My name is Martin Conte. I have resided in the great state of Maine for 20 of my 21 years. I grew up “Downeast,” up the coast in Blue Hill. I went out of state for the first half of my University education, before moving back to the state, and enrolling at the University of Southern Maine. While there were many factors that contributed to this change, this past Friday afternoon showed me why I am here, why I’ve come here, and what I plan to do while I’m here. This past Friday afternoon made me realize that I am not just a student at USM, I am a proud student at USM.
This past Friday afternoon, I and over 100 of my fellow students, my beloved faculty, and others dedicated to this University, gathered outside of our Provost’s office to protest letters of retrenchment that were being delivered to twelve faculty members. Three of those faculty members were members of the USM English Department, from which I will graduate next Spring. Let me tell you a little bit about what I learned from these and other USM faculty members in the College of Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences. I learned to think critically. I learned to question all information delivered to me until I am satisfied that I have arrived at the truth. I learned to look introspectively, and see my own falsehoods, my own denials, my own flaws. I learned to be dedicated. I learned that a classroom is not just a space for one human’s mouth to deliver information to another human’s ears. I learned that a classroom is about creating knowledge. I learned what it means to be a leader, and what it means to pick a good leader to follow. I learned what it means to work hard, not for an ambiguous letter grade at the end of the assignment, but because I am passionate about the work I am doing. I learned how to defend my perspective from a place of passion, but with a voice of level reason. I learned to sympathize with all sides of an argument; to understand that there are difficult decisions to be made, but also real people with real families who are now facing real crises.
Tonight, I am a USM student who faces the unfortunate possibility that some of his favorite professors will be without jobs come May. But tonight, 12 intrinsic members of the USM community go home and they don’t know what to do next. They face the possibility of having to leave their homes, of having to leave their work, of having to relocate their families. This is not just a budget issue, this is not just a USM issue, this is not an us-them issue. This is a human issue. I learned how to be a compassionate human being from these people. And yes, I learned all this from reading books, from plays, from history, from Greek tragedies and contemporary novels, from, of all things, poetry.
Members of the current USM administration seem to have this odd notion that studying degrees offered by the Colleges of Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences are somehow not as valuable as other degrees offered. This is a deliberately misleading notion. Valuable in what way? Valuable in economic terms? Shall we ignore all other facets of human existence but the economic? Can we not see the intrinsic value of these areas of study to our social well-being, our cultural production, our progression as a human race, and an understanding of our history? There is rampant discussion about what this budget crisis actually is, and even whether or not it actually exists. But that is not what we should be concerned with. Universities have a responsibility, the same responsibility they have had for centuries upon centuries, to one fundamental goal: to be a home to the production and preservation of knowledge, all knowledge, regardless of its economic value. Today, and in the coming weeks, USM’s administration has to make some tough decisions. I hope that they might humbly consider that these decisions are not just about numbers, but they are about people; they do not just take away a job from an individual, they take away an entire life’s work; they have not just detrimentally affected 12 faculty members, but they have degraded the University as a whole; and that tonight, because of this odd notion that degrees in the Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences are somehow of lesser value than others, the University of Southern Maine goes to sleep a lesser place than it woke up. USM students and USM faculty are stellar examples of critical thinkers, active citizens, and caring individuals. This is a place where knowledge is created, and shouldn’t be destroyed That is what I’ve learned from these professors. And that is what makes me a proud USM student tonight.