On Austerity Chopping Block, Students & Faculty Occupy University

Source: Common Dreams

Faculty and students launched an occupation of a Maine university building Friday to demand a halt to mass faculty layoffs and department slashes that they say are part of the austerity cuts devastating public education nation-wide.

Over 100 people launched a late-morning occupation of the hallway outside the Portland office of the University of Southern Maine provost Michael Stevenson — the hallway that faculty passed through Friday on their way to receive lay-off letters.

People sat on the floor and leaned against walls as chants and even songs broke out amid discussions about “next steps” for holding the university accountable. “We’re using this as a space to organize,” said Meaghan LaSala, student in Women and Gender Studies, in an interview with Common Dreams.

Occasionally, laid-off faculty addressed the crowd in emotionally-charged statements just moments before or after receiving notice.

Meanwhile, at a nearby university event for gubernatorial candidate Michael Michaud, students took to the microphone to speak out against budget cuts.

“I’m staying here as long as it takes,” Jules Purnell, junior in Women and Gender Studies, told Common Dreams while occupying the hallway. “We’re in a scarcity economy, and we are all terrified right now, but we have to think about solutions.”

Protesters said 11 to 15 full-time faculty members at the university were handed letters on Friday notifying them that they were being “retrenched” or forced out of their jobs, and USM President Theo Kalikow and Provost Stevenson announced plans to lay off more faculty and staff and eliminate four programs: American and New England studies, geosciences, arts and humanities at the school’s Lewiston-Auburn College facility, and recreation and leisure studies.

Wendy Chapkis, professor in Sociology and Gender and Women’s Studies who participated in the occupation, told Common Dreams that the lay-offs hit faculty of color the hardest. “We’ve been agitating for years for the university to hire women of color,” said Chapkis. “Now they are laying off dozens of faculty members, starting with the most recent hires. Out of the 8 people I know who were laid off, three of them are minority faculty.”

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