When University of Southern Maine administrators announced mass faculty firings and departmental cuts, students, faculty, and staff protested by taking over part of a university building last Friday. A few days—and sit-ins and walk-outs—later, their continued mobilization against the "national corporate war on public education" appears to be resonating with students and university workers across the country.
"We've been getting an outpouring of support around the country from different universities," said Meaghan LaSala, student at the University of Southern Maine and organizer of the student actions, in an interview with Common Dreams."We're organizing in the context of the national corporate war on public education."
Earlier this month, USM president Theo Kalikow and Provost Michael Stevenson announced a push to cut four academic programs—American and New England studies, geosciences, arts and humanities at the school’s Lewiston-Auburn College facility, and recreation and leisure studies—and up to 50 faculty and staff. The first round of lay-offs took place Friday when a dozen faculty members—including tenured professors—were handed "retrenchment" or layoff letters.
Over 100 students and faculty responded Friday by staging an occupation of the law building that houses the Provost's office—lining the hallway that faculty were forced to walk through to receive their layoff letters.
The student senate soon after passed a vote of no confidence in President Theo Kalikow and her council.
When students and faculty—including some who had been recently fired—returned to resume their sit-in at the law building on Monday, they found it locked and classes inside canceled. "We are so far removed from the upper levels of this University system that when we come looking for simple answers they handcuff doors shut," reads a statement released by Students for #USMfuture.
"Regional public universities like USM are perhaps the canary in the coal mine that is public education, a coal mine that is going to collapse under the weight of austerity and debt." —USM philosophy professor Jason Reed
"We decided to have a student walkout and a rally in front of the law building instead," said LaSala. "Hundreds of students walked out and rallied in front of the law building for two hours in the cold and marched across campus where we set up headquarters in the Woodbury campus center. We organized here until late in the night to plan next steps."
Students say they continue to receive gestures of solidarity from across the country—including a statement from renowned activist and scholar Noam Chomsky, who called their protests "badly needed." Students from Arizona and Montreal voiced their support, and other Maine university students have taken steps towards their own organizing.
David Osborn—member of the American Association of University Professors and contingent faculty member at Portland State University in Oregon—told Common Dreams that the USM protests have struck a nerve because they highlight opposition to the "nation-wide structural shift in society towards a managerial model in which universities are increasingly run like they are businesses."
USM administrators have blamed flat-lined state funding under Governor Paul LePage, as well as a tuition freeze, for what it says is a system-wide funding gap of $36 million.
Yet Susan Feiner, economics professor at USM, says that administrators' claims that they were forced to hand out mass layoffs are suspect. The University of Maine system received an AA- bond rating from Standard & Poor, which she describes as the "the fourth highest rating possible," in an article in The Portland Press Herald. Furthermore, over the past six years, the University of Maine system has increased unrestricted net assets by $100 million, and in 2013 the total reserves of the system reached $283 million, Feiner points out.
The money that the universities do spend disproportionately goes to the administration. As universities face cuts, "the University of Maine System office in Bangor – where no one teaches anybody anything – spends $20 million a year, almost 10 percent of the state’s higher education appropriation," writes Feiner.
Meanwhile, faculty firings have taken place across the seven universities in the Maine system, with 520 faculty and staff positions cut since 2007 and plans to lay-off 165 faculty and staff this year, according to Inside Higher Ed.
USM students say this is especially devastating at a university that serves a poor and working class population, including many non-traditional students, parents, and workers. "Because I grew up blue collar, I don't deserve a classics degree?" asked USM student Brittany Goldych at a rally on Monday.
"All over the country there is an attack on education and it is really heartbreaking," added Goldych in an interview with Common Dreams.
Paul Krugman took notice of the USM cuts Monday, writing in The New York Times that "it appears that while declining state funding is a key driver of events, the university administration has exaggerated the financial problem; it seems eager to downsize liberal arts and social sciences for reasons that go beyond money."
According to the Delta Cost Project of the American Institute for Research, tuition costs at public four-year colleges and universities have increased almost 160 percent since 1990. Since 2008, average tuition at four-year public universities increased by 20 percent, according to Public Policy organization Demos.
"All over the country there is an attack on education and it is really heartbreaking." --Brittany Goldych, USM student
Every U.S. state except North Dakota used the 2008 economic recession as pretext to cut per student spending on higher education, with 28 states making deep cuts of over 25 percent, according to Demos.
This has led to rising student debt. Over 70 percent of college seniors take out loans to pay for college and graduate school, and students graduate with an average debt of $29,400, Demos finds. Student debt hits people of color especially hard, with 27 percent of African-American students facing debt of $30,500 or more, compared to 16 percent of white students, according to a 2010 study by the College Board Advocacy & Policy Center.
These escalated austerity measures have taken place against the backdrop of decades of top-heavy university restructuring. "The average number of faculty and staff per administrator declined by roughly 40 percent in most types of four-year colleges and universities between 1990 and 2012, and now averages 2.5 or fewer faculty and staff per administrator," reads a February 2014 Delta Cost Project brief. This has led to a shift towards cheaper contingent faculty and graduate student labor and a decrease in tenure-track jobs.
Osborne's union at PSU recently voted to authorize a strike against what he said is the university practice of keeping faculty positions unstable — an issue he says is related to the USM fight. "This is about the future of the university," he said. "The way to articulate a different vision for what university should be and actualize that vision is to build power through organizing."
"[R]egional public universities like USM are perhaps the canary in the coal mine that is public education, a coal mine that is going to collapse under the weight of austerity and debt," writes USM philosophy professor Jason Read. "If this is the case then I only hope that the rest of the nation has students as dedicated and committed to the ideal of public education as those at USM. One can only hope that it is their voices, and not those of marketing or short cited accounting, that are echoed across the country."