cuts "chop from the top" rather than force students and workers to bear the brunt of austerity.
"A lot of students here are non-traditional and come here as workers and parents," said LaSala. "By instating these cuts they are saying that students in southern Maine have no right to a diverse education. We want our human right to education. This is happening across the country."
A recent report by public policy organization Demos finds that, across the U.S., states used the 2008 recession to justify austerity cuts to higher education funding, and universities are increasingly turning to business models based on rising tuition rates. "In less than a generation, our nation’s higher education system has become a debt-for-diploma system—more than seven out of 10 college seniors now borrow to pay for college and graduate with an average debt of $29,400," reads a summary of the report.
Yet, students and faculty expressed hope that growing movements can buck what they say is a war on public education. "We need to believe in each other, because we are each other's only hope," wrote Purnell in a statement circulated at the protest. "If we are committed to one another and making lasting change, we can do this."
Reports and commentary about USM student and faculty protests are being posted on Twitter.