#USMFuture group announces #NoMoreNice campaign- “we’re lawyering up”

Photo by Chris Shorr, BDN.

Photo by Chris Shorr, BDN.

The #USMFuture group has released an exclusive statement to ‘Fighting the Tides’ announcing several new developments in their mission to stop what they call “draconian measures” taken by University of Southern Maine president Theo Kalikow’s administration.

The student led group has launched a crowd funding campaign with the goal of $10,000 to help cover costs for things like an audit of the university; an investigation into waste and oversight in university systems; and even “lawyering up” with the intention to “investigate potential class-action lawsuits.”

The new campaign has been dubbed #NoMoreNice, here’s what they have to say:

“While no one in the USM administration or the UMaine System office will give you a concrete answer as to what a “Metropolitan University” is, in practical terms it has come to mean that no one’s job is safe except for the politically connected few at the very top of the administrative food chain.

In the midst of the current supposed budget crisis, the UMaine System hired Dan Demeritt to be the new director of public affairs. The combination of arrogance and tone-deafness behind this hiring boggles the mind. The same man who was once responsible for putting the PR spin on the leadership of Governor Paul LePage, and who resigned amid allegations of real estate impropriety, will now be running damage control for the negative publicity being generated by the UMaine System’s own deeply unpopular policies. Since Mr. Demerritt will be collecting $125,000 annually (actually costing the System $187,000 when benefits and payroll taxes are included) for his troubles, he might do well to start by spinning his own hire. Compounding matters, the System circumvented its own required search and hiring processes in this case; Demerritt was simply installed into a newly created position under “emergency” hiring contingencies.

Students For #USMFuture could have saved the System office a lot of money. We have been offering our free PR advice for months: engage in shared governance, involve all stakeholders in decisions, be transparent, make cuts as far from students as possible, let the world-class professors and programs at our university speak for themselves.

But administrators continue to disregard the input of organized student and faculty groups, including the Faculty Senate. In a statement released on Friday, June 13, along with the new budget, USM President Kalikow suggested that there was not enough time to implement the Faculty Senate’s alternative budget proposal—which identified  $5 million in savings without cutting a single faculty or represented staff position—for the 2015 fiscal year. Yet somehow there is always enough time to eliminate another program, retrench another tenured professor, or fire another staff person. Kalikow stated, “I intend to continue the program elimination process begun for American and New England Studies, Arts and Humanities at (the Lewiston campus) and Geosciences.”

Sounds clear enough, right? These are the same three programs that were targeted back in March. But Kalikow is quick to correct those who read that statement to mean that these programs are being eliminated: “Don’t put words in my mouth…My intent is to continue the process…We just need to keep looking at it.” So again, the sky is falling, we’re killing your programs, or we’re not, but we haven’t finalized anything so don’t quote me on that. The fact that these three programs are both popular and profitable—and in the case of American and New England Studies, one of only two programs of its kind in the country—suggests that something other than budget concerns is spurring the rapid transformations at USM.

You know the way to keep a population obedient? Keep them afraid. Give them an incomplete picture. Keep them panicked and at each other’s throats. The damage that will be left in the wake of the Kalikow administration, the Page chancellery, and this Board of LePage-appointed Trustees will have catastrophic reverberations for the state of Maine for generations.

In response to the draconian measures taken at USM, Students for #USMFuture has used every available official channel to get our message heard. We have staged protests and marches downtown, rallying an impressively broad coalition of community groups invested in the future of USM. We’ve drafted emergency legislation in order to take a realistic look at our system’s financial situation and work together to come up with a sound financial strategy. We’ve delivered respectful, impassioned, and fact-based pleas to the Board of Trustees to not gut our school; we have begged for them to consider those of us who would be most directly impacted by these changes – the students and workers barely scraping by. We’ve met with the President, the Provost, and the Board of Trustees multiple times, and we have been, in general, met with condescension, evasion, and occasionally, outright lies.

We exhausted all of our “nice” options, even as the administration continued to irrevocably deform and diminish our university despite our best efforts. Students for #USMFuture is no longer interested in wasting time in bad-faith conversations while our institution is being systematically dismantled. Now is not the time to play nice.

To that end, we are announcing the launch of a crowd-funding campaign with a goal of $10,000, all of which will go towards:

1.) Financing an independent audit of System and USM finances;

2.) Investigating  conflicts of interest, nepotism, waste, and lack of oversight in system operations; and

3.) Engaging legal counsel to investigate potential class-action lawsuits (on behalf of USM students), or other similar legal remedies.

We continue to oppose the cuts, both suggested and implemented, by President Kalikow and her administration this spring because of their devastating consequences for Maine, its students, and its communities.

We reject last week’s firing of the longtime Director of Student Life, and fixture of the Portland community, Chris O’Connor. The O’Connor firing is yet another a chilling demonstration of how decisions are being made without clear criteria or rationales, and with little regard for what is best for students or the USM community as a whole.

We urge the Board of Trustees to reject President Kalikow’s proposed budget for fiscal year 2015, and to take into consideration the alternate budget developed by the Faculty Senate at USM. The faculty budget was the result of weeks of extraordinary efforts by various faculty members; yet given Kalikow’s offhanded dismissal of the faculty plan (and of the Faculty’s accompanying vision statement), it now seems to have been so much busywork, assigned by the President as a way to distract the faculty, staff, and students while the administration continued to execute its own murky agenda.

The faculty took the challenge of developing a nuanced and effective plan seriously, after witnessing the depredations inflicted upon USM by President Kalikow’s proposed cuts. The de facto dismissal of that plan, in addition to the administration’s failure to build genuine consensus, its complete lack of transparency in the deliberative processes, its refusal to offer coherent and specific criteria for proposed cuts, and its concurrent  disregard for academic and community life at USM have dire consequences.   These ill-conceived policies and practices are deeply, deeply unpopular, and are certain to cause more student unrest, to further weaken USM’s already plummeting academic reputation, and to elicit more opposition from stakeholders in the southern Maine community.

Students for #USMFuture is committed to keeping an affordable, accessible, comprehensive, and diverse public university in the great city of Portland, and we believe that the proposed cuts are detrimental to our vision for USM. We can’t say it enough: USM is an invaluably precious community resource, and the people of Southern Maine will not let it be destroyed.

So now we are lifting our eyes up from the distraction of the budget details, and taking in the big picture. We’re drawing a hard line. We’re lawyering up. We’re hiring accountants. We have allies in the press and in the Statehouse. If the administration continues to move this program elimination process forward, they must know: not with our consent, and not without a fight.

#NoMoreNice”

Note- This statement was a collaborative effort by members of #USMFuture, but I received it from group member Meaghan LaSala. Meaghan can be contacted through the #USMFuture Facebook page.

Chris Shorr

About Chris Shorr

Chris is a lifelong Portlander who works on a lobster boat, advocates for the marginalized and downtrodden, and occasionally ruffles feathers in City Hall and Augusta.