Like so many other institutions in this, our neoliberal land of opportunity, universities have become infested with rent extracting parasites. Were I to say “We call those parasites administrators,” that would be wrong; surely there are administrators who are caring, competent, necessary, and neither over-paid nor corrupt . That said, university administrators are not, by definition, central to any university’s mission: Teaching and research, performed by professors, are. Therefore, it seems odd, or not, that we don’t look to the university administrative layer for budget savings first. But that’s what we’re doing. We’re feeding the tapeworm instead of freeing the host from infestation. The protests against budget cuts at the University of Southern Maine (USM, in Portland, ME) provide an excellent case study. (There are also budget cuts for the “flagship” University of Maine, UMaine, in Orono, ME, but it remains to be seen whether students and faculty at USM and UMaine make common cause.)
First, I’ll look at the protests themselves. Next, I’ll look at the flavor of “mallification” the USM administration proposes in answer to the (putative) budget crisis. Finally, I’ll examine whether the cuts, the budget crisis, and the restructuring are characterized by good faith. Spoiler alert: No.
Here’s the Real News Network Interviews Meaghan LaSala, an organizer with Students for #USMFuture, and Rachel Bouvier, Associate Professor of Economics, both of USM:
I’ll note in passing that it’s a very good sign when students, faculty, and staff exhibit solidarity; remarkably, some faculty took the burden of cuts on themselves in order to spare colleagues. (I’m sure there’s a paper to be written explaining acts like that away for some ambitious neoliberal at a salt- or freshwater school of economics.) It’s also a very good sign when events like this get any kind of national coverage at all. (As even Krugman recognizes, the reasons for the protests “go beyond money.”) These passages in in particular caught my eye:
[LASALA:] And we want to look at the way money is being spent in the administration throughout the University of Maine system. I think we really see this whole supposed financial crisis as part of a nationwide trend of the corporatization of public higher education and the corporate war on public higher education. And so we’re interested in talking about it in those terms.
And what I see happening is people being told that they can no longer have a humanities education here, they can no longer have a thriving social sciences department. I think that this is what we’re moving towards, and I really want to stand up for southern Maine’s right to have a thriving university here in our area.
However, LaSala describes “what we’re moving towards” in negative terms: Missing programs. Can we give a name to the process of corporatization LaSala describes?
The Mallification of Higher Education
In many ways universities in the US have come to resemble high-end shopping malls. They are in the business of building state-of-the art facilities and a reputation that attracts good students, good faculty, and resources (Stephan 2012). They turn around and lease the facilities to faculty in the form of indirect costs on grants and the buyout of salary. To help faculty establish their labs—their firm in the mall—universities provide start-up packages for newly hired faculty. External funding, which was once viewed as a luxury, has become a necessary condition for tenure and promotion.
The shopping mall model puts tremendous stress on universities, especially in a time of flat resources.
(This describes the behavior of the University of Maine System to a tee, since they are increasing facilities spending at the same time they’re cutting faculty.)
The particular flavor of mallification proposed for UMS is described in the weekly alternative Portland Phoenix (which interestingly seems to have survived the demise of the Boston Phoenix). Here’s their description of the USM “funding crisis”:
The public discrepancy over how UMS allocates its funding has been ongoing. Ron Mosley, a business and law professor at the University of Maine Machias, told the Bangor Daily News in March of 2012 that “almost $54 million was being invested in new capital projects” that year, even as AFUM and the Board of Trustees were engaged in an 18-month standoff over a new labor contract agreement.
Such focus on structural enhancements and “administrative blight” has become a trend in higher education in the last few years. That’s a term coined by Benjamin Ginsburg, a professor of political science at Johns Hopkins University, who notes in his 2011 book, The Fall of the Faculty: The Rise of the All-Administrative University and Why it Matters (Oxford University Press), that US campuses have seen far more significant rises in administrators (85 percent) and professional staff (240 percent) than faculty (51 percent) between 1975 and 2005.
Mallification, of course, implies crapification:
A professor for over 40 years, Ginsburg argues that such data are commensurate with a calculated effort in college administrations to achieve neoliberal, profit-based goals such as erasing tenure tracks, reducing political speech, and increasing focus on student job placement rather than encouraging knowledge and critical thinking.
And at USM, “mallification” goes under the guise of turning USM into something called a “metropolitan university,” which is to a real metropolis what Faneuil Hall Marketplace is to the city of Boston, and is to a real university what a trade school is to Harvard:
On Wednesday, between the rounds of layoffs, a university-wide “Transition” meeting was held by the President and University of Maine System Board of Trustees, at which Page and Kalikow announced the decision to move USM toward becoming a metropolitan university. Amidst the tidal wave of boardroom cant employed during that conference — which included USM Foundation chair Rick Vail’s admission of ignorance of the concept of “shared governance” in public institutions; an ill-received analogy of accessible online platforms to Netflix by trustee Karl Turner; a reproach issued to faculty for discussing a public institution’s affairs with the press; and multiple references to students as “customers” — you’d be forgiven for thinking a “metropolitan university” was merely an glitzed-up euphemism for an urban school.
Not quite. The Coalition of Urban and Metropolitan Universities originated in 1990 with a vaguely stated goal of streamlining its educational models across the country. Since that time, it’s become increasingly implemented in public and private schools, both in the United States and internationally. Structurally speaking, it’s a branded organizational framework with ideas increasingly in line with corporate-driven models of education reform, such as utilizing online learning platforms like MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses), increasing student-to-faculty ratios, teaching to a test, employing performance- or outcome-based funding, eliminating and avoiding union and tenured professorship (with a subsequent greater reliance on adjunct professors and lecturers), broadening administrative staffs, and placing greater emphasis on answering the calls of the business community. In the case of USM, as presented in Wednesday’s public meeting, it would mean all of the above.
So clearly, that’s the agenda, rotten in its own terms. Our university is to become a big mall with lovely facilities, a few very well-paid investors, executives, and administrators, and a retail experience for consumers. And retail wages and working conditions for the workers.
A Litmus Test for Good Faith
Are the cuts, the “budget crisis,” and the restructuring characterized by good faith? There’s very clear litmus test that says no. Here’s the USM President:
“The basic facts are: not as many students as we used to have, flat tuition mandated by the board, flat funding from the Legislature and increasing expenses every year,” said Kalikow.
Translation: Shock doctrine.
“There are going to be cuts, painful cuts. The whole system has to learn how to live within a more efficient budget.”
[T]he University of Maine System office in Bangor – where no one teaches anybody anything – spends $20 million a year, .
Just take a look at the budget. The $20 million the system office spends not teaching exceeds the $14.95 million spent annually by the three smallest University of Maine campuses (at Fort Kent, Machias and Presque Isle).
There are 291 people employed at the University of Maine System office, of whom 87 (30 percent) are administrators. One of the most senior, and expensive, positions in the system is that of the vice chancellor for academic affairs. That’s a provost, and there’s a provost on each campus. The system has a chief student affairs officer, as does each campus.
… Any claim that the system is in financial trouble, or that it’s broke, is absurd. If anything’s broken it’s the system’s priorities. The system devotes a mere 27 percent of total expenses to the core academic mission. Every year for the last five years the share of expenses devoted to education has declined while the share sucked up by the administration has increased.
So, 10% of the entire higher education appropriation goes to
rent extracting tapeworms administrative functions not central to mission. If Chancellor Page were serious about “efficiency,” the “System” is the first place he’d be looking for cuts. He’s not. How much sense does that make? Well, if you’re a member of the Democratic nomenklatura, it makes a ton of sense. The Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting:
Hiring records at the University of Maine System show loopholes, waivers and personal and political connections played a significant role in the appointment of seven state officials into some of the highest paying non-teaching jobs in the system.
Six of the seven worked for the same state agency during the administration of former [corrupt Democratic] Gov. John Baldacci and the seventh was a member of the System Board of Trustees during that period.
Each of those job openings, which pay more than $100,000, were given emergency status that allowed the System to waive a policy that requires openings be advertised and a search conducted.
Excluding benefits, the annual payroll for the seven positions is $898,000.
[A] national expert of political patronage said the hires represent an “outrageous example” of using a higher education system to provide safe jobs for those with the right connections.
For the state of Maine, $898,000 is a lot of money.
If Republican Governor LePage wants to demonstrate the good sense he occasionally has , he’d take that $20 million “The System” is sucking up — 10% of the entire higher education appropriation — give back half to the faculty so flipping burgers or retail don’t look like sensible career options, and give half back to the students in the form of a tuition cut. Both actions would obviously be quite popular. And then he could go looking for more cuts in the administrative layer at each individual campus. To get the biggest bang for the buck, I’d suggest starting at the tippy top top of the greasy pole, with the chancellors and the vice-presidents and the deans and the chief officers of whatever, and not with staff who deliver real services to students and faculty. Better teaching! More students! Sure, that might be populism, but what’s wrong with that?
Of course, if the University leadership, especially the Chancellor, wished to demonstrate good faith, they could demonstrate the same good sense before LePage does. Ha.
The last round of occupations came “out of nowhere.” It will be interesting to see if the USM protests spark something similar. Dirigo?
 The process by which administrators get themselves hired after “a nationwide search,” hang around for a couple of years creating churn and making side deals, and then slither off to a fatter host, is a fine example of collective cronyism, and akin to how the corporate C-suite class manages its own affairs. Here’s a fine example, right from USM:
[UMS President] Selma Botman was forced to resign in 2012 after handing out big raises to her top administrative staff while insisting there was no money available for faculty.
Interestingly, Botman used the same modus operandi that former UMaine President Robert Kennedy used at UConn before he “resigned.” Coincidence? Or culture?
 Troll prophylactic: Some have the idea that all university departments must justify their funding by the money they bring in (“every tub on its own bottom”). Even if this were a good idea, such things can’t be predicted in advance. For example, for many years, before he was alienated by a past neoliberal infestation, UMaine’s largest donor was Stephen King’s foundation, and King came up through the much maligned humanities, in the English department.
 LePage gave landfill opponents seeking a public benefit determination a hearing, which the corrupt Baldacci administration did not. That comes under the heading of “good sense.” Troll prophylactic: Did I say LePage was sensible all or even most of the time? No. I did not. I only implied he’s not a corrupt lying weasel that a party worthy of the name “democratic” would long ago have ostracized. That said, apparently similar issues were raised in 2011:
Perhaps most notably, LePage asked trustees to “take a hard look at the notion of a central office” and whether it “adds value” to the system or “adds cost and bureaucracy.”
For whatever reason — I won’t say “cronyism” but feel free to think it — this effort went nowhere, so perhaps it’s time to take a second look. Similar issues had also been raised in 2010:
Critics of the system point to a pervasive pattern of redundant services. Some say, an office like academic affairs is unnecessary as most schools already pay for such a service independently.
“It’s a matter of unnecessary duplication,” said Tony Brinkley, a faculty associate at UMaine’s Franco-American Centre. “It would be nice to have someone, somewhere in the system, truly sit down and actually address these things because it’s about saving precious money.
“Schools like UMaine and the University of Southern Maine, because of their size, pay dearly for a host of what are really unnecessary administrative services. The savings would be huge without that kind of overhead,” he said.
I think Brinkley’s hardly being fair. If you’re collecting a good chunk of that $898,000, the duplication is certainly necessary for you. So let’s show some empathy here.
 If I had to make a guess as to why eminently reasonable proposal hasn’t been adopted, I’d say that the Republican corporate members LePage placed on the System’s Board of Trustees and the Democratic nomenklatura in the university administration have made an unholy alliance against the faculty and the students. The corporations get to turn the university into a shopping mall, and the administrators get to service them and keep their jobs.
To be fair, the University of Maine trustees aren’t nearly as derelict and vicious as the squillionaire trustees of Cooper Union, who destroyed Peter Cooper’s system of free (as in “beer”) tuition, all because of their own failed real estate venture. Tapeworms come in different sizes.