Can Protests at the University of Southern Maine Be the Flashpoint That Reverses the Mallification of American Higher Education?

By Lambert Strether

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 [1]. 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.

The Protests

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:

More at The Real News

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

I’d propose, then, “mallification,” inspired by this useful article by Paula Stephen in VoxEU:

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.

Chancellor James Page concurs:

“There are going to be cuts, painful cuts. The whole system has to learn how to live within a more efficient budget.”

Translation: Shock doctrine. And Bullshit. Those are not the “basic facts.” University of Southern Maine‘s Susan Feiner shows why and supplies the litmus test:

[T]he University of Maine System office in Bangor – where no one teaches anybody anything – spends $20 million a year, almost 10 percent of the state’s higher education appropriation.

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). If it doesn’t teach, doesn’t grade, doesn’t create assignments or even talk with the faculty who do all these things, how does the system blow through 20 million bucks a year?

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 [3], 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.[4]

* * *

The last round of occupations came “out of nowhere.” It will be interesting to see if the USM protests spark something similar. Dirigo?

* * *


[1] 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?

[2] 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. 

[3] 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.

[4] 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.

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About Lambert Strether

Readers, I have had a correspondent characterize my views as realistic cynical. Let me briefly explain them. I believe in universal programs that provide concrete material benefits, especially to the working class. Medicare for All is the prime example, but tuition-free college and a Post Office Bank also fall under this heading. So do a Jobs Guarantee and a Debt Jubilee. Clearly, neither liberal Democrats nor conservative Republicans can deliver on such programs, because the two are different flavors of neoliberalism (“Because markets”). I don’t much care about the “ism” that delivers the benefits, although whichever one does have to put common humanity first, as opposed to markets. Could be a second FDR saving capitalism, democratic socialism leashing and collaring it, or communism razing it. I don’t much care, as long as the benefits are delivered. To me, the key issue — and this is why Medicare for All is always first with me — is the tens of thousands of excess “deaths from despair,” as described by the Case-Deaton study, and other recent studies. That enormous body count makes Medicare for All, at the very least, a moral and strategic imperative. And that level of suffering and organic damage makes the concerns of identity politics — even the worthy fight to help the refugees Bush, Obama, and Clinton’s wars created — bright shiny objects by comparison. Hence my frustration with the news flow — currently in my view the swirling intersection of two, separate Shock Doctrine campaigns, one by the Administration, and the other by out-of-power liberals and their allies in the State and in the press — a news flow that constantly forces me to focus on matters that I regard as of secondary importance to the excess deaths. What kind of political economy is it that halts or even reverses the increases in life expectancy that civilized societies have achieved? I am also very hopeful that the continuing destruction of both party establishments will open the space for voices supporting programs similar to those I have listed; let’s call such voices “the left.” Volatility creates opportunity, especially if the Democrat establishment, which puts markets first and opposes all such programs, isn’t allowed to get back into the saddle. Eyes on the prize! I love the tactical level, and secretly love even the horse race, since I’ve been blogging about it daily for fourteen years, but everything I write has this perspective at the back of it.


  1. MikeNY

    Good piece, Lambert.

    Gotta keep alive the establishment meme that ‘education is the ticket’ to riches and success in America, so EVERYONE can work at Goldman and Google — or be a public university administrator! That means not wasting time and money on frippery like philosophy or literature, because markets. Heaven forfend we pay a living wage for the jobs our economy *actually produces*, instead the jobs in fantasyland.

    How about “malification”? Etymologically more fun. Or “mallestation”?

      1. bmeisen

        Lambert’s playing off his reference to Stephen’ “Shopping Mall Science Model” isn’t he? And “mallification” refers to the research university as shopping mall that rents out space to faculty / retailers. Thing is, isn’t this a rationalization phenomena, re-structuring the organization to improve efficiency, cut squat professors, get the shop lean and mean, like admin is the enemy, outsource research, cut them loose, let them raise their own wage and if they don’t fire dem asses! Tenure?!? That was a long time ago.

        1. indio007

          Lean and mean for what purpose? The sake of being lean and mean?

          The education system is strip mining whats left of the middle class. The class is desperate to retain their economic status. The recurring meme is education is the key, it’s more like the lode stone.

          The wealth transfer continues unabated but the power elite need the proletariat to implement the agenda.

          There are a particular group of men and women that can rationalize any sorts of behavior using very flimsy ideas.

        2. Lambert Strether Post author

          On malevolent mallification: I did give a link to a definition. That said, perhaps “mall-ification” would have been better. I probably ought to have linked that to ObamaCare’s notion that more shopping is always better because markets.

  2. jfleni

    It’s easy to see that the driving force in USM or any other similar institution infested with MBAs and politicians, is to create the highest number of “SELF-LICKING ICE CREAM CONES” possible in the shortest time.

    Hence the waste and foolishness of administrative expenses gobbling up most of the budget; a desireable feature for the political hogs, and definitely not a bug!

  3. Brooklin Bridge

    Interesting post, Lambert; I saw the very beginning of this process at BU shortly after John Silber became president (Howard Zinn would talk about it, and him, frequently) but have not paid attention until more recently. Mallification vs. crapification might deserve some comment (well, for me at least):

    Mallification: making something bad?
    Crapification: making something crappy?

    “Mallification, of course, implies crapification”? So “mallification” is more general?

    It might be helpful to give some description as to how the two are distinct.

        1. burnside

          Lambert, you’ve done an excellent job of connecting the ‘elaborate retail space for lease’ to campus and faculty. I’d say your term is perfectly apt.

  4. H. Alexander Ivey

    Good posting! But one quibble, regards the Portland Phoenix posting: “placing greater emphasis on answering the calls of the business community”, I don’t think the “product” of today’s universities are satisfactory to business people. The purpose and function of the staff and admin of universities have taken on their own live, and are not interested in satisfying anyone but themselves. The only way to stop them is a strike by the students and parents who pay.

  5. Dan Kervick

    I blame faculty members, too, for allowing this to happen. Neoliberalism wasn’t just a trend in plutocratic economic governance foisted on the hapless 99%. It was a broad cultural movement in which large and important groups of people, including the culturally privileged, the well-educated and even ordinary working people, fell in love with the ethos and behavioral values of corporate capitalism, and began applying its barbarian code of life to everything. Many university professors worked hand in hand with these new VPs to sell out systems of governance and academic values that had been in place for, literally, millenia.

    1. nobody

      And then there are others who teach seminars with names like “Interrogating Neoliberalism,” but behave like neoliberal apparatchiks.

    2. Lune

      I agree! The faculty isn’t entirely blameless. While individual faculty members might be innocent, the transformation of the world’s society by neoliberal goals started with an extensive coating of academic respectability by economics and polysci professors only too willing to produce intellectual justification for these policies in exchange for grants / consulting gigs / etc. Only now that the beast they unleashed on the rest of us has turned on its own parents do we start seeing some pushback from professors.

      But there could be a bright side to all this: I always felt it ironic to read about the advantages of labor “flexibility” from lifetime tenured professors, or the advantages of free trade from university faculty that can’t be outsourced. Now that they are feeling the effects of such policies firsthand, maybe they’ll devote more time to analyzing the devastation that their recommendations have wrought.

      1. Roland

        Petty bourgeois get eaten up by bigger bourgeois, that’s capitalism.
        Profs will become proles.

        Most of the profs don’t seem able to understand that the university–and their own social status– were encysted enclaves of the Middle Ages that were doomed once capitalism really started to mature at a global level.

        Many North American white collars cheered when the blue collars got in the neck during the 1980’s and 90’s. Now they’re getting a dose of the medicine.

    3. middle seaman

      Want to support Dan’s comment. Faculty, especially in technical sections, take home good pay and exceptional benefits (I am one of them). Together with the Democrats, the talk switched to “middle class” mainly implying upper middle class.

      Capitalism evolution has brought us the 1%, CEOs (university top managers included), frozen 99% compensation and increased poverty. Liberalism, neoliberalism or flying birds have nothing to do with this evolution.

      1. William

        When we’re talking about the evolution of capitalism over the last 35 years, what do we call the philosophy that drove that evolution??? Um, “neoliberalism?”

    4. Lambert Strether Post author

      That’s very, very true. However, there are fewer and fewer professors like that, and more and more highly educated and very ticked off adjuncts. Dumb move by the elites, I hope.

  6. Mel

    FWIW, another demonstration that _Catch-22_ contains the entire world. General Peckem:

    “That gives Special Services almost nine months to achieve our objective. And that objective is to capture every bomber group in the U.S. Air Force. After all,” said General Peckem, with his low, well-modulated chuckle, “if dropping bombs on the enemy isn’t a special service, I wonder what in the world is. Don’t you agree?”

    Actually the whole chapter is a textbook on these takeovers.

    Also it’s probable that the trustees, business people, understand malls. Some may make their living directly from malls. Some may even love malls. This other weird stuff, who can tell?

  7. craazyman

    You mean Harvard isn’t a trade school too? Oh, Lambert, the sentimentality!

    Here’s an SAT (Syllogistically Associative Tendentiosity) question.
    A is to A as:

    a) A is to B
    b) B is to A
    c) the alphabet is to scrabble
    d) Look a flock of geese!
    e) Oh, never mind.

    The correct answer is (e). If you don’t want to go to a trade school the only place left is the University of Magonia! LOL

    Having said that. F*ck these neoliberal corporate hacks in their every incarnation. Give the professors and the kids their money back and let them party.

    1. Banger

      I’m for the Party of Party or even the University of Party–you can lean a lot through thoroughly enjoying life because then discipline actually becomes enjoyable for its own sake.

  8. pebird

    Political change (to a neoliberal institution) takes a lot of work. That is why those extra administrators are there. Trying to get rid of them will be difficult but worth the effort.

  9. Gerard Pierce

    My guess is that protests will not be particularly effective. To be effective, they would require a shutdown of the University by students and faculty with the goal of forcing the resignations of the chief administrators and possibly a few politicians. If you came close, Neoliberal elements and power-players of other universities and of the political system would fight to the death because you are trying to “break their rice bowl”.

    The protest is a good sign, and possibly enough will be learned to get it right the next time – or not.

    1. James Levy

      Here’s where the itinerant/adjunct faculty come in so handy. How can you close down the school when half the teachers don’t get paid if they don’t hold class (at SUNY Farmingdale back in the 1990s I literally had to punch in) and can be dismissed on a whim. You’d also have to get the Chairs to resign because at least at AAUP schools, Chairs cease being part of the bargaining unit once they assume that position.

      The economic realities and incentives across the professoriate are so broad and mixed that getting the “star” Eco prof and the “star” Chem prof to join in with the adjunct English and History profs to fight for their “common interests” is almost impossible. Part of this is due to the snobbery of the “winners” in the system who look down on the “losers”, part of it is that they really don’t have much of a common interest, and part of it can be ascribed to real ideological differences among individuals. By comparison, herding cats is child’s play.

    2. Lambert Strether Post author

      Yes, I think it’s a good sign. Even if it’s no more than good training, it’s still worthwhile. And really, who would have thought this would happen?

  10. impermanence

    College is where you go to learn all the rationalizations that support the, ‘something for nothing,’ philosophy of the Western world.

    Eliminate the notion that you can get, ‘something for nothing,’ and you rid society of nearly all of its dys-function.

    1. Dan H

      Bingo. Specifically in the form of “making your money work for you”. The smartest move the elites ever made was tying the interests of working class people to their own through pensions.

  11. TomDority

    An interesting parallel happened many years ago….many many decades ago. For some interesting reading and perspective regarding the crappification of everything I suggest a read through the following:

    Neo-classical Economics as a Stratagem
    against Henry George
    by Mason Gaffney

    It is interesting to note how the rent extractive cartel of the days bygone (robber barrons etal) used the same mechanisms to literally hide how their rent extractive methods from the economics being taught today. This latest attempt to suborn universities curriculum to their ideologies is strikingly familiar to what occured around a hundred years ago.
    Please read the above historical accounting and apply it to todays treachery.

    I would further state that the actions are not a result of evil intent but,a natural progression of laws and favoritism that render this sham inevitable due to actors playing the easy road to wealth via the enabled cronyism our system created.

    Follow the bribes, payoffs, back-scrachin………dressed in respectable (cough gaag) neo-liberal clothes.

    1. William

      “. . . a natural progression of laws and favoritism that render this sham inevitable due to actors playing the easy road to wealth via the enabled cronyism our system created”
      Um, aren’t “actors playing the easy road” in the evil scheme youe just described a pretty good definition of “evil?”

      What is your point?

  12. Jess

    Not to quibble with anything written here but the first thing that struck me was the mention of so many different U of M campus locations. Isn’t Maine a low population largely rural/semi-rural state? Are all these campuses necessary? Or is it that they are largely commuter campuses and the large number of locations reduces the need for many students to live on campus? With all the talk about administrative overhead and facility overbuilding I’m just wondering if U of M isn’t overbuilt in terms of the total number of campuses? Anybody (Lambert?) able to shed some light on this. Thanks.

    1. Lambert Strether Post author

      This is a generation-long permathread. The multiple campuses are perhaps not ideal from a pure efficiency standpoint, and may even have been put in place for the same reason that the Pentagon spreads manufacturing for weapons systems across multiple states. That said, the campuses over time have specialized and developed their own specialities and identities, so it’s probably not a good idea to uproot them, even if it were politically possible. In addition, Maine is a biggish state, 12 hours drive top to bottom. There’s something to be said for letting students get an education close to home, instead of very far away from it (and gas is expensive!).

      So I’d say gut the superfluous administrative layer over the campuses, and let each campus be as standalone as possible. As Feiner says, that’s going to save a lot of money at no loss of effectiveness.

      1. Jess

        Thanks for the info. Makes sense now, esp. the part about how many of the campuses have specialized. And agree completely about gutting the costly, superfluous overhead, both in Maine and all across higher education. (Gutting the bloated staff as the L. A. Unified SD would be a good start at the secondary level as well.)

  13. Kurt Sperry

    This entire article as good as it is would have been both better and clearer with the excision of the terms “Democratic” and “Republican” as meaningless and distracting identifiers. It assumes and perpetuates a meaningful difference that isn’t in fact there.

    1. Lambert Strether Post author

      The legacy parties are not identical, even if they are part of the same system, and work together to bring about outcomes that are more or less identical, no matter which of them is in charge. (For example, Baldacci was the one who originally froze tuition, even if LePage continued the policy; and see the speculation in note [4].) However, to write the story without referring to Democrats and Republicans would be like writing the history of World War I without mentioning the Allies and the Axis, even if, from 30,000 feet, there was no meaningful difference between them because they were all imperial powers.

  14. Johann Sebastian Schminson

    “Higher Education” ain’t what it used to be. Nowadays, “Academia” will sell a sheepskin to any dolt willing to go into long term, inescapable debt to get one. Buyer beware, indeed.

    The obvious problem with this particular University system is that they need to spend more — lots more — on sports.

    At a minimum, they need at least one new stadium/arena complex (naming rights, ka-ching!), as well as an Athletic Director and Head Coaches who rank in the top ten in compensation and name recognition (if not in actual performance), among their national peers.

    These “scholars” up in southern Maine didn’t even qualify for March Madness, for gods’ sake. How do they expect to fund their bureaucracy?

    If this is the best you can do, sports-wise, you might as well become a vocational school:

  15. Dana Jae

    Excellent piece, Lambert. The exact same thing is happening on the other coast at one of the largest public colleges in California. City College of San Francisco has had identical screws STUCK to it for the past two years. I recorded a creative audio rant about it today on my blog if anyone wants to have a listen:
    I think you’ll enjoy it.

  16. JTFaraday

    Really? They’re having a protest to get rid of the provost(s)? At the New School for Social Research in NY a couple few years ago, they were protesting to keep the Provost:…5011570.5019480.0.5019750.….0…1ac.1.34.heirloom-hp..8.14.2610.25qQ8eKjRCs

    Trying to keep track of the latest academic fad(s) is like herding cats.

      1. JTFaraday

        I can see how one might rid oneself of a particular Provost that was ill serving the academic mission of the university.

        As a general rule, I don’t see why one would completely eliminate the position of chief academic officer in a managerial culture that is frequently over populated with business school and management consultant types. That would be like saying “No, thanks. I don’t want my interests, or any scholarly or educational values, represented in the government.”

        So, no. If I were an academic who wanted a university that was less driven by business values, I would eliminate those positions first. I wouldn’t eliminate the position of chief academic officer first and leave myself wide open.

        It could be that the Board and the President use the provost position(s) to enact their will. That just means it’s not actually serving its function, and any sophomore could figure out that the thing to do in a managerial culture, which Maine almost certainly has, is to take that position back.

        It is true a lot of academics are bewildered by their own institutions because they don’t actually come to work. In which case, who knows what primrose path you can lead them down.

  17. Pongo

    I have to say that I am pretty amazed by this, as I am a graduate of the University of Southern Maine (attended between 2001 and 2005) and I have to say that, during the time that I was there, I found the average faculty member to be exceptional. However, I also found that my fellow students were the most passive, most inert lumps of humanity that I had ever seen (and they still hold that record to this day), completely uninterested in academics, campus activities (even Greek life), their communities or the world around them. Where the hell did these activist students come from???

  18. allcoppedout

    In Newton’s day, male kids were sent to learn how to drink and womanise (whatever) at about 14. Male teenagers may be particularly obnoxious and distant child-minding an attractive option. The basic model of all education is child-minding. This frees up parents for work or socialising-gambling, depending on wealth possessed. Universities are based on the boarding school or 24/7 distant care. Workers don’t get this privilege, as it’s cheaper for them to look after their own kids when the factory doesn’t need both of them.

    The idea that people don’t really want their kids around runs a little against our inflated notions as humans that we give a damn about anything, and consequently the myth of education rose to assuage our consciences. Rather than abandoning our children because we can’t stand the nuisance and mess, to wet-nurses and professors, we get the soothing option that education is the way to care for the kids. Indeed, if we don’t give them this option they will be paupers. Education is essentially a protection racket like giving up virgin daughters to the Jabberwock.

    The idea that education or capitalism are giant con-tricks appeals to few, but then most victims of fraud can barely bring themselves to admit they’ve been had. One of the most magnificent academic triumphs on this was postmodernism, brilliantly promodo in that it came before modernism (a fiction we have never had) in which we teach incredulity towards metanarratives and still go on marking student scripts under a theory that should tell them this negates any belief we might have in it. Invisible tailors eat your heart out time! The simple little children we teach will never spot education as a metanarrative to exhibit incredulity towards.

    Even a few laggards in here will think this an extreme view. You are, of course, all products of this indoctrination system. The evidence is all around you, but fear not, you have been taught not to look. What we should be able to do is ask ourselves honestly about our own experience in school and university classrooms. Don’t worry, we’ve taught you not to be able to do that.

    Here’s the basic UK HE deal. Hand me £54K and I’ll give you board and lodging for three years and a prestigious bit of thin card at the end. It’s only like school with sex, drunkenness and drugs if you can get any. That’s the carrot side. The stick is that the only alternatives are to be poor workers in a world without work or rely on your own entrepreneurial abilities. Actually, £54K is a severe underestimate as this is only average graduate debt. We further leech from students’ part-time work and parents.

    The USUK HE systems are the best. You can gauge this from the abilities our school children demonstrate in independent examination against the rest of the world – oops, cut!

    I welcome the protests, but suggest the education system we have is depraved as above. The over-riding memory I have is of wishing to be somewhere else, except at play-time.

  19. Hugh

    A good illustration of how deeply the rot has set in in higher education. The truth is universities lost sight of their educational mission decades ago. The importance of a liberal arts education to a healthy society disappeared replaced by the intellectually narrow and technical model of the research university. I think faculty liked this because it freed them up the mundane arena of teaching. Because research was stressed a lot of research was produced. Very little of it, 1%-2% was any good. Much of the teaching load was dumped on grad students on the general understanding that while they were being exploited now, they would with their degree join the privileged ranks of the faculty. This was always a lie. Many more degrees were being issued than positions for them. The shift to adjuncts simply dropped the pretense.

    All was not dandy though among those in the faculty. Research even bad research became trendy. Far from loosening up research opportunities, department politics, publication and grant gatekeeping, restricted their scope. These mechanisms created a status quo and enforced it. Universities have always been primarily transmitters of the status quo, but in theory the idea was they were passing on the best parts of it and they maintained at least the possibility of questioning the less good parts of it. All this has been known for a long time. The stealth issue is the takeover of universities by top heavy administrations which engage in psychobabble about universities’ mission while pursuing a self-serving, self enriching, out and out corporatist and neoliberal agenda.

    In brief, universities have become kleptocratic enterprises. Like their kin in industry and Wall Street, university administrations will loot their institutions until they go under. This is perfectly in keeping with the kleptocratic principle of stealing the golden eggs and eating the goose that laid them for lunch. They are pricing students out of the market for higher education or condemning them to a lifetime of debt servitude if they go anyway. They are driving away faculty or dumbing them down. And they are piling on adjuncts and grad students to much the same effect. The Ivies and first tier state schools can get away with this by catering to the rich and elites and selling, not education, but connections, but the rest of the higher education system is a train wreck that is already happening. I wish the protests my best, but I think that administrations won’t listen to them or will at most seek to drive wedges among the protesting groups. But it would take closing the universities, and maybe not even that, to bring in other powers to address the situation (and since they are largely kleptocratic as well, probably will redirect the looting to themselves and their interests).

    1. kimsarah

      Pretty sad. Turning public education into a for-profit business in order to shovel more taxpayer dollars to a Wall Street that is addicted to its freaking ponzi scheme. As with any theft, there are losers and winners. The victims are the students who accumulate more debt and get denied a broad education, and the professors who are devalued, earn less pay and face losing their jobs. We know who the winners are. Thanks Barack and Arne.

    2. allcoppedout

      Tried a longer reply Hugh – poofed into moderation air. You are right. The answers need some deep thinking and consideration of those who never see campus at all.

    3. James Levy

      And never forget, almost every “success” in America from Bush and Obama on down likely has a dewy-eyed view of the HE system because it served them so well. More and more, in every sphere, the experience and lives of the “winners” and the “losers” in this society have diverge so greatly that the “winners” see few if any problems even as things get worse for at least 85% of the population. And our go-go 24/7 elite has neither the time nor the inclination for deep or objective consideration of anything. They depend on the Thomas Friedmans of the world to tell them, in digestible bites over yogurt, granola, and Kona coffee that their prejudices are true and what they do is for the best. So getting them to worry about any aspect of dear old Alma Mater save its US News ranking and “competitiveness” and Go Yale Beat Harvard has become, sadly, absurd.

    4. Cocomaan

      “They are pricing students out of the market for higher education or condemning them to a lifetime of debt servitude if they go anyway.”

      The latter is the way that the system continues to smoothly function. Not one university is actively seeking to price out anyone, but instead balances pricing with what credit the market will bear. Now that Uncle Sam is the first creditor in the line of creditors a student must go to before matriculating, it’s going to be a corrupt but “free ride” for many… and for a long time. It’s unfortunate that the system won’t change until it’s unsustainable, but that’s the way bubbles work in this country.

  20. allcoppedout

    There are at least two satirical efforts more than 25 years old that make these points. The best was a series called ‘A Very Peculiar Practice’ and the other ‘Overheads’ by Ann Oakley. Hugh has the description about right.

    Education could be a good thing. We have to drop a lot of what it has become to get to that point. Most teaching could (and should) be available electronically. This would be much cheaper, though this is just the beginning of consideration. We focus our kids on the 3 ‘Rs’ (reading, righting, rithmetic) as though times haven’t changed, Memory is still a big part, when we have the alternative of electronic memory. Most of the information in front of us comes in visual-dramatic form and even kids could do this directly without the writing phase that may disable them.

    The very education that we have done well in may feel enabling to us, but just as it was doing this it was ranking most others as failures. What is enabling for some is disabling for others. I’d like us to use something like the social model of disability (wrong on disability as it is concerning impairment) in producing an education that doesn’t disable so many – perhaps the vast majority when we test political ignorance?

    It’s great to see a Smith, Kelton, Black or Hudson performing. I use a few clips and then ask, ‘So what’s this got to do with the price of fish in your lives’? Better the electronic copies of the originals to make the basic points than me. And younger versions of us and superb mature students often provide magnificent discussion. Not much use if a neo-classical colleague sets the assessments. I cheat that bit and probably copyright law.

    One aspect of electronic tutoring is that we could make it very cheap. No need for those troublesome academics or even buildings. Use the money to pay for the best football coach and fund a great-paying non-job for the vice chancellor’s mistress and Bentley – surely this can’t have happened anywhere! No one yet has hired Derrida’s corpse for £130K a year and made a profit claiming his research output and citation index to make a profit from research funding, but I can show how to do this for a small fee.

    We could make some very healthy and radical changes to education. The first step is to stop thinking schools and universities can do much more than half the job. The second is to stop financially ranking people through it. The third is to stop doing education without thinking who isn’t getting it. The fourth is to work out whether skills developed in education are ever used in work, and whether work needing these skills is really useful. The fifth is to make education a choice after 15. Reasonably well-paid work should be available as an alternative.

    The list is extensive.

    1. Lambert Strether Post author

      Actually, Maine, because it’s a big state (really!) was a pioneer in making education available electronically (“distance learning,” we called it). Personally, I don’t think MOOCs (as we call them these days) are a panacea or a substitute for being taught by a real, present, human. And I remember how the wacky squillionaires on the Board of Visitors at UVa got all excited by them in 2012, and tried all kinds of administrative hanky panky to make it happen. The whole MOOC thing sounds like a bubble, to me, besides being an implicit threat to put a few of the stars on video and run the rest of the university with $8.00/hour adjuncts.

      1. allcoppedout

        I agree with you Lambert, though I’m not so convinced on the face-to-face classroom experience. I always made attendance at my lectures optional for students who could convince me they didn’t need them at tutorial. I fear going electronic in the hands of the current ‘leadership’ would be a bit like MMT done by Mugabe.

        The whole point of going electronic is to improve learning quality. I used to video my lectures so students who missed out could catch up. These days I can post such directly to ‘Blackboard’ or similar intranet. Such is an extra cost. We don’t just produce lectures, but virtual labs, interactive test-as-you=go-alongs of various kinds and role plays that set a scenario with questions that take you on to the next stage, success or disaster.

        You may be missing the point, even if your criticism of what might happen is right. I generally found US students worked a lot harder than most of ours – and over in your domain my ‘sod off and find out yourself’ tactics caused a few squabbles in the more didactic regime. Students got used to me and my lack of academic distance. I would want going electronic to make education more personal. I have a long vision on this. Here one can only snippet.

        Of course, one can’t replicate lectures done with glove puppets by me and a mate, ably supported by a dog called ‘Bozo’ (a borrowed Guide Dog) we told the class we’d trained to keep order when we left for a snack after the show. And in my world there would be no adjuncts on $8 an hour. I’ll leave you to work out whether this is because I’m egalitarian or have successfully bred cheaper ‘discipline hounds’.

        I wouldn’t trust the dreadful solipsists running our universities as far as a glove puppet can spit. All our universities are copies of each other with snob-scum differentiation nothing to do with education. I want radical change using modern technology. We probably need to shoot the incumbents first. The university should be universal not uniform. And we don’t need town and gown separation, itself leading to the snobbish term philistine – any real scholar should have known the Philistines were a peaceful people with substantial art badly written-up in Jewish records.

  21. Jessica

    The oligarchs and elites may some day regret extending their parasitic model to universities so overtly. Students who have the abundance of parasitic, crony administrators rubbed in their faces as part of their education may generalize the conclusions they draw from this to society as a whole. I hope.

    1. allcoppedout

      I got the impression this is what students learned. None of them could have been daft enough to believe anything in the books we were supposed to teach from in business schools, surely!

    2. James Levy

      In my experience the students don’t know who the administrators are above the Chairs, don’t care, and if things change they assume it must be the professors fault (or the president, whom they see on their first day at university and their last, and in many cases never in between, as he is always off at conferences or begging for money or in his completely inaccessible office which at my old stomping ground was moved from the center of campus to a much less congenial, for students, site).

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