Dig the new University of Maine System motto: “We had to destroy the university in order to save it.”
That’s why, in the face of a fiscal crisis so dire it requires slashing campus operating budgets and cutting another 160 positions, a system administrator gets a raise costing $60,000. To improve its messaging, the system created a new administrative position — a plum job for another former political appointee — at a cost of about $187,000 when benefits and payroll taxes are included.
Even facing crippling fiscal circumstances, the University of Maine System chancellor and the Board of Trustees managed to scrape together almost $250,000 for administrators who don’t teach, grade papers or rub shoulders with students in the classrooms, halls and offices of the university system’s paint-peeling, ceiling-leaking, windows-rattling, rundown buildings.
The system’s tired refrain is that enrollments are dropping because there’s more post-secondary competition and the pool of 18-year-olds is shrinking. Business analysts the world over would describe this as a “demand constraint” or “excess capacity.” Hence the necessity to “right-size” the campuses. The system office in Bangor says that because the University of Southern Maine has the most excess capacity, it has to take the largest cuts.
The system has it backwards.
At USM, slash-and-burn budget cutting over the past five years is responsible for declining enrollments. Here’s why: The easiest budget lines to cut are for courses taught by part-time (adjunct) professors. Without part-time instructors, departments can’t staff all the classes they could fill if they could offer them. No budget means no instructors for classes even if they’ve enrolled to capacity for decades. The result is predictable: When students can’t schedule the courses they need to complete their degrees, they leave — presumably for competitor schools.
At USM, there’s no “demand constraint.” Instead, there’s a deliberate policy of creating “supply constraints.” USM’s master of social work program is illustrative. The program admits 50 of the roughly 100 students who apply. The program could easily admit another 25 students if it had professors to staff the additional courses needed.
Even the most math-phobic can follow this example. Full-time, in-state tuition for the 60-credit, two-year graduate degree works out to $11,400 per year before fees are factored in. After two years of admitting 25 additional students per year, USM would be up $855,000 in new tuition revenue. If the School of Social Work hired five new professors ($60,000 per year plus $30,000 in benefits and payroll taxes) the cost would be $450,000.
Even with other employee-related expenses factored in, these new hires wouldn’t (on net) cost USM or the University of Maine System anything — they’d generate new revenue. But that’s not what’s going to happen. The School of Social Work will shrink when two more professors retire and aren’t replaced. The same dynamic is at work in all of USM’s graduate programs.
Austerity budgeting is even more perverse at the undergraduate level. The typical USM undergraduate pays $294 per weighted credit hour (this accounts for the roughly 10 percent of USM undergraduates paying out-of-state tuition). If the average class enrolls 30 students, with most classes carrying three credits, the total tuition revenue associated with each undergraduate class exceeds $26,450.
The University of Maine System cuts USM’s funding. In turn, USM administrators slash part-time hiring. Departments offer fewer courses as a result, and USM classes can’t get larger because of a lack of large classrooms. Since few adjuncts are paid even a measly $4,000 per course, every $100,000 cut from part-time budgets leads to about 25 fewer courses offered. Tuition revenue falls by more than $660,000 (25 courses x $26,450). That’s a net loss of half a million bucks — a giant hit for a system supposedly in a revenue crisis.
Administrators lament that they can’t afford to duplicate degrees, majors and minors available elsewhere in the university system. There’s no alternative, they say. We have to shutter academic departments, retrench tenured faculty and lay off staff. It’s a death spiral.
What will the new USM look like?
If administrators have their way, USM will operate on the cheap — a Potemkin university — with as few tenured professors as needed for accreditation, just like Southern New Hampshire University, the school we’re constantly told to emulate. So configured, USM will throw off millions the system can channel to other University of Maine System campuses. Budget crisis solved. Mainers seeking high-quality, post-secondary education in the state’s economic and cultural heartland? Their only option will be to look elsewhere for higher education opportunities.
“We had to destroy the university in order to save it.” Mission accomplished.
Susan Feiner is a professor of economics and women and gender studies at the University of Southern Maine.