FARMINGTON — Nine faculty members in the humanities and social sciences departments learned May 2 that their careers at the University of Maine at Farmington – which they had hoped would be lasting – were changing course.
The eliminations, impacting five tenured professors effectively wiped out UMF’s Women’s and Gender Studies division, the Philosophy and Religion department and the World Languages department. Three additional positions were eliminated in the Geography, Psychology and History departments.
They were also academic advisors for students, advisors for diverse campus clubs and initiatives, and community resources.
The UMaine System has described the eliminations as “retrenchments,” a method to curtail expenses and economize, which often means cutting staff and potentially offering them another position in the system.
Alongside the retrenchments, nine other faculty members took a planned retirement offering.
When the announcements were made, Chancellor Dannel Malloy said, “We will work 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.”
In an email message though, UMaine System spokesperson Margaret Nagle said the affected faculty members could also be “laid off involuntarily.”
The effects of the decision have rippled across campus: Students have protested and launched the #SaveHumanitiesUMF campaign demanding Chancellor Dannel Malloy’s removal; the UMF Faculty Senate issued a vote of no confidence in Malloy; and Provost and Vice President of Academic Affairs Eric Brown handed in his resignation due to “the impending change in presidential leadership …”
Students and faculty said the courses in these programs have all been canceled and the UMaine System is now inviting affected students to take “online synchronous and asynchronous courses offered by other University of Maine System campuses.”
But it’s not just courses and programs that have been impacted. Uncertainty tinges the future of each professor who has lost a job; people with roots in Farmington – both longstanding and fresh.
Jonathan Cohen, whose position as a professor of philosophy was eliminated, said in an interview at his UMF office last week that the adjacent hallway lined with offices of other retrenched professors is “the scene of the amputation.”
Cohen came to UMF in 1992 to be an “ambassador of philosophy” as the program’s second ever philosophy professor. During the ensuing 30 years, Cohen raised his family of four children in what he called Farmington’s “very warm community.”
Last fall, UMF was recognized by Washington Monthly’s 2021 annual college rankings as a top bachelor’s college in the country. UMF was also recognized as a top 10 college by U.S. News & World Report in its 2022 Best Colleges rankings in five separate categories, including Best Value College, Top Public College, Top Regional College, Best College for Veterans and Top Performer on Social Mobility.
“We gave [students] with the small, public, liberal arts [programs] a holistic experience,” he said. “I feel like I’m having more of an effect when I help [students] understand philosophical problems better related to their own lives and producing conscientious citizens who care about the community.”
Ann Kennedy, the final core professor to be cut from the Women’s and Gender Studies division came to UMF in 2007 for the same reasons Cohen had. As did Jesse Minor, the retrenched geography professor.
“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.
“I was really drawn to the [liberal arts’] multiple ways of looking at things … using both sides of the brain,” Minor said.
At the same time as the eliminations, Cohen’s father, whom he called a “dedicated intellectual,” died.
Cohen spent April 29 driving to Philadelphia to attend his father’s funeral and sit shiva – a Jewish mourning tradition. At the end of his drive, Cohen opened up his phone to the same email all nine professors had received asking for a meeting with human resources.
He said his father’s passing gave him perspective, but “it was hard to not think about, ‘What does losing my job mean?’” amid his mourning.
Cohen acknowledged that after 30 years at UMF the elimination has a different impact on him than on professors who recently moved to Farmington or who are still raising children.
That includes Minor, who had just begun setting roots in Farmington after joining the university in 2018. “My daughter learned how to walk here,” Minor said. “This was gonna be the ideal place where we could put down our roots, build our community, build our careers and raise a family.”
Now, the question is: Will they leave?
Cohen is doubtful; his wife has built a career in Farmington and he can commute.
Kennedy seems certain she will leave Farmington, perhaps go to the South or West Coast where family lives if she is not able to find work elsewhere in Maine.
And as for Minor? “I simply don’t know,” he said. Minor would miss his mountain biking club for local families, seeing his kids riding their bikes to school, skiing at Titcomb Mountain and walking through the woods.
“[Loving Farmington] is part of what makes this so difficult. We don’t want to leave,” Minor said. “This prompts the question of what I value the most. Is it this career that I worked really hard for and trained in very specific ways for . . . [with] closer student engagement … or do we value something else?”
Though their futures are uncertain, the resounding theme among the faculty members was their love for the students.
Cohen will miss the students for their willingness to learn and their “fresh perspectives” on his lessons. Kennedy said she will “desperately miss the students” she spends most of her time with.
The professors also share fears about how the cuts will impact students’ educations.
It was important to Kennedy that she contributed to UMF’s education on women’s and gender studies in a rural area where these discussions might get “lost.” The importance of those subjects was imbued in Kennedy as a child raised in Alabama by “a working class, feminist mother.”
She’s particularly passionate about her program’s importance in the wake of a U.S. Supreme Court leak indicating the Roe v. Wade ruling giving Americans the federal constitutional right to an abortion may be struck down. That leak was reported the same day Kennedy learned her position was eliminated.
“I think that my classroom is a place where students can really talk about some of the ways in which they’ve been told not to talk about issues, not to talk about experiences they’ve had,” Kennedy said.
“I do feel terrible for UMF. This is an amputation; a real, real loss for the dream of the public liberal arts college,” Cohen said. “For Maine students to now not have that public liberal arts option is a real shame.”
Karly Jacklin, an organizer of #SaveHumanitiesUMF and a rising senior, said this process has been “emotionally devastating” for her and other students. Her college career, anticipated degrees and community have been impacted by the cuts.
“These professors are not only amazing academic instructors, but they are also pillars of our community,” Jacklin said. “These professors are incredibly loved in our community. And seeing them go is appalling.”
While Cohen is “quite proud of what we built” at UMF, “that dream is dead with this amputation.”