The American Association of University Professors, which I headed for several years, will be sending a team of experts to the University of Southern Maine this month to investigate whether the alleged budget crisis facing USM and the entire University of Maine System (UMS) is real; and, if so, whether the process used to eliminate certain academic programs and lay off faculty were in accord with the best practices of academic freedom and university governance.
That the AAUP has committed its resources to an on-site investigation indicates that there exists probable cause for suspecting that the planned mass terminations of faculty at USM were done without sufficient consultation with the faculty. Following the visit, the investigation team will issue a report that could lead to USM’s censure if it is concludes that the faculty’s academic freedom was violated; sanction if they conclude that shared governance was compromised; or a finding that UMS and USM’s actions were warranted. Censure and sanction stand as a scarlet letter in the academic world and serve as a red flag to the nation’s best qualified faculty to shun the censured institution.
What seems clear is that USM’s interim president, himself from the corporate world and having no experience inside the (admittedly) peculiar academic culture, decided to direct his administrative team to identify where the academic personnel and program cuts were to be made and then give the faculty less than two weeks to respond. If so, this is not shared governance; it is rather the sort of “downsizing” common to the corporate world.
USM faculty members are protesting, but to whom can they protest? Certainly not to the UMS Board of Trustees. After all, the board is composed of “citizen trustees,” meaning they are neither experts in university management or in academic matters. Most of them have a business background where profit-loss issues dominate. Cutting your workforce in order to balance your budget, to increase your profits, or cut your losses is standard operating procedure. Think paper mills in Maine.
Top-down management of the University of Maine System campuses, however, is problematic. Our campuses, unlike the paper mills, have a tradition of operating relatively autonomously from the system bureaucrats. When a campus suffers a structural deficit that accumulates over time, as USM has, guidance from the chancellor is needed well before the Board of Trustees steps in more than a day late and a dollar short to force immediate personnel cuts. Unlike our state’s paper mills, which are privately owned, the UMS is a public good built largely by public dollars and providing investment returns that are difficult to measure in strict profit-loss terms but are nonetheless demonstrable in terms of the accrual of intellectual capital that enriches our culture, civic life, and the economy.
Instead of resorting to draconian cuts of our campuses’ human resources, the system trustees and administrators need to make a firm determination of what resources each campus will be given over a five-year period, and after reviewing and approving each campus’ five-year plan, permit each campus to raise or lower its own tuition (a power currently denied to state-funded universities), cut costs, reallocate, and make the program changes required to stay within budget. States are required to balance their budgets, but unlike our campuses, they have all the authority needed to impose the taxes and fees necessary to reach a balanced budget.
Like it or not, a campus is a community of teachers and learners and for community members to get along there must be a shared understanding and acceptance of the community’s mission and its various members’ respective roles and responsibilities. That is shared governance. Academic freedom gives teachers the authority to set curriculum and the promise that their disciplinary expertise will not be compromised by political intervention (by “political,” I mean the supra-campus decision on how to allocate scarce resources). Presidents and vice presidents, interim presidents notwithstanding, understand that their own authority rests atop formal recognition that faculty members will participate in setting policy about the allocation of scarce resources as it concerns academic programs.
If system trustees divest campus administrators and faculty of these long-held rights, they risk undermining presidential authority and spurring faculty resistance and, with it, student resistance. Think “states’ rights.” System trustees are far removed from the seven campus communities, as is the system administration (think “Washington, D.C.”). The latter may have the power to dictate campus (or state) finances but not the moral authority, a point we can expect the AAUP to make following its investigation.
The University of Maine Board of Trustees needs to work with the seven campuses in the spirit of what they are — academic institutions — rather than as corporate outposts. That is how USM is being treated now, in violation of all that is sacred to higher learning.
Roger Bowen of Prospect Harbor is president emeritus of the State University of New York at New Paltz and former general secretary of the American Association of University Professors.