Dear President Handley: No more academic clowns, please

Today’s Bangor Daily has an excellent Op Ed by the President of the University of Maine at Augusta and Bangor, Alyson Hughes Handley, explaining the unprecedented commitment of the University of Maine System to persuading thousands of adult Mainers who either never completed college degrees or have never attended college at all to enroll at the System. As the number of Maine high school graduates declines, as the number of Maine college graduates who remain in the state either also declines or stagnates, and as Maine businesses seeking new employees with college degrees continue to be frustrated by the lack of qualified applicants, this proposal could certainly prove a winner for all involved.

I cannot, however, resist pointing out areas of caution. First, the System must not hire another academic clown in the manner of the Director of Distance Learning who stayed just two or three years before leaving, voluntarily or not. I’ll not reveal his name, but his extensive background in distance learning, especially for  the University of Alaska System, presumably led to great expectations for advancing the University of Maine System’s decades-old distance learning technology. When, however, this expert came before the Orono campus’ Faculty Senate to detail his vision and its implementation, it was, alas, a surreal experience for the faculty members present. The guy kept repeating the need to avoid or to remove “silos” among and within the seven System campuses but said absolutely nothing of substance. His presentation gave new depth to the meaning of shallowness. Unbelievable and, given his handsome salary at the time, outrageous. But tens of thousands of dollars wasted on this academic clown didn’t matter–after all, it wasn’t money being spent on a faculty member (or two or three), right?

Second, faculty and staff on the seven campuses must be alert to efforts from the top down to change academic calendars solely to accommodate non-traditional students taking courses at or online at more than one campus. A couple of years ago the Orono Faculty Senate protested at the prospect of breaking up our admittedly controversial two-week “spring” break so that an unspecified number of such non-traditional students could have their classes and their vacations in the same blocks of time. The interests of some 11,000 or so Orono students and of Orono faculty and staff were deemed incidental to the needs of perhaps a score of the non-traditional students. EVERYONE OF COURSE WANTS NON-TRADITIONAL STUDENTS TO BE WELCOMED AND GIVEN OPPORTUNITIES TO SUCCEED. BUT THEY SHOULDN’T BE ALLOWED TO RULE THE ROOST.

Third, and most important, it is imperative that, to use a business term now also common in education, “quality control” be part of the implementation process of the project that President Handley clearly and convincingly details. As I’ve said before, I find it paradoxical that undergraduate students at least pay differential tuition–with the highest being Orono–while the System expects courses taken at different campuses automatically to transfer to other campuses. To invoke the superiority of the Orono campus–size, facilities, programs, faculty, staff, etc.–over the other six campuses is to risk being damned as an elitist. Yet the notion that courses at different System campuses–much less at campuses elsewhere in Maine and elsewhere in America–might not be equal in quality should surely be taken into account. And should surely involve input from appropriate faculty and staff, not just from pseudo-academic “experts.”

Despite these cautionary comments, the project detailed in President Handley’s Op Ed is a very positive step that deserves praise as well as scrutiny.