FARMINGTON — Nine faculty members at the University of Maine at Farmington learned Monday, May 2, that their positions were being eliminated.
The eliminations were confirmed by Margaret Nagle, interim executive director of communications for the UMaine System. She said that all took place in the Humanities and Social Sciences divisions.
University of Maine System officials have declined to confirm which departments saw eliminations “because that would necessarily identify individual faculty,” Nagle said.
But according to multiple sources, including Creative Writing Professor Gretchen Legler, the eliminations have removed all of the staff in the Women’s and Gender Studies program, Philosophy/Religion department, and Modern Languages department.
“They solved the problem by just simply eliminating … gutting, decimating programs,” Legler said. “We have these major programs, programs that define the humanities and the liberal arts, and now they no longer exist.”
Three other faculty positions were eliminated in the Geography, History and Psychology departments, according to a retrenched faculty member who wished to remain anonymous for fear of impacting the potential to find another job.
Retrenching is defined as a method to curtail expenses and economize, which often means cutting staff. It is generally about eliminating the job position, rather than firing or laying off a particular employee while keeping the position in the company. Depending on the situation, retrenched employees may either lose their job or, if qualified, have an opportunity to apply for an open position in another department.
Five of nine were tenured positions, Legler added.
Beyond course offerings, rising senior Karly Jacklin said that the retrenched faculty members were advisors for the Jewish Student Union, Queer Student Union and feminist zine “Ripple”; leading a backpacking trip to Spain; and the campus resource for the InterVarsity Christian Fellowship.
Multiple sources who spoke to the Franklin Journal said that the only Black faculty member on campus was retrenched.
Nagle said the reasons nine faculty members were “retrenched or laid off involuntarily” are “budget and enrollment challenges at UMF.”
Nagle added that an additional nine faculty members at UMF “elected to voluntary retire” in a move to “close the $5 million budget gap.”
At an announcement for the hiring of interim President Joseph McDonnell, Chancellor Dannel Malloy described the eliminations as an effort to “realign this university’s faculty to the number of students that it has.”
Malloy and other communications from the UMaine System have expressed a retrenchment process is underway for these faculty members in order to find them new positions within the system.
“We will work to to the highest extent possible to see those individuals (on faculty) stay here in Maine and have a job should one be available to them,” Malloy said.
The Franklin Journal spoke with five faculty members — three of whom have had their positions eliminated. A number of faculty members asked to remain anonymous for fear of impacting their job security — whether via incoming retrenchment or in a prolonged future at UMF.
The nine faculty members, most of whom have been at the university for one to two decades, have been left reeling by the shake up — and the overall UMF faculty community, shocked.
Leading up to an announcement to staff via email Monday, May 2, faculty members describe the communications between upper administration and faculty as “vague and really striking,” said one anonymous retrenched professor.
In late March, faculty members received an email offering planned-retirement incentives to avoid any retrenchments.
Legler said it felt like an “ultimatum” — as though “‘You people who are qualified for retirement, if you don’t retire, your junior colleagues are going to lose their jobs,’” she said.
In the following weeks, faculty members heard little from administrators.
One anonymous tenured professor whose position has been eliminated said that faculty were aware of the university’s financial problems — but “we didn’t know the scope and scale of the crisis.”
“Speculation” spread around campus, Legler said.
Ann Kennedy, whose position as the last core faculty member in the Women’s and Gender Studies division was eliminated, braced for impact to lose her job despite the fact that all of her classes filled up each semester.
A majority of the communications came from The Associated Faculties of the Universities of Maine union representatives, multiple professors said.
The state of cuts was “largely uncertain,” said a retrenched tenured faculty member.
But they added that an email was expected May 2.
“Everybody sort of knew that that was sort of the big day cuts were coming; that was going to be the day,” the faculty member said.
On April 29, the retrenched faculty members said they received emails requesting they meet with Eric Brown, the provost and vice president for academic affairs .
A majority met with Brown on Monday and learned their positions were being eliminated; efforts would be made to find them new positions in the UMaine System.
Now that the retrenchments have been announced and eliminated faculty informed, “we still don’t know the rationale,” the anonymous tenured faculty member said.
“We’ve seen no report from administration about exactly what the criteria (for eliminations) was,” that retrenched faculty member said. “It’s spoken (in) general, ‘we have enrollment problems; we’re worried about enrollments.’ But no actual specific data about how they chose certain programs or certain faculty members.”
The remaining faculty members are also still in the dark.
“We, as a community of faculty, were not told, ‘these were the people who lost their jobs,’” the anonymous existing faculty member said. “It was just euphemistically said, ‘we’ve lost people.’”
Faculty members are also disappointed to see the eliminations come during what is already a major time of change at UMF.
The Farmington Flyer, UMF’s student newspaper, reported that “UMF will be implementing a new curriculum and credit system in the fall of 2023 … to match UMF’s curriculum with other University of Maine System schools … (and) make the transfer of students to UMF easier.”
The currently tenured professor who wishes to remain anonymous said preparing for the credit change is like a “part-time job on top of our full-time jobs.”
“We’ve scrambled to do everything that they asked us to do to change … in the middle of a pandemic … and it hasn’t been enough,” said Kennedy, the Women’s and Gender Studies faculty member. “It’s been a very stressful year for everyone (at) UMF. And this is the second stressful year.”
Kennedy added that there has been no recognition from administration of the work faculty and staff has done to prepare for this transition and guide students along the way.
Administrators say the decision to eliminate nine positions was to fill the gaps of a $5 million budget deficit.
Some faculty members find that reasoning fishy, at best.
Legler believes the administration could have found “creative solutions.”
“I think the solution would have been to find the money and to stick up for the liberal arts,” she said. “There are all kinds of creative ways to make money appear.”
One anonymous retrenched faculty member feels that “the shape of the eliminations” was neither strategically aligned with the school’s goals nor “creative.”
Kennedy is puzzled, because her Introduction to Women’s and Gender Studies and Introduction to LGBTBQ+ Studies courses “both filled regularly.”
Overall, Kennedy said this decision was “not done as a long-term vision for sustainability.”
“I think that things have been done extremely hastily in the last year,” she said.
“I think the money thing is just an excuse … and I think that’s what a lot of people think,” Legler said.
The university’s elimination of staff in the Humanities and Social Sciences divisions may be part of a larger national trend.
The Guardian reported in April that “1,500 book bans have been instituted in US school districts in the last nine months” which have to do with racial and LGBTQ+ identity and issues, among other topics.
“At least 36 states have adopted or introduced laws or policies that restrict teaching about race and racism,” Chalkbeat reported in February. Some states are now instituting what opponents term “Don’t Say Gay” bills that critics say bar educators from mentioning LGBTQ+ related topics in K-12 schools.
In the wake of what they see as censorship in K-12 schools, college faculty around the country are speaking out and raising concerns about how publicly-funded universities are likely next on the list.
There have also been concerns nationwide about the opposition of and attempts to defund liberal arts in higher education that extend beyond the last few years. Experts question whether liberal arts will “survive” the 21st century; they see priorities shifting toward “job-oriented” programs such as STEM and business.
Legler believes that shift is happening at UMF.
Legler believes Edward Serna, the university’s outgoing president, sought to “no longer market (UMF) as a public liberal arts institution” during his time in the role.
Maine state Rep. Scott Landry, D-Farmington, confirmed suspicions of that shift amid lower enrollment and increased interest in community colleges.
“I think you’re gonna see (UMF administration) try to get back to their education base, teaching,” Landry said. “Which is what Farmington was. It was a normal school, back when my grandmother went there … around the (1920s).”
But Legler, Kennedy and rising junior Annie Newman say it’s especially important for public universities in rural areas like UMF to offer liberal arts studies.
“UMF has amazing students who come from underprivileged backgrounds who are getting a very high-quality liberal arts education for a really decent price,” Legler said. “Where else would they go to get that education? They need a public liberal arts institution to provide that for them. They can’t afford to go to Colby or Bates.”
And more so, students are attracted to UMF for its unique liberal studies programs.
Newman, who is studying creative writing with, hopefully, a Spanish minor, said she came to UMF because it is the only school in New England with a creative writing major.
All of the interviewed faculty members stressed the importance of liberal studies, especially during this time in history.
Legler said many describe “liberal arts education as a cornerstone of democracy.”
It “trains young people to think creatively and critically about the world around them; to develop their sense of curiosity about other people; to care about things; about the value of pushing their boundaries and thinking outside the box,” Legler said.
“What we do (in liberal studies) is empower (students) to think about themselves, not just as someone who needs a job, but someone who wants to contribute to society,” Kennedy said. “The lesson of the liberal arts is that we can all contribute. And that may not be in your job, it may be in other ways.”
Impact on students
The faculty members expressed concern for the students, whose curriculum and college careers stand to change due to the eliminations.
Kennedy said she’s heard from her department head that course-cancellation notifications will soon be sent out to students planning to take her Women’s and Gender Studies courses.
Newman said one of the World Languages courses she was planning to take in the fall has been canceled.
This cancellation has thrown off track Newman’s goal to acquire a minor in Spanish, she said. If an equally difficult course is not offered before her graduation, she likely won’t acquire that minor.
Jacklin, the rising senior who is studying creative writing, said her plans to minor in Philosophy/Religion are also up in the air after the final class she needed to obtain her minor in the fall was canceled this week.
This also puts on hold her plans to apply for graduate school to obtain a higher degree in theology.
Unless they find a professor to fill that gap by spring 2023, all of those plans fall to the wayside in Jacklin’s UMF career.
Jacklin and Newman are not the only students impacted by the change. Jacklin said she’s heard from students who have had to “rewrite their entire schedule for next semester.”
Jacklin is also upset by the silence from administration. There has been no communication between UMF administration and students about these faculty eliminations, she said.
Any information Jacklin has gathered has been through fellow students and activists on campus.
“I feel like they are keeping students in the dark purposefully,” Jacklin said.
She described the notification about her canceled course as “curt” and “callous.”
“There was not an explanation beyond recent staffing changes,” she said. “The students whose departments are going (under) have a right to know.”
Jacklin also feels the eliminations, focused in humanities and other diverse subjects, comes at precisely the wrong moment.
“The political climate right now is so relevant to this firing,”Jacklin said.
Kennedy, the university’s last Women’s and Gender Studies core professor, was informed her position would be eliminated the same day that Politico reported the Supreme Court is gearing up “to strike down the landmark Roe v. Wade decision” that gave Americans the federal constitutional right to an abortion.
Kennedy was awaiting a decision from UMF and the Supreme Court at the same time, she said.
“There’s politics to what I do and what I teach,” Kennedy said. “I don’t think students should see education as a place that the political and ethical, which are closely connected, don’t have a place to be discussed.”
The three retrenched faculty members worry about the impact this will have on students. The remaining faculty are all up to the task of maintaining UMF’s quality of education, but it sends “the wrong message.”
“It results in less empowered students,” Kennedy said. “(It results in) students who feel that there are subjects that are not welcome in the classroom; that if (the subjects) are not on the curriculum that maybe they’re not important enough for attention; or that there isn’t any need for these classes anymore.”
“I also think that sometimes, my class is the only class in which students will talk about some experiences that they’ve had,” she added.
An anonymous retrenched professor said they also think the slashes to liberal studies will “scare” students, current and prospective. These cuts could end up impacting enrollment, he said.
The eliminations go beyond losing courses and professors to teach them. Faculty members say the energy on campus has also changed.
Legler said this has been “incredibly demoralizing” for the faculty members that remain; the safety net of tenureship has vanished.
“It makes me feel like any of us are in danger of losing our jobs at any point,” Legler said.
The anonymous faculty member still on staff said that the decisions feel like they have come from “a force that is moving the chess pieces in ways that we as faculty and staff don’t have any control over, to a large degree.”
The faculty member said they feel “it’s going to be challenging going forward because we’re already stretched so thin.”
Faculty members are also sad to see their colleagues leave such a small, tight-knit community that goes beyond the role of coworker.
“We spend so much time working together here on campus, but then we also spend time being with them off campus. Our families interact with one another, our children go to school with one another,” the anonymous faculty member said. “These are deep and abiding relationships with people that run the gamut of professional and personal relationships. To lose them is to feel a loss, collectively.”
“It’s always a loss when the table shrinks,” Kennedy said.
The three retrenched faculty members expressed sorrow for likely having to leave an area they’ve set deep roots in for decades with a strong “community (they’ve) cultivated.”
All said they don’t anticipate finding other jobs in academia in the area — perhaps even in Maine. One professor said that they are considering leaving college academia altogether.
A retrenched professor added that the impacts will extend beyond the university into the town of Farmington, where many of the retrenched faculty members contribute community service.
An uncertain future at UMF
It is unclear what the future of these programs holds. Because UMaine System administration declined to comment further, there has been no word on whether adjuncts will be brought on to fill the gaps these faculty members will leave behind.
Legler and Kennedy also worry these are not the last of the cuts.
Jacklin pointed out that the new interim president, McDonnell, was at the helm of the University of Southern Maine as provost when 50 faculty positions and two academic programs were cut in 2014.
However, there was little hope expressed in interviews that anything could be done to reverse the current decision.
Still, Legler acknowledged it was necessary to go out on a limb and speak out by allowing the Franklin Journal to name her in this story.
“(If) they fire me, I’ll be in good company with nine of my colleagues who just got fired,” she said.
Directly following graduation, more than 30 students, faculty, staff and community members gathered on UMF’s Merrill Lawn to protest the eliminations. The protesters, some wearing caps and gowns, talked about their disappointment with the administration’s decision and how retrenchments were handled. Multiple students said they will likely need to delay their graduation dates by up to a year due to the courses impacted by the retrenchments.