What follows is a letter sent by a University of Southern Maine alumna to Theo Kalikow, the university president, in response to his announcement that full-time faculty positions need to be eliminated in response to a projected deficit in the institution’s budget. It is, in some respects, a follow-up to a previous post that I have made very recently on this topic: https://academeblog.org/2014/03/23/students-and-faculty-demonstrate-against-austerity-cuts-in-maine/.
The letter is re-printed here with the permission of its author.
Dear Theo Kalikow,
I would like to explain to you, using the critical thinking skills I cultivated under the guidance of extraordinary faculty at the University of Southern Maine—skills that got me into a highly competitive doctoral program in Sociology at an R1 University—why as an alum, I strongly suggest you resign immediately.
Having majored in Sociology and Women & Gender Studies (with a minor in English), my analysis of your current predicament is a sociological one. The institution of higher education in the U.S. is facing a crisis. Not a financial one, but a crisis that arose from a larger political and economic shift toward privatization of formerly state-controlled institutions.
Don’t misunderstand me—I hold you fully accountable for your actions. Theo, I understand that you’ve bet your career on this bold move. I’m sorry to say that judging by the outpouring of support from and mobilization of the student and faculty at USM (not to mention incoming outrage from alums around the state and country), you have seriously miscalculated your odds.
I understand how you came to this mistake. To get back to the social context of your bad decision: the crisis facing public higher education is in no way unique. The state has everywhere destroyed social welfare, aligned with big business, and increased surveillance and intrusion into the “private” sphere. Since the rise of free trade and general globalization (what we academics like to call neoliberalism), welfare has been slashed, the monumental gains made by the civil rights and labor movements have been gutted, jobs have become scarce and housing unaffordable. The result: social inequality is at an all time high. The top ten percent of Americans now own a greater share of the nation’s wealth than they did at the last all time high—directly before the country spiraled into the great depression. Sociologists are handy for all kinds of things, but analyzing social inequality is one of our specialties.
This must sound familiar to you. It was the basis of the Occupy movement that swept the nation not long ago. Perhaps in this age of hyper-connectivity and fast-paced technology, you assumed that we’d already forgotten all that.
With this backdrop in mind, I can see how you thought your gamble was really a sure bet. With all government institutions adopting business mentalities, it was only a matter of time before higher education fell in step. And you had the chance to set the precedent: to show how to cut and bleed liberal arts at a public university, set it on course to become a technical and vocational college, consolidate power into the hands of a bloated administration (like a CEO), thus showing how a state university can become a business, where profit is the bottom line.
You see, we haven’t forgotten about the 1%. Before I began my graduate program at my current institution, I worked as a gardener in Biddeford Poole. This oceanfront town is the summer home to some of the nation’s wealthiest families. One day, while deadheading lilies under a client’s patio (yet still in plain view) I overheard a someone brunching on the porch say: “But now all these young people have liberal educations, and no one wants to be the worker! Well, who is going to do the labor? That’s why we need to bring back vocational colleges.”
You, Theo, thought you’d lead the pack. Become the poster child for making those “tough decisions” on how to fix an “overeducated” and underemployed workforce (after all, such a population ignited the Arab Spring). Cement social inequality and stratification by writing the blueprint for illegally firing tenured faculty and making state-run schools into profitable businesses meant to churn out workers, minus that pesky critical thinking part.
Because, as we all know, without a liberal education, I wouldn’t know how to write this letter, would I?
You thought you’d pave the way for private colleges to be the only place to get a liberal education. Since you need about $40,000-70,000 a year to get a private education these days, you’d ensure that only the elite get taught critical thinking—you’d be the heroine to the wealthy!
If you succeeded at USM, you could cash in. You’d move on to other public universities, and gut their liberal arts programs, too. You’d make history. I mean, if you can prove that tenure means absolutely nothing—that you can fire at will, under the bold-faced lie of a budget deficit—then you have effectively destroyed tenure. You will have hand-delivered the corporatized public university.
Susan Feiner, another excellent faculty member at USM, has done characteristically-excellent work exposing your fraudulent claims about the budget (non-)deficit. That papers like The Portland Press Herald have failed to fact-check you shows that our times have made claims such as “budget deficit” so routine that it seems hardly worth fact-checking–even journalists are failing to interrogate the truth of these statements. After all, why would a university president want to throw her own liberal arts program under the bus? The authors of these ill-researched articles are clearly not USM graduates.
Because USM graduates know how to ask questions. USM graduates know what it’s like to fight for their education. To work for (and throughout) their education. To raise kids while committed to finishing a liberal arts education. Because USM graduates know that without a liberal arts education, people like you will break the back of USM under the pretense of building a bridge, and we won’t know the difference.
Alums are outraged. I am outraged.
Theo, you are a veteran in the academy; you became a professor around the same time that one of USM’s most beloved English and Women & Gender Studies Professors, Nancy Gish, broke into the field.
Dr. Gish was featured on the Portland news while occupying the provost’s office on Friday. Gish expressed our collective rage: “I am so angry . . . This is education for the 1% and crap for everybody else!” During the course Women, Knowledge, and Power, Dr. Gish shared that as a child, she lived in a home with a dirt floor. Her story illustrates the sort of mobility you’re looking to end.
During her graduate career, Dr. Gish was one among very few women in her doctoral program. I remember her lessons vividly, because part of the excellence that defines USM is this: the education faculty gives students cannot be contained or communicated within an online “classroom.” It is life-altering, rich, made from real connection—the stuff that can only happen over time, face-to-face.
USM faculty invests deeply in their students. Faculty are familiar with having to fight for their right to an education, to study what they deem important, and to teach what they deem necessary to provide an exemplary education for their students.
Theo, as you know, while the academy made a little room for white women such as yourself and Dr. Gish, people of color, women of color, lesbian, gay, queer, and trans people, international scholars, disabled people—every other kind of marginalized professor has had to continue to fight to get access to the education and jobs they deserve. As you know from being a woman and professor in the sixties, as well as a self-proclaimed feminist (!), the presence of such diverse faculty in public institutions is vital for attracting and empowering a similarly diverse and extraordinary student body. Can you still call yourself a feminist, after you’ve dared to place the lion’s share of your “retrenchment” cuts on the backs of faculty who are women, people of color, and/or LGBT? I certainly can’t.
Theo, I know you only spent a decade teaching before moving into the administrative sector. Since becoming President of USM, you’ve professed a dedication to turning USM into a “metropolitan” university. Don’t you mean privatized? Clearly, you’ve failed to familiarize yourself with the brilliant nature of the departments you intend to guillotine, for you’ve taken us for fools.
We are not fools. To the contrary, we are exactly the “overeducated” population you wish to prevent: we are critically-thinking laborers. USM alums have been taught by some of the greatest and most dedicated professors in the nation. We are fiercely loyal, intensely grateful for our excellent education, and we will fight to no end to protect current and future students’ right to this same faculty and education.
Theo, this wasn’t a safe bet.
As a nation, our belief in public education is at a critical juncture. It seems you have just ignited the next Occupy movement: university edition. But this time, the demands are clear: cut from the top.
Doctoral Student, Sociology Department
Trainee, Population Research Center
University of Texas at Austin
University of Southern Maine, Summa Cum Laude 2011
B.A. Sociology and Women and Gender Studies
2010-2011 Maine Policy Scholar