Hundreds of Students & Faculty Occupy College Campus to Fight Cuts to Public Higher Ed
University of Southern Maine student Meagan LaSala and professor Rachel Bouvier explain how cuts disproportionately target faculty and will trigger a decline in quality public education
JESSICA DESVARIEUX, TRNN PRODUCER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Jessica Desvarieux in Baltimore.
On Monday, hundreds of students, faculty, and supporters rallied at University of Southern Maine against the announced layoffs of 20 full-time faculty members. Monday’s rally follows a Friday occupation of the school’s provost’s office, who announced the cuts. Additionally, four academic programs will also be slashed.
The cuts are part of a $14 million budget shortfall and a part of broader cuts across the University of Maine system, which expects to cut more than 150 faculty and staff members this year.
Now joining us to discuss all of this are our two guests, directly involved with the rally.
We have Meaghan LaSala, who is a student at the University of Southern Maine.
And also joining us is Rachel Bouvier. She’s an associate professor of economics at the University of Southern Maine, and she found out just recently, last Friday, that she was laid off.
Thank you both for joining us.
RACHEL BOUVIER, ASSOC. PROF. OF ECONOMICS, UNIV. SOUTHERN MAINE: Thank you.
MEAGHAN LASALA, ORGANIZER, STUDENTS FOR #USMFUTURE: Thanks for having me.
DESVARIEUX: So, Meaghan, I want to start off with you, because these actions have been described as a student-led and -organized protest. Tell us why you’re protesting.
LASALA: Sure. Well, we’re definitely working in collaboration with faculty and staff also.
And we’re protesting for a lot of reasons. Part of the reason we’re protesting is because many of the faculty that are being laid off are tenured faculty, and the faculty have not been properly consulted in these plans about which departments are being eliminated.
But we also think, more fundamentally, that there really is no reason behind these layoffs. Susan Feiner is a professor here. She’s done a lot–she’s an economics professor and has done a lot of research into the actual financial situation of our university system. We have seven universities in our system. We got a bond rating of AA-, which is the fourth highest possible grade. We got a Standard & Poor’s rating that was stellar, saying the outlook for our system is stable over the next two years. And so we really question whether there even really is a financial crisis happening here.
And we want to look at the way money is being spent in the administration throughout the University of Maine system. I think we really see this whole supposed financial crisis as part of a nationwide trend of the corporatization of public higher education and the corporate war on public higher education. And so we’re interested in talking about it in those terms.
DESVARIEUX: So, Rachel, you were a tenured economics professor, yet you found out that you were being laid off on Friday. The university came out and they essentially said that the order of layoffs was actually a product of the system’s faculty contracts. Those contracts are negotiated by the union. What’s your response? And was that interpretation of why you were laid off accurate?
BOUVIER: Well, according to the union contract, yes.
What the administration is doing here is they are targeting certain programs for retrenchment. And then, once they’ve targeted those certain programs for retrenchment, then it goes by reverse seniority. So even though I have been at USM for nine years–I was hired in July 2005–I am the least senior member in my department. And so I was given a letter that my position would be retrenched, along with the chair, by the way, of the department, Vaishali Mamgain, who has been here for 15 years.
DESVARIEUX: Okay. I want to, though, speak specifically to what the university is saying to why they have to make these cuts. They see dropping enrollment and this budget gap. So at the end of the day, how else are they supposed to deal with leaner budgets if not make cuts? What’s your response, Rachel?
BOUVIER: I agree that they do need to make cuts. I think that there’s quite a bit of redundancy in the university overall, specifically in the administration. But also I think that even if they do need cuts, even if they do need to make cuts, then they need to do it in a much more intelligent way than what they’re doing.
Basically what I’ve been told is that they looked at the number of majors per faculty member, which is–it seems on the surface to make sense, but they were not looking at the number of student credit hours, the number of students that we actually teach. So, for example, in the economics department, we not only teach economics majors, but we also teach students in the business school, and I personally teach students in the environmental science and policy program. And that was not a factor in deciding where these retrenchments should take place.
So the issue for me is not whether the university should make cuts but where it should make cuts. And I think a lot of the noise, too, around–in these protests has been the idea that the administration should share a lot of the–should share some of the hurt that they’re causing here. And there have been layoffs in the administration, but we don’t feel that cutting the faculty and cutting the very faculty who are dynamic and involved and bring, you know, fresh ideas and innovation into the university should be where those cuts come from.
DESVARIEUX: Okay. Meaghan, I want to turn to you, because you’re a student there, and I can imagine that when you decided to become a student, that you weren’t expecting to also have to organize and fight this fight. So just describe for us in essence what is really motivating you, what is pushing you. Was there a direct experience that happened to you where you realized that you had to speak out about this?
LASALA: Sure. Well, you know, I consider myself to be a place-based student. I live and work here in Portland, Maine. And part of the reason I’m–I’m also a nontraditional student. And part of the reason I decided to go back to school was because I saw that the University of Southern Maine was such an incredible resource here in my home town.
And what I see happening is people being told that they can no longer have a humanities education here, they can no longer have a thriving social sciences department. I think that this is what we’re moving towards, and I really want to stand up for southern Maine’s right to have a thriving university here in our area.
DESVARIEUX: Alright. Meaghan LaSala, also joining us Rachel Bouvier, thank you both for joining us.
BOUVIER: Thank you.
LASALA: Thanks for having us.
DESVARIEUX: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.
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