As Maine Goes, So Goes the Nation: A Brief Report from the University of Southern Maine

Jason Read:

“Whenever you have a ‘southern’ or a ‘northern’ or an ‘eastern’ or a ‘western’ before an institution’s name, you know it will be wildly underfunded.” –Richard Russo

On March nineteenth the Chancellor of the University of Maine System, as well as the President, and select members of the Board of Trustees gathered in front of a crowd of students, faculty and staff in the Hannaford Lecture Hall, a spacious and new lecture hall (more often rented out than used for classes) to unveil the University of Southern Maine’s new vision as a “Metropolitan University.” Two days later, on the twenty-first, twelve members of the faculty from such programs as economics, theater, and sociology met with the provost of the University to be “retrenched.” Both of these events followed the proposal to eliminate four programs (American and New England Studies, Geosciences, Recreation and Leisure Studies, and Arts and Humanities at the Lewiston Auburn Campus) the week before. It was a strange and tumultuous week, and one that I fear offers a frightening glimpse of a future of higher public education in the US.

All of these events, the rebranding and the cuts, were in a response to a system wide budget shortfall of $35 million, of which USM is slated to absorb $14 million in cuts. Claims of poverty on the part of public universities need to be contextualized against the massive decrease in state allocations, on the one hand, and the increasing connection between the university and financial services, on the other (on this point in general see Edward Kazarian’s post) in which bond ratings matter more than educational mission. With respect to the former the University of Maine system has followed the national trend of divestment in higher education. In 1999 appropriations accounted for 63 percent of the university’s budget while tuition and fees made up 37 percent, by 2014 this was reversed to 62 percent from tuition and 38 from allocation. During this period Maine went through the largest tax cut in its history, cutting taxes on inheritance and otherwise making it easier for the wealthiest to keep their money. A tuition freeze instituted in 2012 followed closely on the heels of this cut. (The latter is a perfect example of faux-populism, taking measures to supposedly cut college costs while failing to address the real cause of those costs.) During this same period USM added several new buildings, such as the lecture hall noted above. As enrollment dropped by six percent from 2008-2012 the combination of reduced appropriations, fixed tuition, and decreased enrollment led to a perfect storm of budget problems.