University of Southern Maine, Facing Organized Opposition from Students and Faculty, Rescinds Proposed Cuts

By Lambert Strether of Corrente.

Good news, which I hope travels fast to other universities. Maine Sunday Telegram:

University of Southern Maine President Theodora Kalikow on Friday rescinded the 12 faculty layoffs that had prompted weeks of protests, saying she’s open to alternative plans for finding up to $14 million in cuts.

(I know! I know! [raises hand] You can eliminate the Chancellor’s office, which sucks up $20 million dollars for no apparent reason. You could also hunt down the political appointees previous Democratic governor Baldacci installed throughout the system in highly paid administrative — that is, unproductive — positions.) Of course, Kalikow was at pains to deny that the opposition had anything to do with her decision:

“Those retrenchment (layoff) notices are off the table for now,” Kalikow said Friday afternoon at the USM Faculty Senate meeting. She said she made up her mind at 2 p.m., just as the meeting began, and didn’t even have time to tell the affected faculty.

The surprise announcement came as the Faculty Senate unveiled a draft 27-point proposal for alternative cuts and about two dozen students traveled to Augusta to lobby state lawmakers. The students met with members of the Portland delegation and the Legislature’s Education and Cultural Affairs Committee.

Also, the faculty union sent a grievance letter to the administration Thursday challenging the layoffs.

But Kalikow said none of those things played a role in her decision [never let ’em see you sweat], saying she had been out of state [apparently without phone or Internet] and didn’t know about the union letter and had not read the Faculty Senate proposal [diplomacy!]. And while she praised the students for their activism, she said that did not play a role in the reversal, either.

Kalikow said she didn’t see herself as “caving” in to pressure, but didn’t say exactly what changed her mind [ha ha].

Some mysterious force, a deus ex machina, I suppose. Although who knows? Perhaps the faculty proposal, union grievance and the student protests changed the mind of a “hidden hand” that’s manipulating Kalikow? Heck, maybe it was Krugman!

Here are the alternative cuts proposed by the Faculty Senate:

[They] include ending the use of outside consultants, eliminating middle-management administrators and consolidating the three campuses of the University of Southern Maine. There is no dollar figure associated with the list of 27 proposals, but Faculty Senate Chairman Jerry LaSala said he believes they can find the same cost savings that were in Kalikow’s proposal.

Here’s the full list of recommendations; this one is especially fun:

8. Require the President, Provost, and Deans each to teach one class per year to offset their salaries via tuition revenue

Ha. Worthy goals all. However, institutionally, the most important trend to combat is what I called “mall-ificaiton” (hyphen added for clarity) the last time we looked at USM:

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.

At USM, mall-ification is to be achieved through something called “The President’s Leadership Council” (and whenever you hear the word “leadership,” put your hand on your wallet or clutch your purse). 

Theo Kalikow’s appointment began with the creation of a “Leadership Institute” into which hand-picked members of the staff, faculty, and administration were inducted.

Their first assignment was to read a book called Our Iceberg Is Melting: Changing and Succeeding Under Any Conditions. Written by John Kotter, formerly of the Harvard Business School, and advertised as a “low-threat tool” for changing organizations bound by tradition, the little book features members of the Penguin Leadership Council compelled to adjust to changing circumstances or die.

Translated to academic culture, this means that tenure-track positions will be replaced by lectureships and online classes; nationwide standards for tenure and promotion will give way to demonstrations of having promoted the new branding; and raises will be used to reward those who show willingness to forget academic values and to promote a “new normal.”

Does the Senate Faculty proposal have an answer for this? Why, yes. Abolish the institution that’s doing it, which is excellent academic politics:

15. Abolish the President’s Leadership Institute, which does not serve students.

Quite right, too. Meanwhile, the students lobbied the state legislature:

A group known as Students for #USMfuture [flyer] has been protesting and recruiting more students to their cause since university administrators earlier this month announced program cuts and faculty layoffs.

The group was dealt a setback Thursday, when legislative leaders rejected a student-drafted bill, sponsored by independent [formerly Green] state Rep. Ben Chipman of Portland, which would have placed a one-year moratorium on the proposed cuts to allow a stakeholders group to review the university system’s finances and suggest alternatives to the cuts.

Impressive, and even if the legislation failed, you can be sure an effort like that opened some eyes.

* * *

I’m thinking back to the the Printemps érable in Montreal, that NC covered back in 2012, where hundreds of thousands of students marched against a neo-liberal assault on public education in Quebec, that sought to raise tuition. However, #USMfuture is very different. First, Maine is not Montreal; if 250,000 were to march in Maine, as they did in Montreal, that would be about 20% of the population of the entire state, and four times the population of the city of Portland. Nevertheless, USM managed to reverse its cuts (so far), run a very successful national public relations campaign (Krugman; Chomsky; the Nation; Chronicle of Higher Education), and co-ordinate student protests, the Faculty Senate, the faculty union, and supporters statewide; getting legislation introduced is especially remarkable. Although much smaller, #USMfuture seems to reach deeper into all the institutions it encounters. So this is great stuff, and hopefully universities across the country, which all face similar assaults, can learn from them. Dirigo!

Oh, about the guns. Associate Professor of English and Women’s Studies Lucinda Cole, Chronicle of Higher Education:

At the last three faculty meetings I attended at the University of Southern Maine, armed guards hovered outside the door or circulated through the rooms, hands moving to their hip holsters whenever faculty members raised their voices. Never before in my 25 years at USM had I witnessed such shows of state force against the faculty.

Guns, at a faculty meeting? Amazing. Readers, is such a thing happening in your state? I have to say that such nonsense is not unique to the university setting; an open meeting on the East-West Corridor featuring Cianbro chair Peter Vigue last year also had State police present, and people were checked at the door and forbidden to bring signs into the hall. This is how decaying regimes act as they spiral downwards toward a legitimacy crisis.

* * *

Organized opposition can work. I find this very hopeful. A Maine Spring? ‘Tis a consummation devoutly to be wished!

NOTE USM is still proposing to reduce 30 staff positions; I’m not sure how many of those positions are useful, like maintenance or food prep, and how many are not, like administrators, political appointees, etc. It does seem that cutting administrative positions is becoming a mainstream idea except, perhaps, among the administrators. Bangor Daily News:

[Cuts] are necessary and have the potential to be a good thing for USM, Portland and Maine.


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.

Yep. Give all these “leadership” types the old heave-ho and return the universities to their central mission of teaching and research; it would be a shame to see an institutional form that’s a thousand years old die because markets.

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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. diptherio

    Congratulations to USM faculty and students! I think that whenever budget cuts become necessary at a university system every employee of the university, starting with the highest paid, should have to justify their existence and their salary at the U. Students and professors would get to hear everybody’s justification for their jobs, and then vote on who goes and who stays.

  2. sufferin' succotash

    “This is how decaying regimes act as they spiral downwards toward a legitimacy crisis.”
    Decaying regimes also back down if the protestors show up packing.
    “In the clash of arms the laws are silent.” — Cicero.

  3. nothing but the truth

    “Chancellor’s office, which sucks up $20 million dollars for no apparent reason.”

    but wasn’t the official line that “any spending is good because one man’s waste is another’s income”?

    1. hunkerdown

      “Nothing is better than a really good steak.”
      “I’ll have nothing then, please.”

  4. bmeisen

    The 40,000 students at the German university where I teach pay no tuition. Fees amount to less than $1000 yearly and that includes a mass-transit pass. A substantial number of students receive stipends from the state to cover living costs while studying. The stipends (Bafög) must be repaid if ultimate earning power allows repayment.

    The universtiy offers pretty lousy student teacher ratios, there are no university teams to cheer for, and student services are pretty thin compared to your average elite American institution. But labs are state of the art in many regards, much of the teaching is excellent, almost all of the institution’s over 600 professors are indeed tenured (a small population of “Junior Professors” have limited contracts), the size of the library is a third of Harvard’s, the cafeterias are open to the public, and the new campus is gorgeous. And you will very probably graduate debt-free. (Sorry no florrid graduation ceremony where parents can be told once again that they really got what they paid for.)

    Education including higher education is a public good. Complex democratic societies are doomed without educated voters. Citizens have a duty and a self-interest to provide education to subsequent generations.

    The University of Maine should cut university administration and student services, eliminate funding for University sports, offer free health insurance and a mass-transit pass and go 100% tuition free for all in-state students and for top out-of-state students.

      1. hunkerdown

        The neoliberal “civil rights” movement, in song: “You’re in America now, you’ll plow when told to plow, you’ll never get rich you son of a…”

  5. Steve Roberts

    “student services are pretty thin compared to your average elite American institution”
    This is what I’ve never understood. The university I went to didn’t have a lot of these student services . Today they have a massive student center, a theater that is barely even used by the school, all new athletic fields (we are DIV 2), massive library expansion plus 3 art buildings nobody visits because they are off the main campus and the school isn’t an arts focused university. Plus they more than doubled the size of the administration space without any additional student capacity. Lastly they built a massive building that is the chancellors residence when nobody ever lives in it. It’s strictly used for fund raisers.

    1. PopeRatzo

      Here in Chicago, the University of Illinois at Chicago was bequeathed a lovely multi-million dollar rowhouse (with coach house) a few blocks from school. It was a landmark building on a fantastic block (Historic Jackson Blvd) and had just been renovated when the alumnus died, leaving the building to the University. They gave the building to the chancellor, who decided to spend a couple million completely renovating the building (it needed on renovations) and then the chancellor decided she’d rather stay at some downtown hotel or elsewhere at the University’s expense.

      The person who gave the building to the University had hoped the house could be used for development, visiting professors, etc, but the place is empty. Campus police are required to have a presence there, despite the fact that it is a very safe neighborhood.

      At the same school, tenured faculty are being replaced by $28k/yr lecturers and adjuncts. The Math department has several PhDs making less than $30k teaching a full load, and efforts to unionize are being met with reprisals.

      It’s easy to believe that the people at the top of these systems think they will be able to outrun their own destructiveness. The chancellor’s name is Paula Allen-Meares and she’s a disgrace. The entire school is becoming a disgrace. Our entire system of higher education is becoming a disgrace.

  6. allcoppedout

    Three cheers for the protest. Sadly, it’s likely money has been ‘borrowed’ by the administration to be funded by bigger cuts later. The German system has been way ahead of USUK since Frederick the Great. Fortunately, education has much less to do with world dominance than it claims. As many said yesterday, the window to look out of is the most important thing in a classroom. Sadly, when I’ve encouraged students to look out of the window they are neither able to describe accurately what they see or the hidden technology beneath the ground, or reveal anything exciting or creative going on in their wishing to be somewhere else. We need to de-school in order to get more education.

    Making Deans and such teach to offset salaries would probably mean 80 hours a week teaching. Most of them are not fit to be left alone with students anyway. There’s a well-know redundancy savings formula, though most university administrations don’t know who does the real work or even what it is. In the boardroom finance is chronic in its simplicity. Boost pay for the cronies (including opportunities to get that kitchen extension free from the guys who get the campus contract) and cut other staff to protect this. There’s a spreadsheet.

    Universities were places for young people to meet each other, debauch or reprude (20% stay virgin), make mistakes and friends and learn to live without Mummy. They are an anachronism. We should shut them down. All sides to this dispute are in the wrong. In the meantime, a good experiment would be to get rid of everyone on a top down basis unto the spreadsheet pings. I’ve no doubt remaining staff and students would cope.

    I want to see us go much more electronic – but not in the hands of the current establishment. They see everything “cheap”. I want to see a much more social system at the same time, facilitated by taking out boring lectures that teach people to sleep with their eyes open.

  7. Chuck Roast

    Rep. Ben Chipman (formerly a Green) and now an Independent was elected to the Leg. as a Green. Upon arrival in August Chipman was told by the hack Dems. that if he remained a Green he would be denied be denied any legislative assistance including an aide. So, he switched to Independent.
    The Maine Green Independent Party is running 17 candidates for the State Leg. in November – all with Clean Elections funding.
    37,000 strong Downeast and growing!

    1. Oregoncharles

      Thanks for telling us and Cheers! Best of luck. Wish we could find that many candidates in Oregon, but the Dems have a tighter hold here.

  8. Oregoncharles

    From the Krugman link: “and in the process effectively gutting several departments, including economics.”
    Hey, a silver lining!
    One of the chief lessons not taken from the Crash of ’08 is that economists are largely a waste of space and money. As Dean Baker has repeatedly pointed out, essentially all the public economists not only “missed the bubble” but actively denied its existence and implications.
    That means the field is directly responsible for a large portion of our troubles. Firing the lot and selectively rehiring the tiny handful who got it right would be a good start.
    But back to Maine…

    1. Oregoncharles

      P.S.: Hence Yves’ passionate denial that she is an economist – even though she’s a far better economist than most of them.

  9. Mel

    “Kalikow said she didn’t see herself as “caving” in to pressure, but didn’t say exactly what changed her mind [ha ha].”

    That would have been tacky. “And I would have gotten away with it too, if it weren’t for you meddling kids.”

    Not alpha at all.

  10. JGordon

    If you will take a moment to peruse Charles Hugh Smith’s visual representation of The Lifecycle of Bureaucracy model you will see why this is happening:

    As you can see, the university system is currently in the “budget cuts” phase which is of course immediately followed by the failure/implosion phase. Now I suppose that concerted effort can keep the university from cutting specific things, but if that model is accurate (and it certainly appeals to my intuitive sense of how organizations grow then fail) we can predict that the organization will do absolutely everything in its power to protect the dead weight Chancellor’s office and administrators at the expense of some essential function. If it’s not these 12 professors getting the boot, the university might be forced to do something else that is less obviously objectionable, such as dramatically decreasing the quality of food in the dining facilities (while raising the price of course)–just as an example.

    Despite having no interest or care about what goes on in Maine now, I am actually kind of curious about how idiots will go about shedding essential functions of their organization for the protection of their parasites now that they are somewhat on the Petri dish. Or I suppose CHS could be wrong and they’ll do something that could potentially preserve the organization at the immediate expense of the parasites. But come on, seriously. Don’t be naive.

  11. David West

    I never understood why some universities haven’t gone in the complete other direction: almost no administration and much higher pay rates for professors. Don’t some schools actually want to hire the best and the brightest?

    All these administrative costs could be redirected toward lowering tuition rates for undergraduates and funding more graduate programs. Professors and students would flock to the school, boosting admissions, boosting fame, boosting alumni donations, boosting the ranking, etc. Its like having cereal commercials during the Great Depressions. Doesn;t seem worth it at the time, but 10 years down the road your a top ten university where students AND parents want their kids to go.

    Such short term myopic thinking these days…

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