About thirty students, alumni and faculty raised questions about the quality of online courses, the University of Southern Maine’s business imperatives and the lack of student involvement in an organized community discussion on the green behind Luther Bonney Thursday afternoon.
Though the event was organized by Occupy USM — an offshoot of the Occupy Wall Street movement that focuses on issues concerning higher education and student debt — organizers Jacob Lowry and Katherine Hulit said the event’s purpose was to gather differing perspectives to discuss the future of the university.
Much of the conversation, which was mediated by Lowry, revolved around student concerns about the intentions behind USM’s push for online courses. Some students said they were afraid the university was becoming too similar to for-profit institutions, which have received scrutiny from the government and media in the past.
“I don’t want my degree in ten years to be equitable with Kaplan University or Southern New Hampshire University because I came here for a university experience,” said Hulit, a senior philosophy and women and gender studies major.
Annette Kowalik, a senior human biology major, said she had a positive experience with an online class a few years ago because she could work on her own time. But after Hulit asked her if the quality outweighed the convenience, Kowalik responded, “probably more convenience.” She then added that it helped because she lived an hour-and-a-half away at the time.
In talking about the university’s focus on more online classes, Lowry directed the conversation to Botman and director of external programs Mike Wing’s remarks about the university serving as a “pipeline for human capital,” a statement he recently criticized in a recent Free Press op-ed. “I think that’s disrespectful to the idea of higher education.”
Others spoke about their concern for the university’s goals.
“They’re not looking at what would make us leave, but what would bring in new students. They think that we’re stuck, that we’ve run out of options,” said Chris Witham, a senior math and classics major.
Jason Read, associate professor of philosophy, agreed with Witham and said he never hears about traditional liberal arts students in meetings with administrators.
“There is a certain sense the liberal arts student is invisible,” Read said.
The conversation eventually reached the topic of the faculty senate’s upcoming no-confidence vote against Botman. Some students expressed disagreement with Student Body President Chris Camire’s recent remarks about how the no-confidence vote against Botman will “tear this university apart.”
“I was upset with how he handled the issue,” Kowalik said.
Other faculty members were present and said they were happy to see students convening on issues they care about.
“This is so heartening to see this conversation. I want to hear more voices from students,” said Wendy Chapkis, professor of women and gender studies and sociology.
Hulit, who held a sign that said “you can’t put students first if you put teachers last,” said it’s important for the university to support professors.
“I believe the strength of the school is in the faculty. Students want to come because of the awesome professors, she said. “What keeps students at the university are the positive experiences they have in and out of class.”