Koenig: Colleges debate how to lose $1 million without students noticing

Posted on March 02, 2012 in Letter From The Editor, Perspectives
By Paul Koenig

Editor-in-Chief Paul Koenig
Chelsea Ellis | The Free Press
Editor-in-Chief Paul Koenig

You can find at least one story from The Free Press every year with a headline like this: “Faced with massive budget shortfall, colleges forced to make large cuts next year.

There’s a good chance the University of Southern Maine has been scrambling to make its budget every year you’ve been a student. A few weeks ago the deans of the colleges were informed they had to slash an extra $1 million from their budgets. With budgets around $16 million, that’s not small change. And about $15 million of it is tied up in personnel, leaving around $1 million for operating costs like paper, office supplies, equipment, events and any other expenses needed to run a college.

To put the dollar amount in perspective, I calculated a few ways they could spend $1 million.

I looked up the salaries of four of my favorite USM professors — two from business and two from media studies — and found an average salary of $80,000. Adding benefits, which are usually around 50 percent according to Director of Public Affairs Bob Caswell, and you get $120,000 a year. That would pay for eight more of my favorite professors.

How about some new computers? A college could purchase another 833 new iMacs with the $1 million.

But the colleges aren’t gaining a million. They’re losing it, meaning eight fewer awesome professors or 833 less new computers for each of USM’s three major colleges.

Of course this is a simplistic look at a very complicated problem, but it illustrates what the deans have faced. Lynn Kuzma, dean of the College of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences, said personnel cuts are “not off the table.” And Andrew Anderson, dean the College of Science, Technology and Health, said unfilled positions may be cut, and they’ll examine non-tenured faculty positions if needed.

Provost John Wright told the College of Management and Human Service earlier this week that he wants to avoid cutting classified staff after USM laid off a significant amount four years ago in similar straits, but he couldn’t guarantee immunity.

No matter how you slash it, some people will always be pissed off at what gets cuts. You can’t make a $1 million omelet with out cracking a helluva lot of eggs, or something like that. Anderson said he’s looking at the cuts as “strategically” as possible. Kuzma applauded her college for banding together to tackle a difficult problem. But under the surface of PR-ready responses were very frank admissions of the stressful juggling act facing the colleges.

Anderson gave me the most interesting response when he spoke of an all-too-common reality burdening USM. “We have to look at the fact that we’re always going to be in a situation where money is going to be a concern,” he said, “at least in the foreseeable future.”

Our college is essentially living paycheck-to-paycheck, something many American families know too well, including my own.

One faculty member I spoke with complained about the salaries of “Chief-blank-Officers” on the seventh floor of the Law Building — Chief Financial Officer, Chief Operating Officer, Chief Information Officer and so on. Also this week, Wright told me his office was already “pretty lean” after initial cuts.

And USM President Selma Botman said the University of Maine System Board of Trustees asked why the number of faculty members aren’t going down if enrollment is dropping. Faculty members likely feel differently than trustees, but it’s a point many business owners would consider. If you can’t raise revenue by enrolling more students, it only makes sense to lower the expenses — the faculty — tied to that revenue source. Of course you need talented faculty to attract more students.

At least both sides say they agree on what is important: the students. But what do students think?

Tenured faculty will almost always champion the importance of tenured faculty. They say they’re most committed to the university and students. But I’ve had part-time instructors who seemed just as dedicated their tenured counterparts. When looking at the list of faculty member salaries with other editors, we all pointed out plenty of high-salaried, full-time faculty who — when it comes to teaching — are inept.

In some situations, full-time faculty should be dropped for less costly part-time instructors. And not every C-blank-O may be needed for the students’ sake. Most importantly, I hope faculty and administrators actually do have students’ best interest in mind and avoid defending an expense item just because he or she may be across the hall.