I was almost one of the University of Southern Maine faculty members laid off last month as part of the university’s response to a $14 million budget shortfall. Instead, I’m being reassigned, saved ultimately by the retirement of another faculty member in another department.
While my job at USM has been spared, for one long, stressful weekend — as the only untenured faculty member in my department, and one of the more recently hired — I assumed I was going to be laid off. Nonetheless, I feel the same way now about the changes at USM as I did that weekend: They are necessary and have the potential to be a good thing for USM, Portland and Maine.
First, the practical realities: Funding for higher education has been declining for decades, and while I am all for fighting the good fight to restore funding so that all who want to go to college can go without incurring financially crippling student loan debt, it’s going be a while — if it happens at all.
In the meantime, we have to deal with shrinking budgets, rising costs and declining enrollments. Competition from the community college system and Maine’s top-heavy demographics will continue to hit USM especially hard. Even if the political winds change, restoration to previous funding levels is unlikely. Higher education faces increasing competition from other important spending priorities at both the state and federal levels.
Reducing redundancies across the University of Maine System and having each campus specialize in a particular form of university education makes sense. For USM, that means becoming the system’s “urban metropolitan” campus, a model that focuses on graduate and professional education and interdisciplinary degrees, and where faculty and students engage in research locally.
Specialization can reduce intrasystem competition for students, save money and make branding and advertising easier in order to attract students as well as private donors. It also provides Maine students with options depending on the type of education and college experience they seek.
USM is already well on its way to becoming an urban, metropolitan university.
It offers a number of graduate and professional programs: master’s degrees in public policy and management, public health, and community development and planning offered by the Muskie School of Public Service, along with degrees in nursing, social work, statistics and business administration.
Undergraduate USM students can choose from a range of interdisciplinary majors: bachelor’s degrees in social sciences, women and gender studies, art and entrepreneurial studies, and environmental science, planning and policy. Multidiscipline, co-taught courses are among those required of all undergraduates.
Moreover, many USM faculty and staff, along with students, already conduct research for or provide technical assistance to government, businesses and nonprofit organizations here in Portland, throughout the region and across Maine. USM students participate in internships and community service-learning projects with those same entities.
I don’t think the reorganization of USM means a “complete gutting” of liberal arts, as some argue. USM’s liberal arts departments are being downsized, not eliminated.
I also disagree with those who suggest that the changes will turn USM into a souped-up community college (not that there is anything wrong with a community college). The difference between teaching for jobs and careers and teaching for knowledge and critical thinking is being exaggerated in this debate. A good interdisciplinary education that prepares someone for a successful career requires grounding in the liberal arts.
There are elements of the current situation that trouble me. USM’s layoffs, for one, are disproportionately affecting women and faculty of color. In departments with weak performance evaluations once faculty members gain tenure, this can mean the loss of some of the most productive faculty. But laying off untenured or the most recently hired tenured faculty first is dictated by union contract rules. It is not fair to blame USM President Theodora Kalikow and Provost Michael Stevenson, as some have.
In many fields, the entry of significant numbers of women and people of color is a relatively recent phenomenon. This, combined with years of slow hiring, hiring freezes and the tendency for academics to delay retirement, means that USM’s senior faculty tend to be older, white and male.
Like many of my colleagues, I am also troubled by the size of the administration in the University of Maine System. A university needs a certain level of administration, so faculty can focus on academics, and a seven-campus system needs a central administration, but Maine’s university system does seem top-heavy.
As USM economics professor Susan Feiner wrote last month in the Portland Press Herald, the university system’s central office in Bangor spends the equivalent of about 10 percent of the universities’ total state appropriation. This doesn’t even include the administrative components at each of the seven university campuses.
Moreover, as Feiner writes, the share going to administration has increased every year for the past five years, while the share going to teaching has not. Even if we give the administration the benefit of the doubt and allow that, perhaps, some part of this increase reflects a system more complicated to manage, especially as it undergoes reorganization, redundancies and excess need to be cut from administration, too.
Although I see opportunity in the changes underway at USM, I do not mean to minimize the impact on the lives and careers of faculty being laid off or the distress felt by students who received valuable learning and mentoring from those faculty. USM is at risk of losing some very dedicated and highly talented faculty.
I was an undergraduate at USM back in the 1980s (a BA in biology in 1989), and most of the classes I took were as good as — and sometimes better than — those being offered to my friends at higher-priced, more elite colleges and universities. USM has always benefited from being in Portland, a place where many faculty who could have taken jobs at more prestigious universities want to be.
Maine and its students, both current and future, need us to work cooperatively with the administration to ensure that USM’s transition is done right and in a way that minimizes the disruption to students currently enrolled in our programs. “Shared governance” means that the faculty share in the success or the failure of the administration to lead USM during these difficult times. If we can work together productively, creatively and in good faith, there is a real possibility that USM could emerge from the transition a better, more cohesive, even more interesting university.
Lisa A. Morris, Ph.D., is an assistant professor in the Muskie School of Public Service at the University of Southern Maine. She teaches courses in economics and public policy.