Crisis at USM

By NICK SCHROEDER  |  March 27, 2014

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. 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.

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.


For those who believe in the liberal arts, that’s a stiff cocktail, and makes for a narrow view of higher education. In an open letter to Kalikow read before the crowd at a second campus protest Monday, USM English student Philip Shelley writes: “Once we concede that education must be defended in economic terms, we have conceded everything. We are now playing according to the value systems of people who want to destroy us. To destroy the liberal arts. To destroy shared governance. To destroy the tenure system. To destroy unionized workers. To destroy an educated and free-thinking citizenry. To destroy creativity. To destroy any remaining sense of empowerment and security among students, staff, and faculty.”

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