University of Southern Maine is cutting 50 faculty positions and eliminating two academic programs to shave $6 million off the university’s current budget gap of $16 million.

It’s the first of a three-step plan to significantly overhaul and downsize the university, which has faced multi-million deficits for years and seen enrollment drop almost 30 percent in the last five years.

“It’s a triage budget,” President David Flanagan said Monday, who notified faculty of the cuts Monday by conference call and email. “I believe there are many faculty that understand we must change or die.”

The administration is proposing cutting the master’s program in applied medical sciences and its five faculty, and the undergraduate French program, with three faculty members. The University of Maine System Board of Trustees just voted late last month to eliminate three other USM programs, the American and New England studies graduate program, the geosciences major, and the arts and humanities major at Lewiston-Auburn College, which is part of USM.

The cuts are the latest blow at USM, which needed $7 million in emergency one-time system funds to help close a $14 million gap in the school’s $134 million budget for the fiscal year that began July 1. Monday’s cuts are aimed at closing the budget gap in the upcoming budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1 next year.

The affected departments range from physics to theater.

“For many years we have been cutting budgets without changing our academic programs or the culture of the university,” Provost Joseph McDonnell wrote in an email Monday to faculty. “Our current crisis is too deep to merely trim the sails. It will require fundamental change in academic programs, in our culture, and in expectations of faculty inside and outside of the classroom.”

Flanagan said previous cuts to academic programming and faculty only solved “five percent” of the financial gap.

“Our obligation is to solve 100 percent of the problem,” he said. If the university only raised tuition to close the $16 million gap, he added, it would have meant increasing tuition from about $7,600 a year to about $10,000 a year.

“We’re not going to go there,” he said.

The programs targeted for elimination have had few graduates and don’t produce enough tuition revenue, McDonnell said in his email.

Applied medical sciences graduated an average of 4.6 majors per year over the last five years, and despite “robust” funding for research, direct costs exceed tuition revenue, McDonnell wrote. No financial figures were included in the email.

The French program had an average of 4.8 students over the last five years, “making this program too expensive to justify a major,” he wrote.

“I’m a little bit shocked,” said Nancy Erickson, the sole full-time French professor at USM. She has taught at USM for 18 years, she said, and is waiting to hear if she will lose her job. Officials said they do intend to continue to offer French classes, based on demand, but will cut the major.

“It’s cut and cut and cut and cut,” Erickson said of the years of chipping away at USM. “What’s coming out is the soul of the university.”

In his email, McDonnell also laid out some new expectations for workloads, including training all faculty to teach online, and all faculty teaching four courses a semester. Flanagan said such “productivity measures” would allow USM to continue to offer the same number of courses and credit hours, thus retaining tuition revenue despite making the faculty cuts.

“If (faculty) want to have productive careers here, they have to come up with a new way to operate the university that’s more efficient and more student-centered and deliver credits more efficiently,” he said.

In his email, McDonnell also previewed some of the academic overhaul proposals underway, mostly around consolidating smaller departments. The final academic overhaul plan will be announced by the end of December.

“We essentially have two options: Eliminate many of our academic programs or reconfigure our many small departments into more interdisciplinary programs. We chose to pursue the latter course to fundamentally transform the university with the cooperation of the faculty,” McDonnell wrote. “If we are unable to secure that cooperation, we must pursue the first path and eliminate more programs.”

Among the proposed changes:

– Merging the music, art, and theatre programs

– Combining English, philosophy, and history into one department with distinct degree programs

– Refocusing the Muskie School around the environment and health

– Combining chemistry, physics and math into one department.

– Combining engineering, technology and computer science.

In the past, student activists have said the cuts to faculty and programming is part of a trend to turn higher education into a business, or the “corporatization” of higher education.

“I reject that characterization as meaningless,” Flanagan said Monday. “I think it’s a noble mission. Having affordable, accessible education in Southern Maine is an enormously important undertaking and one I take very seriously. But to do this, we must be financially sustainable.”

English Department Chairwoman Jane Kuenz said the department –and other departments at USM – have already made deep cuts.

“We’ve made really hard cuts … there is nothing else to cut here,” Kuenz said. “I don’t know how this university is running, quite frankly.”

“I think people in Maine have to decide if they want a university,” she said, adding that the legislature should be providing more financial support. “If you want a university, you have to put money into it.”

Jerry LaSala, president of USM’s Faculty Senate, said the administration’s plan was made with no input from faculty.

“The workload question is going to require review and negotiation with the faculty union. All of the various proposals for merging of programs and program elimination and reorganization are going to require review of the Faculty Senate,” LaSala said.

LaSala said his first official notification of the proposal came when he was forwarded a copy of the press release announcing it.

“Faculty have been very much out of the loop,” he said.

Monday’s announcement follows years of deep cuts at the system’s seven campuses across the state. Systemwide, it took cutting 157 positions and $11.4 million in emergency funds to close a $36 million deficit in the system’s $529 million budget. Without changes, that deficit is projected to grow to $69 million by 2019.

The USM cuts announced Monday amount to almost 8 percent of the university’s current 659 faculty members, and are just the first wave of layoffs, officials said. Two more waves of cuts, for administration and staff positions, are scheduled to be announced before the end of the year.

The positions need to be cut either through retirements or layoffs, and faculty members have until Oct. 20 to decide whether to retire. Any specific layoffs will be announced by Oct. 31.

The 50 faculty cuts includes the 15 professors associated with the five academic programs that have been cut or are slated for elimination in Monday’s announcement.

Officials said the faculty cuts are being announced in advance of other USM budget cuts because under the contract, the administration can only lay off faculty in October or March, and the university needed to notify them before the end of the month. Under the contract, the least senior faculty are laid off first.

The layoffs are not immediate, and in some cases may take years, since faculty members may be needed to teach students still completing degrees in eliminated programs. Any student already majoring in a program that is eliminated must be allowed to complete their degree or the school risks losing its accreditation.

In addition to personnel cuts and the academic reorganization, Flanagan said he also plans to increase USM’s marketing and recruiting efforts, and would ask the trustees for approval to offer “more flexible” tuitions, as some other University of Maine campuses do. Flanagan said he would initially target tuition rates for graduate students from out of state, noting that USM had very few of those students and a more attractive tuition rate could help recruitment.

This story will be updated.

Staff Writer Noel K. Gallagher can be contacted at 791-6387 or at:

[email protected]