Memo to U Maine System: Even Henry Ford Decentralized

In recent weeks the University of Maine System has e-mailed its faculty and staff two successive memos entitled “Administrative Review Highlights” for Summer 2013 and then for September 2013. The use of “Highlights” is no accident, for these outlines of recent developments at the System level are intended to make readers feel good, maybe great, about the relentless centralization of decision making from the seven System campuses to the System, headquartered in dozens of offices atop Epic Sports in downtown Bangor. Indeed, feedback is invited at a website entitled “Mission Excellence.” And, of course, everything is “Strategic,” which a priori justifies whatever has been done or is being done.

I do not dispute the value of centralizing some services and some responsibilities that have hitherto been the province of the seven campuses. The rationale is always greater efficiency and the savings of precious dollars. Whatever goes on at the System level has, rest assured, been done at other public universities in America. For better or for worse, the U Maine System generally follows rather than leads.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the millions of dollars spent by the System in the last few years in hiring various expensive consultants who have already  worked with other public universities. The fact that some of these consultants have controversial reputations for their work elsewhere doesn’t matter one bit. Nor, let me emphasize, does any faculty or professional or classified staff opposition to the recommendations these consultants make–recommendations invariably telling the System administrators and the System Trustees what they already wanted to hear. The consultants, in effect, certify that their recommendations are kosher.

Indeed, the subtext of these Administrative Review Highlights is to inform the faculty and the staff at the seven System campuses–what they often knew nothing about beforehand and were rarely if ever consulted about. True, certain technical developments probably need not be shared with the grass-roots employees.

But the most telling examples are recent System decisions in the face of overwhelming faculty and professional and classified staff opposition in the areas of, most notably, IT (Information Technology) and travel. Where it used to be possible to contact IT experts at the campus level when problems arose, those experts, with few exceptions, now report to the System and have often moved to System offices. Thus when, at the start of fall semester, countless faculty, staff, and students couldn’t access their e-mail or the Internet or other electronic programs needed for teaching and research, it became a nightmare. The situation grew so bad that the U Maine Faculty Senate passed a resolution insisting that the IT folks at the System level come down from their upper level offices and address the problems ASAP. It remains to be seen if things will improve as the semester goes on. In my biased opinion, there should have been an immediate explanation and apology–not least to Orono students, faculty, and staff. Of course those who now decide IT matters don’t themselves teach or do research and are probably not handicapped by these screwups to the same degree that the “worker bees” are.

Regarding travel, months ago many faculty and staff held a meeting in Orono pleading with the System’s administrators NOT to follow the questionable path of other public universities and end established individual relationships with various travel agencies that saved money. (Since I have no travel funds myself, I wasn’t affected.)  The System’s response was, metaphorically, a middle finger. Travel will now be centralized too, with bids going out to travel agencies who knows where. Centralization of power trumps any financial savings.

There are other examples of this obsession with enlarging the System, including the ongoing hiring–as noted in these Administrative Review Highlights–of new persons in IT and other administrative units. As the System’s labor negotiators continue to insist that finances are too “fragile” to provide any serious faculty pay increases after four years of pay freezes and the simultaneous buildup of tens of millions of dollars in the System’s reserve funds, there are, as always, unlimited funds for what is deemed genuinely “strategic.” Faculty and staff morale are the lowest I’ve seen in my twenty-eight years at U Maine, and not just because of salary.

No American contributed more to the centralization of mass production than Henry Ford in the first few decades of the twentieth century. His most famous auto manufacturing plants, first Highland Park and then Rouge River, epitomized the making of cars and trucks from raw materials to finished products. But even Henry Ford recognized the value of alternative    ways of making vehicles. He poured untold millions of dollars into nineteen “village industries” between the late 1910′s and the mid-1940′s. All made small parts of cars and truck and all within sixty miles of Ford world headquarters in his native Dearborn, Michigan. Ford recognized the value of smaller scale administration and work experience even as he built up the very opposite. He envisioned establishing other networks of small scale factories in other communities elsewhere in America, but for various reasons none ever came about.

Obviously making cars and operating public universities are different enterprises–though the popularity by educational “experts” of “products” to substitute for students and degrees, etc. does bring them closer together than one might initially assume. In any case, it is sad that Henry Ford’s insight into the need for balance is utterly lost on those who nowadays run the U Maine System.