Ettenger: My apology to the students

Posted on February 24, 2014 in Perspectives
By USM Free Press

By: Kreg Ettenger

“Looks good on paper” usually refers to something that seems sensible in theory, even if it doesn’t work out in practice. It applies to a lot of recent changes here at USM, including many that directly affect students.

Case in point: the university “reorganization” that took place under the last administration. Despite many questions regarding the redesign and reduction of the colleges, how the plan was implemented, and its true budgetary impacts, it was offered to the USM community as a bold and necessary way to balance the university’s budget for the foreseeable future. Looked good on paper, anyway.

Since then we have been faced with a continuing string of ever-increasing budget deficits, showing that the reorganization was not the solution to declining enrollments, increasing costs, and other structural problems. Any savings realized by the plan were overwhelmed by the avalanche of financial problems we have faced since.
Another case in point: over the past few years we have been given a number of “rules” to follow as we chase that elusive balanced budget. There was the “rule of five,” putting on notice any majors that graduated fewer than five students per year. Then there was the “rule of 13,” which said that any course with fewer than 13 students enrolled would be canceled. Both of these rules had problems, and neither had much of an effect on the budget.

Now we are being given a “rule of 30,” where every faculty member and department is supposed to attain an average of 30 students in their classes. Putting aside for the moment that this rule deals with a supply-side problem by creating additional capacity (not exactly logical), it creates numerous problems and questions in its implementation. How do larger class sizes affect the student experience? What impact will they have on recruitment and retention? What will happen when departments compete even more intensely for a declining pool of students?

A final case in point is about customer service. When I first came to USM ten years ago, nearly every department and program had its own administrative assistant, or AA. The AAs staffed department offices, assisting students and faculty with numerous tasks and problems. They often knew more about the department than the faculty did. They were the first point of contact between students and their majors, answering questions, assisting with forms, helping them track down faculty members, and doing as much as anyone to help get students through their programs.

A couple of years ago our long-time AA retired, and we were told that due to budget cuts we would not get a replacement. After much negotiation we were finally allowed to have one AA, taken from another department, whose time would be shared between three different programs. She would spend mornings in one office and afternoons in another, with signs telling students where to find her. While not ideal, this arrangement at least allowed some contact between students and a real, live person who understood our programs and our students.

This year we lost this AA to a “pool” of student affairs staff in a common office, where they all serve multiple departments and programs. A sign in our department tells students where to go to find this office. Sometimes we also have work study students, but most of them do not know our programs, or the university itself, well enough to answer more than general questions.

Even more recently, our student affairs coordinator, who works closely with us on complicated and sometimes sensitive student issues, was switched on us without our knowledge or consent. The person we now must work with is based in Portland, despite the fact that our office and faculty are in Gorham. The reason given was that the old situation was confusing for the staff, and this would make it easier on them. Good on paper, I guess.

So this is an apology to you, the student, who has seen the level of service that departments and programs can provide you with decline seriously over the past few years. Just know that faculty and chairs have fought many of these changes along the way, to no avail. We know that keeping you here and helping you complete your degree depends on being able to respond quickly and effectively to your questions and needs as you progress through your program. We know that other businesses, from Walmart to your local hardware store, provide service at the places where customers actually need it, like the paint aisle or the electronics section. They don’t fill their stores with signs telling customers to “Please go to the manager’s office with any questions.”

So the next time you go to your department office and find the lights out and the door locked, or the front desk empty, or a student sitting there who was just in your last class, please don’t blame us. And remember, it looks really good on paper.

Kreg Ettenger is an associate professor of anthropology and chair of the Program in Tourism & Hospitality.