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Monday, July 31, 2023

Sustainable Colleges and Universities: the Maine problem

The University of Southern Maine


Public education is under fire in Texas, Florida, North Carolina, Arkansas and elsewhere from political figures who have been trying to implement a conservative curriculum. The Florida controversy over the Advanced Placement course in African American History is but one example of many. Media stories have highlighted the activities of consultant Christopher Rufo, of Hillsdale College, and other individuals and organizations with a conservative educational agenda.


Thankfully, this political infection hasn't spread to the state of Maine but, Maine being a poor New England state with a fiscally frugal population, the state legislature has gradually strangled public education by reducing the funding it provides higher education: today 43% of the funding for the university system, whereas in 1972 it paid 70%. Tuition for private liberal arts colleges in Maine like Colby and Bowdoin is about $60,000 annually, whereas for the University of Maine at Orono, the flagship state university, tuition costs a full-time student only $12,000 per year. Yet, the legislators expect UMaine somehow to maintain standards and offer a quality education to all who qualify. In truth, 96% of its applicants are admitted, so there is no question about qualifying; moreover, more than 40% of the students enrolled in Maine's higher educational institutions system-wide are first-generation college students, while more than half of all enrollees qualify for Pell grants, signaling exceptional financial hardship. Meanwhile, tuition income for the university is down because overall in-state enrollment at UMaine has slipped in recent years as much as 25%. This slippage is due partly to a declining school-age population, but chiefly because the vast majority of Americans now view higher education vocationally, and they evaluate it not in terms of what is learned but rather by its financial costs versus benefits. Burgeoning student debt fuels this attitude and as a result fewer students choose higher education in Maine and elsewhere. Meanwhile, a liberal arts education at a private college or university like Bates or Brown is considered a luxury for the wealthy few whose families have benefited from increasing income inequality. Although these liberal arts institutions have diversified mightily in terms of race and ethnicity, to the point that almost half the student body identifies as people of color, the fact is that they have not diversified nearly so much economically: most of the minority students come from middle-class backgrounds, or they were privileged to be identified early for their abilities and tracked into college-prep high school courses.


The land-grant universities in every state, including the state of Maine, were established in the 19th century so that students would be able to learn not only the career-oriented "useful arts" but also the humanities and the sciences. They would learn about the broader world outside the narrow compass of family, place, and personal history; they would learn about the past so they could live more effectively in the future. The idea was that more broadly educated individuals made the best leaders, and that all would contribute to society as knowledgeable and effective citizens. This higher aim has been all but lost, and the result is obvious: an electorate increasingly ignorant of science and of history.


To combat financial hardship, the University of Southern Maine, the second largest campus in the state after UMaine Orono, has just announced a strategic plan aimed at belt-tightening. The plan proposes to eliminate courses with low enrollments. However, low enrollments are a fact of life in specialized, advanced courses, particularly in graduate schools. Low-enrollment courses are indeed expensive to teach, so universities fund them, as it were, with high-enrollment undergraduate courses to even things out. Moreover, universities have been spending less per course by hiring part-time faculty members (adjunct professors) whose salaries are poverty-level low, and who receive fewer or no perquisites: no medical benefits, for example. Fifty years ago part-timers accounted for less than 20% of university faculty; today that figure is more than 50%. Such has already been the belt-tightening in response to decades of lower and lower funding from state legislatures. And while colleges and universities were pruning full-time faculty, they were expanding the number of full-time administrators. Most of these institutions are now top-heavy with managers, deans, associate deans, assistant deans, development officers, assistant development officers, financial managers, and so on.


The implementation of free (or low-cost) public education in the United States was a radical move more than 150 years ago. The idea behind it, of course, is that a good education is a right, not a privilege; and that its benefits would accrue not just to individuals but to the nation as a whole. Many of our citizens and political leaders appear to have forgotten this. The solution to the financial problems facing public education today is not charter schools, nor is it belt-tightening, nor is it a curriculum determined by political agenda. Rather, the solution is to restore the higher funding levels of fifty years ago, to increase the percentage of full-time faculty, and to reduce the number of managerial positions.

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