Cops and Robbers at the University of Southern Maine

This guest post was written by Michael DeCesare, Chair of the Department of Sociology at Merrimack College and President of the AAUP Chapter there.

At a special meeting of the University of Southern Maine (USM) faculty senate on March 14th, USM President Theodora Kalikow announced her plan to eliminate four academic programs and lay off 20 to 30 faculty—including tenured and tenure-track professors—along with 10 to 20 staff. What was the ostensible purposes of these unilateral decisions? To “re-brand” USM from a liberal arts institution into a “metropolitan university” and to make up $7M of a $14M shortfall. Martin Kich reported on these austerity cuts on this blog a week ago.

To this point, neither USM nor the University of Maine (UM) System has declared financial exigency. The supposed severity of the budget shortfall was quickly shown by Susan Feiner, a professor of economics and women’s and gender studies at USM, to be a flimsy justification for firing faculty and closing programs. As Paul Krugman put it in his New York Times blog last week, USM’s administration “seems eager to downsize liberal arts and social sciences for reasons that go beyond money.”

Dismissing faculty, negating tenure, and slashing academic programs amounts to robbing USM’s students of their educational experience and their tuition money, especially in light of widespread administrative bloat throughout the UM System. To their great credit, the students at USM understand that they are being robbed. They understand that their professors are being robbed too, not only of their tenure and academic freedom but, in the case of those whose jobs are on the chopping block, of their livelihoods.

The students’ understanding has led them to collective action. USM Provost Michael Stevenson’s attempt to carry out the faculty firings dictated by President Kalikow was partly foiled on March 21st, when more than 100 people showed up to protest outside of his office; most of them were students. USM’s students have continued to perform bravely and admirably in defense of the academic integrity of their institution and in support of their professors, taking a vote of no confidence in President Kalikow, staging a 2-hour walkout, enlisting the help of Rep. Ben Chipman to introduce an emergency bill in the Maine legislature calling for a one-year moratorium on the implementation of cuts within the UM System, and performing a flash mob on campus. Some alumni have weighed in as well; Martin Kich reproduced on this blog a few days ago a particularly powerful letter from an alum to President Kalikow.

Administrative heavy-handedness and malfeasance are, unfortunately, not new at USM. President Kalikow’s predecessor, Selma Botman, faced her own vote of no confidence from the faculty in 2012 over her unilateral proposal to combine departments. After being forced out of office as a result of that vote, Botman was assigned as a “special assistant to the chancellor on global education,” a one-year position in which she earned a salary of $276,000. Perhaps President Kalikow will ultimately be rewarded for her penchant for top-down decision-making that hurts faculty and students, as her predecessor was: Botman will become Provost at Yeshiva University effective July 1st of this year.

As if the latest administrative robberies at USM—of the curriculum, of faculty members’ tenure and livelihoods, of students’ educational experience and tuition money—weren’t deplorable enough, the situation has recently taken a menacing turn. Lucinda Cole, a professor of English at USM, reported on her public Facebook page on March 30th that at the last three faculty meetings she attended, “armed guards hovered outside the door or circulated through the rooms, hands moving to their hip holsters whenever faculty members raised their voices.” Such a bullying tactic, on a university campus no less, is despicable, cowardly, and unacceptable. It represents yet another new low for a university administration that has been near the bottom of the barrel for a while now (see this YouTube video on the history of austerity budgeting at USM).

What’s worse is that the cops and the robbers at USM are now openly on the same side—against the university’s students and faculty, and against the purpose and values of every institution of higher learning worthy of the name.

8 thoughts on “Cops and Robbers at the University of Southern Maine

  1. Several administrations ago, one of our presidents declared that Wright State University was adopting the model of a “metropolitan university.” It seems to be a concept borrowed from British urban universities and to be intended primarily to differentiate the missions of urban universities from those of the land-grant institutions, against which all public universities within a state have typically come to be measured.

    This is a passage taken from Daniel Soo’s “An Added Dimension of Mission: Metropolitan Colleges and Universities,” published in the Fall 2010 issue of Perspectives on Urban Education, 35-50:


    “A group of American institutions has defined themselves as being “metropolitan colleges and universities,” that is, higher education institutions committed to the urban centers and metropolitan areas in which they are located. These schools span Carnegie classifications, are both public and private, and range in size from small colleges to large universities. Far from being simply located in metropolitan area, these colleges and universities are committed to their cities and regions, providing teaching, research, and service that explicitly address local concerns. In the teaching and education of students, these universities commit to serving residents of their region, including diverse and under-served students, students of all ages, and the ‘place-bound’ students that cannot travel long distances for their education. Research at metropolitan universities focuses on linking basic and applied research, and on ‘creating interdisciplinary partner¬ships for attacking complex metropolitan problems’ (Declaration of Metropolitan Universities, n.d.). And the service activities performed by these institutions strengthen and support the local area, including individuals, nonprofit organizations, and economic development. Lynton (1996) writes,

    “’A metropolitan university’s regional orientation and strong commitment to serve the intellectual needs of its surrounding communities and constituencies, the resulting diversity of the student body, the focus on the education of practitioners, and the emphasis on outreach through applied research and technical assistance add up to an institutional model very different from that of the traditional research university’ (p. xiii).

    “Metropolitan universities seek to be publicly engaged institutions and are described by some as ‘stewards of place.’ The American Association for State Colleges and Universities (AASCU) notes that a publicly engaged university should meet four criteria. First, it must be “place-related,” meaning that they have important links to their surrounding communities. This does not limit their potentially glob¬al engagement, but it recognizes the connection and commitment to their localities. Second, these universities require an interactive ‘give and take by the university and its partners’ in which the university learns from its surrounding area, and does not always act as the ‘expert’ bringing knowledge to the community. Third, interactions with the community should be mutually beneficial, in that engagement activities should be ‘responsive to public needs in ways that are appropriate to the institution’s mission and academic strengths’ (AASCU, p. 7). In this way, the university is not simply taking from the community, nor should the community expect to receive services beyond the university’s scope. Fourth, engagement activities should be integrated across the institution—at different levels, in policies, incentives, and by faculty, staff, and students.”

    Soo’s extended definition of a “metropolitan university” is fairly standard, though it is more succinct than many others.

    I have never seen scholarship that pointedly distinguishes “metropolitan universities” from “liberal arts colleges.” Again, the usual differentiation is between these universities and land-grant institutions. Nor have I seen the case made that adopting the model of a metropolitan university requires one to make cuts in the liberal arts and, in particular, in the humanities.

    Moreover, I have never seen this model proposed as a remedy for financial constraints–as a means of re-prioritizing and reallocating resources in response to revenue shortfalls–or even as a complement to such a remedy.

    In short, as far as I can tell, the model does not provide any inherent or coherent argument for eliminating programs. If the USM administration is making that argument, it seems a public rationalization of an administrative choice, an administrative preference–and a public rationalization framed in such a way as to insure that it will go largely unchallenged by the media, the political structure, and the business community.

    It is equivalent to asserting financial exigency without actually declaring financial exigency–because declaring it would require a thorough public review of the institutional finances and substantive evidence that the cuts are a last resort in the face of insolvency, whereas asserting it requires only more assertions.

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