University of Maine lacks vision for its future

Posted April 02, 2010, at 7:26 p.m.

Over the decade, if not longer, the University of Maine has been faced with severe fiscal challenges. Long before the current recession, the university regularly faced a budget gap.

Year after year, the university managed to balance its budget only through across-the-board 5 percent cuts, more or less. In other words, on a yearly basis the university sustained 95 percent of its programs by feeding them the other 5 percent.

The current recession, which requires even deeper cuts, has only underscored what should have been apparent in any case, that the status quo was leading to sustained decline — slow but predictable — for Maine’s land-grant and sea-grant university.

This year a committee was appointed, the Academic Program Prioritization Working Group, to try to address this problem, and last week the group released it recommendations. Are these recommendations adequate to the problem they propose to address?

In the past — at least insofar as academic programs have been concerned — most across-the-board cuts have been accomplished through the elimination of faculty positions. When members of the faculty have died or retired, they have not been replaced.

What this has meant in practice is that death and old age have become determining factors in shaping the university’s curriculum — natural selection rather than intelligent design. Presumably the success of the APPWG process can be measured by the extent to which its recommendations reflect an intelligent design, a successful contribution to long-term planning.

Since I work as a faculty member in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, I will address the area that I know best. In the case of my college, the APPWG process has been hampered by the lack of any coherent vision for the liberal arts at the University of Maine. The college does not have and has not had a strategic plan for a number of years.

What would we like the college to look like in five years? We do not know. We have consistently avoided the kind of planning process that might enable us to know. As a result there is no college plan that reflects the value of modern languages or theater or music or women’s studies or any of our other disciplines and majors.

Faced with this lack of vision, APPWG has adopted the provost’s metaphor that all our programs are our favorite children but, since only some can survive, they will be judged according to such yardsticks as student enrollment and revenue generated. While these yardsticks are interesting measures, their use begs the question as to what a liberal arts education should be at the University of Maine in the 21st century.

For example, is the study of French — in Maine a heritage language — less significant than the study of English Romantic poetry — my specialty? I doubt very much that a majority of Maine residents would believe that it is.

The lack of a coherent vision for the liberal arts is troubling and speaks poorly of my college. As troubling, however, is the odd character of the APPWG recommendations since most of the cuts it proposes will not in practice lead to significant savings.

How much does the elimination of a major save? No dollar amounts are attached to proposals, presumably because for many of them the amounts involved are negligible when compared to the fiscal problem they propose to address.

In practice, the most significant savings proposed for the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences will come from the elimination of another 20 faculty positions, and as far as I can tell, this will continue to occur as it has in the past — through natural selection — randomly through deaths and retirements. In other words, with much fanfare, the APPWG recommendations only do again what we have been doing all along.

In the March 27 editorial supporting the APPWG process, “Right Sizing Universities,” the Bangor Daily News suggested that those who question the APPWG recommendations “must propose alternatives that will result in the same spending reductions.” Specific alternatives will need to wait for a detailing of spending reductions that specific cuts would achieve, but in the meantime, here are three alternatives that the university and the state might consider: Eliminate departments as the administrative units in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences; expect all tenure and tenure-track faculty to teach three courses a semester; create interdisciplinary pro-grams that draw on the strengths that all the disciplines in the liberal arts entail.

I wonder how much these changes might save. They would certainly require a more intelligent design.

Tony Brinkley is a professor of English and former chair of the English Department at the University of Maine. He is also the senior faculty associate at the university’s Franco-American Centre.

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