Save Maine Public Higher Education: Cut the Faculty!

“We have a lot of staff and a lot of faculty that just aren’t needed to serve our student body at the size it is today.” This was the comment of Vice Chancellor for Administration and Finance Rebecca Wyke, as reported in the Bangor Daily News,  during last Monday’s meeting of the University of Maine System’s top administrators, its Trustees, the seven campus presidents, and other campus and System aides. Given Ms. Wyke’s reputation as an exceptionally smart numbers cruncher–as she repeatedly proved during her years in the John Baldacci Administration–one has to take such comments seriously.

As someone who is mathematically challenged, I would hardly be in a position to challenge Wyke’s analyses, though others have: not just the students at the University of Southern Maine who have protested vigorously in recent weeks to try to stop the layoffs of USM tenure-track and even tenured faculty but also the contrary analysis made by USM Economics Professor Susan Feiner. Prof. Feiner has provided statistics (allegedly) demonstrating that the System not only enjoys a growing surplus, contrary to its incessant plea of poverty, but also that it continues to hire ever more non-academic “experts” in IT and other areas precisely as it terminates faculty. One especially telling point she makes is that the System’s own self-proclaimed layoffs have come primarily from hourly employees with temporary appointments, not with the full-time faculty being let go at USM and elsewhere. I have yet to have that important distinction made by anyone at the System level, where the impression is given that, yes, even the System has had to reduce its staff.

As the phrase goes, we now have two completely opposite “narratives” as to the financial challenges facing the UMaine System. Who is right and who is wrong? There doesn’t appear to be any possible middle ground.

According to most faculty, students, and staff on the System’s seven campuses, it is more important to retain faculty and their courses than it is to retain, much less to hire, more administrators, mostly in technical areas like IT. According to Wyke and others atop the System, it is more important to retain and, where possible, to hire more administrators whose expertise will eventually “trickle down” to help the campuses’ budgetary problems.

Every month every System regular employee gets a detailed e-mail called “Administrative Highlights.” I suspect that few of us read these, much less understand the overwhelming jargon. But I DO “relish” the theme of “Mission Excellence” being achieved ever more. Indeed, in one of the few lines I can grasp, I see “green” in most cases representing progress in centralization of services from the campuses to the System office and in turn supposed savings and supposed greater efficiency. Once in a while I see “yellow” to denote that progress is (temporarily) halted.

What is almost impossible to decipher is the number of searches for new technical hires in IT and other areas at the System level. When, at a recent Orono Faculty Senate meeting, I asked System IT Chief Dick Thompson to clarify this, he provided a model response of obfuscating what was, in my view, a clear and reasonable question, given the identification by then of suspended searches for new faculty at UMaine that had been expected to replace several retiring faculty. I had never seen Thompson before, but I knew that he was one of the three Baldacci Administration top aides hired by the System without searches when the Governor’s term was coming to a close and his staff needed new jobs. Rebecca Wyke was one of the other two, by the way.

Back to downsizing the faculty ranks.The subtext of the System’s position is that the traditional “Sage on the Stage” needs to be pushed off the stage and shown the door. No pleas for the importance of conventional classes vs. online classes make a particle of difference to the numbers crunchers. Save money by cutting conventional classes and replacing them, if at all, by online instructors who are often adjuncts (though, to be fair, a number of tenured System faculty DO teach online courses at Orono and elsewhere). Likewise, pleas for the ability to continue to teach more advanced undergraduate and graduate courses that  often cannot be taught by adjuncts hardly matters either to the numbers crunchers.

When, for example, my colleague who for nearly three decades had taught undergraduate and graduate courses in Maritime History retired years ago, the powers that be decided even then that this area was not worth continuing- despite Maine’s obvious historical connections to the sea. So he was not replaced, and those courses were never taught again.Yet UMaine has a first-rate School of Marine Sciences. Go figure!

This decision was a portent of what the UMaine History Department has faced in the years since–as have, to be sure, most of the Humanities and Social Science departments at Orono and elsewhere in the System. How, for example, can one encourage prospective students interested in European history–and yes, such students actually DO exist–when our offerings have shrunk from five or six courses each semester to only one each semester for next year? This example could be duplicated for lots of other departments in the liberal arts throughout the System..

Anyone familiar with basic trends in public higher education appreciates that what is happening in Maine is similar to what has happened and will continue to happen across much of America. Most states have lost ever more traditional financial support from state legislatures, so that other sources of revenue have had to be sought and will continue to be sought. Maine, of course, faces special challenges in its declining number of high school graduates and in its overall aging population.

How to cope with all of this would tax even the wisest top educational administrators. But what is so painful to ponder is why faculty (and, to repeat, campus staff) are targeted rather than non-faculty at the System level. I’ve long  concluded that the differences in deciding what’s really important to public higher education in the state of Maine between the seven campuses and the System’s numbers crunchers “are real,” as one local car dealership loves to say. The gap is cosmic and, as far as I can tell, cannot be bridged. Not just two competing narratives, but two completely different visions of what matters.

The System’s message to departing faculty members: turn off the lights in your offices. No need to leave sealed envelopes to your would-be successors!