Crisis at USM

By NICK SCHROEDER  |  March 27, 2014

Much rage has been directed toward Kalikow, the public face of the institution — and indeed the student body stirringly declared a vote of no confidence in the university’s president Friday night. For her part, Kalikow has expressed a mixture of sympathies for the cuts, frequently describing the situation as “difficult times” and issuing a hands-in-the-air explanation during Wednesday’s Transitions meeting that “we are not alone (in making cuts); we cannot be complacent when facing a sea change of financial, demographic, and technological forces.” But she’s also been less publicly sympathetic. In a direct address disseminated via the university’s YouTube channel in November of 2012, Kalikow whimsically issued four principles to the USM community to help achieve the system’s goals: “Number one: No whining! Number two: Clean the cage. Number three: Operate well, and most importantly, number four: Don’t be stupid!”

Yet while Kalikow remains the university’s public face, she answers to the UMS Board of Trustees, a group of 15 individuals appointed by the governor. Those seeking a political ruse for such events might look here. Seven of them have been appointed since LePage took office, and six of those have been large-sum donors to conservative candidates, including in some cases the governor himself.

The LePage administration is an easy target for liberals by now, but his influence over the structural changes throughout the University of Maine system cannot be overlooked. The UMS receives $6.2 million less funding from the state than it did in 2008, a time frame during which LePage initiated the largest tax cuts and subsequent lowest amount of state aid  in Maine’s history. And while the systemwide tuition freeze, the first in 25 years, might have seemingly helped students in the short term, it was a mandatory stipulation ordered by LePage in order for UMS to be eligible for even the same appropriations it was a year before, locking in the conditions for an ostensible budget shortfall.

On Friday and again on Monday, students and faculty at USM organized under the banner Students for #USMFuture — a conversation that has gotten considerable attention on Facebook and Twitter due in large part to excellent reporting efforts by the USM Free Press. In a mission statement distributed Monday, the group rejects the “austerity measures” laid out by UMS, “demand increased involvement in the restructuring process,” and observe that the “budget cuts...are part of a national assault on public
higher education.”

They’re onto something. Along with several other strategies outlined in the new UMS direction package, outcome-based funding is a central component of President Obama’s national education plan. Unveiled in August of last year, the Obama administration has reauthorized the Higher Education Act to new and decidedly business-friendly criteria, aiming to “tie financial aid to college value” by directing the Department of Education to develop a new college ratings system put into effect before the 2015 school year. Following recent implementations at state universities, “such as Tennessee and Indiana,” the criteria developed by the DoE will indeed be performance-based, allocating federal financial aid to students who attend “high-performing colleges that provide the best value.”

Education reformers appear to be on board. In September, the private nonprofit organization National Center for Higher Education Management Systems (NCHEMS) issued an outline titled Outcomes-Based Funding: A Wave of Implementation, which applauds state universities in Tennessee and Indiana — both Metropolitan Universities — among those “most notably” employing models of outcomes-based funding in the US.

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