University of Southern Maine Becomes “Administration of Southern Maine” as Students Protest Faculty Firings

Earlier this year, it looked as if the University of Southern Maine might become one of the rare places where students and faculty would be able to hold the line against the yet more looting by the bureaucratic classes. The woes besetting the USM are a microcosm of how higher education expenses are escalating as a result of administration feather-bedding and vanity projects. When those prove to be too costly, it’s the faculty and students that bear the brunt of the expense-shedding. As Lambert wrote in March:

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.

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 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.

The University rescinded the proposed funding cuts in April, only to vote them through again. Per the Huffington Post yesterday:

Chairman Samuel Collins and USM President David Flanagan were shouted down before retreating to the sidelines for 45 minutes, allowing demonstrators to stage a sit-in at their table. Flanagan supported proposals to eliminate programs and 50 faculty positions to save $6 million. The school is trying to close a $16 million budget gap for the next fiscal year.

Alert readers will notice the size of the budget gap relative to the “new capital projects”. King’s College at Cambridge has instruction rooms dating from the creation of the college and warren-like dorm rooms that look like 1930s vintage: tiny, old carpeting, walls probably not painted in years. USM might take a page from their playbook.

The American Association of University Professors warned about the dangers of budget cuts that focus on teaching, that they can produce a downward spiral as a school becomes less attractive to faculty and students. From the provost of Arizona State:

Because administrators do not like to talk publicly about the negative effects of budget cuts, many people outside the university do not realize how much damage these cuts are causing. While it is important for legislators and governors—and the public at large—to understand these negative effects, advertising the effects hurts our ability to recruit faculty members and students and depresses morale. We know, however, that when we increase class size, rely more heavily on contingent faculty, and cut staff, we are indeed interfering with the quality of education we provide to students.

Not entirely tongue in cheek, one of the faculty members on the chopping block explained what the endgame is in Bangor Daily News. We are reprinting his op-ed with his permission.

By Paul Christiansen, Associate Professor of Musicology, School of Music, University of Southern Maine. Originally published at Bangor Daily News

All of the budget cutting at the University of Southern Maine has inspired me to devise a solution to present difficulties as simple and elegant as it is innovative and transformative: Complete the “Transforming USM” process by transforming the “University of Southern Maine” into the “Administration of Southern Maine.”

Of course, there will be expenses involved with engaging a firm to design a new logo; disposing of all old letterhead, signs and business cards; and printing new material. The old logo featured a column and a flame, evoking both the tradition of education reaching back to Plato and Aristotle as well as the burning desire for knowledge that faculty work to stoke in students.

What should the new logo be? Well, how about a smiling dollar sign in place of the “S”? The smiling because of all the money saved.

As the president of USM pursues the first step of a plan meant to transform the university — by cutting 50 faculty positions and two more academic programs — that “transformation” is effectively cutting out the core of what a university should be.

Let’s call the result the Administration of Southern Maine. A$M, as I’ll call it, has already begun the process of shedding the unsightly, bulky professoriate by excising the programs of American and New England studies, geosciences, humanities at the Lewiston-Auburn College, applied medical sciences and French.

Neque Magistri (Neither Professors)

But why stop there?

The elimination of 50 faculty is effectively a course correction for last spring, when USM’s former president rescinded the individual layoffs of 12 faculty members. Indeed, who needs those pesky professors with their incessant whining about “transparency,” “shared governance” and “responsibility to students”? Administration is a powerful, majestic stallion annoyed at every turn by these gadflies. Eliminating all faculty would solve a problem that has plagued every administration.

Neque Discipuli (Nor Students)

So without faculty, there will be no need for students. The “student-centered university” can become the “self-centered administration.” Of course, the lack of students will obviate the need for marketing and outreach to attract new ones. And student services meant to retain students will likewise become obsolete. The thrilling result in both cases: more money saved.

Neque Salariarii (Nor Staff)

No university can run properly without the essential and invaluable contributions of staff. But without students to serve or faculty to support, staff won’t be needed.

A$M will start a new trend that might even spark similar actions at universities and colleges across the nation. Shouldn’t we be the leader of this trend before some other administration filches the idea from us? I for one want to see an Administration of Southern Maine before I see a Princeton Administration or a Deep Springs Administration.

Just as they have done for the University of Maine System, Maine taxpayers will continue to support the Administration of Maine System. They will be thrilled at the lower cost of supporting only administrators and will praise the administration for eliminating the university. Better yet, administration can swell its ranks by hiring more administrators. But wait, it gets even better. Administration also can increase every administrator’s salary with these savings.

So you may be wondering that without faculty, staff or students, what will these administrators be administering? Why, themselves, of course! They will still need to create mission statements, strategic directives, task force initiatives and the like.

Finally, failed campus administrators can continue to be mothballed at the system level with sinecures, drawing the same salary they had drawn in their previous positions. While not financially sound, this custom does have the advantage of comporting with past practice.

So, what should Maine students do without a public university system to prepare them to be critically thinking members ready to participate in a vibrant democracy?

Let’s take a cue from page 12 of the Republican Party of Texas platform from 2012: “We oppose the teaching of Higher Order Thinking Skills (HOTS) (values clarification), critical thinking skills and similar programs that … have the purpose of challenging the student’s fixed beliefs and undermining parental authority.”

And what should they do without a public university system to provide them with a broad education that can lead to a promising career?

Well, in the immortal words of former USM President Theodora Kalikow: “McDonald’s is not always bad.”

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  1. JL Furtif

    There seems to be a missing end-blockquote.
    So the paragraph starting with “The University rescinded the proposed funding cuts in April, only to vote..” which is part of today’s article, and everything that follows seems to be cited from Lambert’s article.

  2. Larry

    I would think that Maine is a small enough state with enough community to get these cuts clawed back, but I’m too far removed from the local scene to know that anywhere other than my gut. Other Mainers care to comment?

  3. wbgonne

    In Boston where I live universities are undertaking massive new capital improvement projects left and right. Schools are buying very expensive downtown real estate and constructing fabulous new buildings. And not only elite schools like Harvard and MIT. Colleges such as Emerson and Berklee are doing the same. My understanding is that much of this is being financed with long-term bonds. I don’t see how this makes much sense.

    1. DanB

      It does not make long term sustainability sense, but it is trendy and fits the narrative of a recovering economy and the continuation of globalization and endless growth. I have never met a university administrator who did not think that his/her institution had a competitive advantage surpassing all other places of higher learning. It’s very much like that movie “Field of Dreams”. Just build it and they will come.

      1. wbgonne

        Ha! That Field of Dreams line came to my mind too. Where is the money going to come from to repay the loans? This smacks of a bubble but I don’t know enough to understand. Let’s posit that these projects are probable boondoggles: then who is lending the money and why? Is this connected to fed policies? At a time when the Middle Class is collapsing, colleges and universities — at least partly dependent upon tuition payments from said Middle Class — are flush and spending like drunken sailors on shore leave. Something seems amiss and, though I am no economist, my recent experience is that when something doesn’t make sense it usually won’t last and will likely end badly.

    2. Carla

      Here in NE Ohio, Cleveland State University and Case Western Reserve University have become real estate magnates. They didn’t like having small mom-and-pop landlord operations earning rents from their students and staff, so they grabbed that profit center. Of course it’s killing nearby neighborhoods in Cleveland Heights. I imagine the same is true at the University of Akron and Kent State, among others. I have been told by a credible source that the president of KSU pretty much runs the city of Kent.

    3. ambrit

      It’s not restricted to just large high profile institutions.
      In our local newspaper, it was reported on Saturday that the local two year college, Pearl River Community College had purchased ten acres of land adjacent to their Hattiesburg campus. The sale happened a year ago. Ten acres on Hwy 49, an admittedly high traffic artery, cost the school $900,000. $90,000 an acre in an area where I could find eight acres and a 2700 square foot house going for $276,000.
      PRCC bought the land last year, and now wants to float some bonds to pay for a site use plan!
      These savants didn’t just try to re-invent the wheel, they are working on new formulas for the grease to lubricate said squeaky device.
      Meanwhile, tuitions rose yet again this fall. See:

      1. ambrit

        Sorry all if the link is broken. I copied it correctly.
        Anyway, making lemonaid time is here. The money quote from the article is a quote from Eric Clark, executive director of the Mississippi Community College Board.
        Clark said enrolment in Mississippis’ two-year schools surged by more than 20% during the recession even as budgets were slashed. “That in a nutshell is why we raised tuition.”

  4. C

    This is certainly consistent with what is happening elsewhere. UC Berkeley is still trying to figure out how to pay for its stadium renovation based upon the assumption that the new facility would sell 2,900 “premium seats” which would in turn pay for the added costs of joining the PAC 10. As of 2013 only 64% have been sold and in an area with one existing dominant college team (Stanford) and the 49ers it is hard to see how it will make up the difference:

    Similar cuts have been felt at UC Davis, where students get free seasoning, with cuts across the board that have been blamed on cuts at the state level. President Katehi’s 400k salary (27% higher than her predecessor) is never on the table:

    In many respects this is a belated parallel to what has happened at “American” companies as higher executives have claimed an ever larger slice of the dwindling pie and put the onus on workers and customers (now you bag your own groceries) to eat the costs.

  5. Roquentin

    There’s that famous Brecht poem which has the line “Perhaps the parliament should dissolve the people and elect another” which applies to so many other situations. As in, sarcastically, perhaps the administration should dissolve the university, rather than the other way around. Higher education as we know it in the US is dying. A university education was already something of a raw deal when I finished up in 2006, and that was at a state school. Things are worse now, and I can’t imagine younger generations viewing the higher education system as much more than a gatekeeper or a scam. I remember how hard it was for me, with all the advantages I’d been given in life, getting out just in front of the recession, and shudder to think how bad young people are getting the shaft right now. It seems like we are quickly approaching the day when college will be strictly a rent extraction scheme, and you’ll be damn lucky to get a little education out of the deal along the way.

  6. Cynthia

    What hospitals share in common with colleges and universities is that most of them are non-for-profits and of those, many are academic in nature. This may explain why this same sort of “looting by the bureaucratic classes” is also taking place in the hospital industry. Hospital administration are cutting from clinical areas and using that money to feather their own nest with higher salaries and bigger bonuses. Then when they do upgrades to their hospitals, most of the expensive renovation jobs are done in the administrative offices and conference rooms, leaving the clinical areas with the cheap renovation jobs. Hospital administrators do this because they see clinical areas, including all of the employees that work there, doctors and nurses alike, as a huge cost center while seeing themselves as the great moneymakers for hospitals.

    Apparently hospital administrators don’t understand that they are very much part of the unnecessary and burdensome overhead costs which are making healthcare in the US a lot more expensive than it oughta be. How in the world can they possibly see themselves are the great moneymakers for hospitals when the services they provide aren’t even billable to the insurance companies. Nor do patients choose a hospital based how competent the administrators are. No, they choose a hospital based on how competent the doctors and nurse are. Period. Hospital administrators are delusional if they believe otherwise!

    Since hospital administrators aren’t willing to cut themselves, we have to look above to boards of directors to do the cutting. But this won’t be done if they are in cahoots with the hospital administrators, which they probably are. Perhaps I’m wrong, but I doubt it, hospital boards of directors are also members of the bureaucracy . That means they too are doing the looting alongside their fellow bureaucrats in hospital administrations.

    Keep in mind, over 50% of hospital revenues come from Medicare and Medicaid. So not only does Medicare/Medicaid have the means but they also have the motive to cut hospital administrative costs. All Medicare/Medicaid has to do is cut reimbursements to hospitals who can’t keep administrative costs under control. But I doubt that this will happen either because, once again, top Medicare/Medicaid officials are also part of the bureaucracy as well. They too are doing the looting alongside their fellow bureaucrats in hospital administrations.

    That leaves our elected officials at both the state and federal level to cut hospital administrative costs. They can do this not by framing it as healthcare reform, or even as insurance reform, but as administrative reform. As I see it, this is our best chance of getting hospital administrative costs under control. It would also help if our elected officials would put the brakes on hospital consolidations and put an end to rent-seeking “facility fees” that hospitals and hospital-based clinics are shamelessly tacking onto medical bills.

  7. Pepsi

    If there are cuts to any university departments, they should be to the business and economics departments. Maybe then we’ll have fewer braindead assholes in charge of everything.

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