A rash of faculty retirements and the resignation of a prominent professor at the University of Maine at Machias have prompted sharp criticism and worries among employees that the small but proud campus is losing ground in the state’s higher education system.
Five full-time faculty members have retired since January 2022 and two more plan to retire this year, a University of Maine spokeswoman told The Maine Monitor. In addition, environmental studies professor Tora Johnson recently announced her resignation, effective at the end of 2023.
“I’ve never been on this campus when the numbers are so low. It’s kind of like a shell of itself,” said Brian Beal, a marine ecology professor who has been at UMM since 1985 and will switch to half time in September.
The departures leave 16 full-time faculty currently available for fall 2023, said Margaret Nagle, the spokeswoman for the University of Maine. There are also about 25 part-timers.
Eric Jones, an associate professor who is UMM faculty president, said the exodus “poses some serious challenges for our academic programs.”
Faculty members say most of their colleagues are leaving because of a retirement incentive program offered by the University of Maine. Machias faculty said the program hit their small campus particularly hard, and they are worried that the openings will be filled by lecturers rather than fully credentialed professors.
The lecturers often don’t have advanced degrees or deep research experience. Beal said the replacement uncertainty is leading his colleagues to ask: “who are we?”
“I am very concerned we won’t all be replaced by tenure-line faculty,” said Lori Schnieders, an associate professor of psychology who is retiring after 50 years in education.
Nagle, the university spokeswoman, said the university has a “critical need” in areas of “high student demand,” and is awaiting word on budget requests. UMM faculty members noted that the uncertainty this late in the year means it is unlikely the openings would be filled with tenure-line faculty. Some faculty members met Friday with university officials.
The University of Maine at Machias is the smallest campus in the state system, with a student headcount of 477 plus another 286 in an Early College program. According to its website, UMM offers 10 bachelor’s degree programs and a number of certificate programs. UMM has three divisions: Environmental and Biological Sciences; Professional Studies; and Arts and Letters.
UMM merged with the University of Maine in 2017. As a result, UMM’s distinctive ship’s wheel logo is gone, as is its “Cappy the Clipper” mascot and the University of Maine Machias green color scheme. Its athletics program was suspended indefinitely during the pandemic.
“That hurt,” said associate professor Jamie Moreira, who has been at the Machias campus since 2007 and is among the retiring faculty.
“For us to lose six faculty at Machias is going to be tough because we’ve been bleeding faculty for a long, long time,” said Moreira, a former president of the local faculty union chapter.
Other universities in the system have also been hit by cutbacks.
The University of Maine at Farmington, for example, considered cutting up to two dozen adjunct faculty earlier this year, according to the Bangor Daily News. In 2022, Farmington lost 18 professors to early retirement and layoffs, the news organization reported.
The departures are coming as some campuses are losing students lured by the state’s free tuition program at Maine community colleges.
“That (free community college tuition) was deeply unwise by the legislature because it put the UMaine system in a crisis,” said Johnson, who noted she was speaking for herself and not the university. “By choosing one specific pathway, the legislature really did a disservice to the state and our future workforce.”
Johnson is well known in her field and deeply involved in Washington County. Much of Johnson’s research has focused on community resilience, and supporting rural communities and their economies. Her recent research includes a study of the health risks faced by Downeast fishermen.
She was recently appointed to a full professorship of geographic information systems (GIS) and environmental studies. She serves as the director of the GIS Laboratory and Service Center and co-chair of the Environmental and Biological Sciences Division.
Johnson said she announced her resignation in part because new rules prevented her from pursuing her research agenda during the academic year. She hopes to construct a job where she can continue to do research work in Washington County.
“UMaine Machias is a really, really special place,” Johnson said. “I’m really committed to Washington County and really committed to the services this campus provides to Washington County.”
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