Shelley: Corporate language on USM’s “changes” strange and depressing

Posted on March 20, 2014 in Perspectives
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This article was contributed by USM graduate Phil Shelley.

Last week, I received a mass email from the USM Graduate Admissions office regarding the current “changes” USM is undergoing. I found the email strange and depressing because it was written in corporate marketing language and seemed to me to be the kind of pre-emptive “don’t panic,” damage-control email that, say, Kraft might send to consumers after bad publicity about a possibly unhealthy additive in one of their food products. The email was signed by Mary Sloan, a woman who had previously been very kind and helpful to me in my direct correspondence with that office. Because of its overt use of corporate marketing language, my guess is that Mary did not even write the email (though I have no way of being sure of that). But the point is, this is not about Mary, and I mean her no disrespect. Quite the contrary—she bravely and gamely solicited responses to the email as the public face of the Graduate Admissions Office, and I gratefully took advantage of the opportunity to express my thoughts about the “changes” to someone in the administration. Both the email response I sent to Mary and the original mass email are reproduced below.

Email from USM Graduate Admissions Office:

Dear Philip,

During our 136-year history, the University of Southern Maine has undergone several periods of change to ensure we continue meeting the needs of our students and the communities we serve.

We are now facing another period of change that will allow us to emerge as a stronger and more nimble institution focused on the goal of providing a quality, affordable, and meaningful education well into the future.

The direction we are heading is based on the collaborative efforts of our students, faculty, supporters, staff, and administrators. They have spent several months developing a vision for the future of our university, one that builds on our deep connections in the metropolitan communities we serve in Portland, Gorham, and Lewiston-Auburn.

What does this mean for our students? It means we will continue to offer graduate programs that are relevant to the 21st century with greater flexibility in course scheduling and online learning. It also means additional opportunities for internship and community-based learning that combine classroom learning with real world experiences.

We will keep you updated on our transition as key decisions are made. In the meantime, if you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to call me.

Shelley’s response:

Hello,

It is funny to me that in my 4-plus years at USM we have never crossed paths, yet in the past week while we have been emailing, I also happened to receive this mass emailing (below) from you. Last week I was traveling, and so I thought it was just typical admission spam, and I did not read it very closely. But on my return home yesterday, I realized that it was something more serious and more alarming. And I read it very carefully. I have, of course, heard all about the recent changes at USM, from the news, and from professors to whom I remain close.

My experience of USM has been one of grateful surprise that in a small, rundown public university, in a poor rural state, that there was such a strong commitment to providing a top-flight liberal arts education. I was flabbergasted, actually, at the quality of the faculty, and their dedication to giving students from a multiplicity of backgrounds the same kind of educations that they all received at their more illustrious alma maters—students at USM really were links in the great academic chain. USM seemed to be a little secret enclave of academic excellence, and as an institution by far its greatest quality was the bang-for-buck depth and rigor of its academic offerings, and the diverse community of serious and engaged learners that has flourished under our less than ideal conditions: constantly cash-strapped, a little threadbare, but fiercely, genuinely proud and excited to be doing good scholarly work and building strong relationships under the aegis of an exceptional faculty.

So it has been with genuine sadness that I have watched USM start to come apart over the past couple of years. There now seems to be a commitment to getting rid of tenured faculty – the backbone of this institution, and again, by far the #1 reason to attend this school; to moving more classes online, where learning is both cheapened and abstracted out of its social context; to eliminating, down-sizing or threatening programs such as Classics, NE Studies, Stone Coast, Philosophy, Physics, and Women and Gender Studies, to name a few, all of which, not coincidentally, are among the most critical nexus points at USM for providing visibly active, engaged students and a larger sense of USM as a healthy and productive academic community.

With these thoughts at the back of my mind, I found your email a bit alarming and a bit disheartening. Are the repercussions around recent events so bad that USM needs to send out a mass email to try and reassure prospective (grad) students? Are other admissions and enrollment offices sending out similar letters?

I am also curious to know: Did you personally write this email? I ask because it seems possible that it was written by the USM marketing team — it is so relentlessly “on message” and “on brand.” And perhaps it was not your idea to send it either. But then I want to ask who did write it, and whose idea was it to send this email and why?

Since I did not express any concern to your office about the “changes” USM is undergoing, I have to wonder if there have been enough anxious inquiries from prospective graduate students to prompt this kind of unsolicited mass emailing, and what kinds of things are people worried about? Are they worried that if USM is “transformed” according to the currently announced plans that it will no longer be providing the kind of stealthy educational depth and rigor I described above? Are they worried it will become just another online diploma mill? And that the value of the degrees it confers will decline along with USM’s tenured faculty and its sense of itself as a bustling academic community serving all Mainers?

If those are the things people are worried about, I think they have reasons to be worried, if not quite to panic. USM is changing, and if we are being honest, it is not changing in ways that are likely to enhance its academic reputation. This unpleasant reality is not something that can be covered up with buzz words such as “flexibility,” “21st Century,” “community-based,” “online learning” and “nimble.”
If people have legitimate concerns, maybe they deserve more than an unsolicited damage control email written in marketing language.

Anyhow, I don’t mean this to be disrespectful to you in any way. I am simply an extremely interested and invested student who cares an awful lot about his alma mater. And I am genuinely curious to know the answers all these questions, not least because I worked for over a decade as an advertising copywriter in NYC, where it was occasionally my task to draft messages like the one you sent, on behalf of Fortune 500 companies. So I have a professional interest as well.

Your email specifically invites responses, so take this my two cents. I know many, many people –– students, alums, prospective students, and members of the community at large –– share my feelings, my concerns, and have the same questions.

Thank you again for your help the other day, and thank you for reading this far.

Hope you have a lovely day, and hope to hear from you soon.

Thank you,

Philip

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