CONTRIBUTORS

If University of Maine System wants to save money, it should start at the top

Posted March 25, 2014, at 12:58 p.m.

I grieve for the University of Maine and University of Southern Maine, the institutions I know best, having taught at both. Previous cuts to these schools have done much harm. The proposed ones are devastating.

The name “university” is an honorable one, implying breadth and depth of subject matter. Earlier elimination of professors and programs depressed enrollment, and these latest ones will accomplish that even more dramatically, leading to even more cuts. At some point, USM and UMaine may call themselves “universities” only by a polite fiction.

For three decades, the number of professors at American colleges and universities has been cut at the same time that administrative ranks have proliferated like fiddlehead ferns in the spring. This change has greatly weakened higher education.

Academic departments cannot expand by their own efforts, but administrations seem to swell naturally. One day, there are two vice presidents, and soon there are three more. The college I attended had a total of four administrators: president, academic dean, registrar and dean of students.

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The University of Maine System reportedly has several administrators who make nearly twice the salary of full professors. I would like to know exactly how many and exactly how much they are paid.

I say “paid,” rather than “earn,” because I seriously doubt that they contribute more to the universities than professors, even low-paid professors, even adjuncts. The system needs its own provost like a moose needs a hat rack. The system office could save lots of money by laying off all of the Baldacci appointments approved by the board of trustees.

I held two minor administrative posts before coming to the University of Maine, and I respect the work necessary administrators do. In one job, I was asked to fire a part-time instructor because his other job, walking dogs, was considered beneath the dignity of a professor. I refused, because what he did on his own time was none of our business. Besides, he was a philosopher.

After a few skirmishes of this magnitude, I was fired. Several people replaced me. Intrinsic to administration is the need for more, ever more.

Proposed cuts at USM, to theater, English, sociology, science, American studies and other programs and departments, will certainly make the institution less attractive, less able to draw students.

One problem is that the success of the Southern Maine Community College near Portland has drawn students away from USM. Another is that as Portland gentrifies, some families there want private colleges or prestigious public universities for their children. A strength of USM has been its ability, at least until now, to provide higher education for many working-class students. Thus, these cuts hurt students who may have few options if the programs in which they are enrolled are targeted.

I know that at the University of Maine, key programs such as history, sociology and foreign languages have been cut to the great detriment of students and remaining faculty. Soon to be cut is employee assistance. The value of this program may be hard to justify in monetary terms, but its existence means that the university is more than a business.

Susan Feiner, professor of economics and women and gender studies at USM, and a distinguished former colleague of mine, wrote recently in the Portland Press Herald that the University of Maine System office in Bangor spends $20 million a year, nearly 10 percent of the state’s higher education appropriation.

Last year “the total reserves of the system reached $283 million because it was able to generate $17 million of operating cash flows. In each of the past six years, the system has taken in more than it has spent. But instead of funding education, they’ve built reserves.”

Thus, there is no financial emergency than can justify the cuts demanded of the seven campuses. The current funding gap for the seven campuses combined is $36 million, according to news reports. This could be covered with barely a dent in the reserves. One hundred and sixty five positions need not be cut; programs and departments need not disappear. No wonder students are protesting at USM.

Do residents want excellent higher education in Maine, or do we want excessive reserves that make us look good to S&P? Apparently, we cannot have both, unless draconian cuts that eat away at the fiber of our universities are deemed justified or inevitable. They are neither.

Given the chasm between the system office’s huge reserve fund and the money needed to avoid all proposed cuts, can we expect more campus protests or pickets at the Bangor office of the University of Maine System — or should I say syndicate?

Margaret Cruikshank taught women’s studies at the University of Maine for 15 years and at USM for several semesters. In fall 2013, she was a Fulbright scholar in American Studies at the University of Graz, Austria.

 

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