The University of Maine System Board of Trustees and the University of Southern Maine administration are dismantling USM programs by eliminating tenured faculty in a hasty and short-sighted manner. The University of Maine System’s policy of sharing governance with the faculty has been ignored.
Maine’s economy is the loser in all of this.
Career educators and researchers who have devoted years to building strong academic programs at USM are being dismissed with little more than a three-minute opportunity to publicly defend their programs. One of these is the Department of Applied Medical Sciences at USM, a robust graduate research program offering opportunities for master’s and Ph.D. degrees and research projects for undergraduates with a strong interest in biotechnology.
It came into existence when the growing biotechnology industry in southern Maine needed local employees with specialized knowledge and expertise and sought USM’s help. It was especially gratifying at the Board of Trustees meeting on Oct. 24 to hear numerous biotechnology leaders (CEOs, company presidents) passionately describe how this USM program enabled them to start businesses, to develop satisfying careers, and to find employees with skills essential to their industry.
Full-time biotech employees seeking either a master’s degree or just specialized courses have been able to take evening courses and use the five-story modern science wing on the Portland campus built with $20 million in bonds and supported by the annual commitment of the state of Maine through the Maine Economic Improvement Fund to its public universities ($2.9 million to USM in 2013) to advance research and economic development targeting seven key industries in Maine, including biotechnology.
But Applied Medical Sciences won’t exist to support this robust biotechnology industry in southern Maine in a few weeks.
The decision to strip Applied Medical Sciences from USM appears to be based on:
— A flawed examination of budgetary numbers — a single AMS faculty member being eliminated has brought to USM $6.5 million in grants between 1999 and 2014, and the five tenured AMS faculty members brought in grant money averaging over $850,000 for each of the past five years.
— The criterion of number of graduates — quite a few master’s degree students don’t complete their degrees for a variety of very good reasons, e.g. they applied to and were accepted into other professional programs, they chose to meet their family obligations by taking a good job with a biotechnology company.
— The failure of the USM administrators to forge an alternative path. AMS students with or without a graduate degree are success stories; they pursued biotechnology as a career under the mentorship of experienced scientists and found good jobs in Maine.
Pre-college students lose, too. Federal pre-college education grants brought AMS faculty, staff, and graduate students into Maine classrooms for research projects providing resources and role models as the pre-college students did DNA extractions, cloned genes, studied bacteriophages, and used electron microscopy resources at USM. These unique interactions were both a vital part of graduate students’ educations and an opportunity for students to imagine the possibility of a scientific career. For some of those pre-college students, it was life-changing.
Pre-college teachers lose, too. AMS education grants provided professional development classes for science teachers at USM.
As a retired professor of biology at Western New England University, I was privileged to be closely involved in these classes and found teachers to be wonderful students. They want to know, to really understand, and to convey the excitement of molecular biology, genetics, virology, and immunology to their students. But their formal science education may have ended a decade or more ago. The exciting biology is still based on what is in their classroom textbooks, but with a lot of new twists. The AMS educational staff have worked to make new concepts accessible to any teacher willing to give up six-or-so Saturday mornings or two weeks in the summer to participate. And some have come back again and again as we change topics as new discoveries are made or as research in the AMS laboratories progresses.
All of that at USM will be eliminated as well, despite the fact that teachers want it and, as one has told us: “It has been the best staff development I have experienced in ten years of teaching.”
Gail Fletcher is project coordinator for Maine ScienceCorps, a laboratory-intensive science education outreach project connecting USM graduate bioscience education with high school classrooms across Maine.