The day the music died at the University of Maine Machias: Why I left AFUM

The day the music died at the University of Maine Machias: Why I left AFUM

My name is Brian Beal, and I am tenured professor of marine ecology at the University of Maine at Machias (UMM). I attended UMM for four years after graduating from nearby Jonesport Beals High School in 1975, and received a B.S. in Biology in 1979. I have held several full-time positions at UMM since May 1985 and joined the faculty and the Associated Faculties of the Universities of Maine (AFUM) in September 1995. I resigned from AFUM in December 2020.

I certainly appreciate and benefit from the work that colleagues here and at the other six campuses in the University of Maine System (UMS) do to represent full-time faculty in collective bargaining and other activities. Numerous decisions related to collective bargaining have disappointed me over time (e.g., no substantive movement regarding merit pay or salary inequities between campuses; pay increases that fail to keep pace with changes in the cost of living). I have never voted in favor of an AFUM contract. Growing up in the local area, I knew if I remained on the clam flats for an additional hour, or fished 100 lobster traps instead of 75, the extra effort likely would translate into more income; yet, that simple formula that seems to work in the private sector does not translate to academe. Nonetheless, I paid dues to AFUM month after month since 1995 thinking, like most I presume, that my contributions would generate some overall benefit for faculty at UMM and across the UMS. And then, an incident occurred on October 21, 2020 that reminded me of the idiom “The Last Straw.”

I was at home watching Game 2 of the World Series between Tampa Bay and Los Angeles when I received a text message from my best friend Gene Nichols. Affectionately referred to as the “Music Man” by anyone who has had the privilege of seeing him perform (or performing with him), he wrote, “I guess I’m done here.” I immediately phoned him not knowing what he was talking about. Gene said he was in his office working on material for his upcoming classes when the head of campus knocked on his door and invited Gene to accompany him back to his office for a Zoom meeting in 10 minutes with human resources staff member from the University of Maine (UM). UMM is now a regional campus of UM, and many administrative duties, including HR, are now supported by people in Orono. Gene said the meeting was brief, and that he’d been fired. FIRED?!

“How can they fire you, you have tenure, you’ve been at UMM since September 1985 (35 years)?!” I said. “You’ve given your heart and soul to this institution, its students, staff, and faculty. You’ve served on faculty committees, taught courses both in and out of your comfort zone to accommodate colleagues, division chairs, academic deans, and presidents. Whenever anyone asked, you consented, whether that was to provide entertainment at every graduation since you first stepped onto this campus, for meetings when the UMS Board of Trustees were in town, or when community groups wanted to use the Performing Arts Center. You were always there. You are UMM’s fine arts icon!”

“They’re down-sizing,” Gene said. “We don’t have a lot of students in music classes anymore. They called it ‘retrenchment.'”  UMM’s Interdisciplinary Fine Arts major was excised recently, leaving a B.A. in Creative Arts that contains 33 credits for its program requirements – courses with the acronym ART, ENG, CMY, or MAR, but none with MUS.

Amazingly, I’d never heard of retrenchment, so I went to the current AFUM contract to see if it was there. Sure enough, there on page 29, Article 17 – Retrenchment: “the discontinuance of a unit member with tenured appointment or continuing contract from a position at any time or a probationary or fixed length appointment before the end of a specified term for bona fide financial or program reasons including temporary or permanent program suspension or elimination.”

I thought surely this can’t apply to Gene. He’s been here for 35 years. While music courses are no longer required in any B.S. or B.A. program, MUS 115 and MUS 103 are still 3-credit and 1-credit options, respectively, in the Core Requirements, and 15 MUS courses still are listed in the 2020-2021 UMM Catalog.

Gene isn’t the kind of guy that gets upset about things, which is about 180 degrees in the opposite direction from me. I was mad! He wasn’t. My world is more black-and-white, and in my world, someone who has devoted 35 years of teaching and accommodating everyone who has asked him to give something with little in return should be able to bow out under their own terms. Gene has taught courses ranging from Chorale (MUS 101), Applied Music (MUS 301 Community Band/Pop Band/Chamber Ensemble), and Songwriting (MUS 223) to special topics and interdisciplinary, semester-long courses focused on the Beetles, the Circus, and Captain Beefheart. Name an instrument that Gene can’t play. He plays just about any brass instrument you could pronounce, as well as both percussion and stringed instruments (except the piano). He can play a Brahms Rhapsody in B minor on the theremin, and any other tune you can name on a saw! My nickname for Gene is “The Genius!”

I ultimately resigned from AFUM because the retrenchment of Gene Nichols is not just unfair, it’s ridiculous, disrespectful, and challenges the very fabric of the phrase “job security.” What is 35 years worth? Apparently, a 10-minute warning that everything that you’ve done to build your career, mentor students and colleagues through the EGBDF’s of music history, theory, listening, and performing, and represent UMM at countless events both on and off campus with the confidence of a maestro, is all discounted, finished, over, kaput!

I asked the AFUM representative on our campus how something like retrenchment is in the AFUM contract. The answer was that “retrenchment is not an AFUM measure but a university measure.” I decided that if, after all the years of negotiations and bargaining, the faculty union was not strong enough to allow the likes of Gene Nichols (or anyone else in his shoes) to decide for himself when the time has come to hang up his drumsticks and leave the academy, then I didn’t see any reason to continue contributing to the organization.