Saturday, October 20th, 2018

Chronicling USM’s national media attention

Ellie Spahn | The Free Press

Posted on November 17, 2014 in News
By Francis Flisiuk

The American Studies Association has launched a new website with a map featuring schools across the nation they believe serve as examples of “assaults on academic freedom.”  USM is on that list.

the ASA is citing USM’s most recent faculty layoffs and elimination of undergraduate and graduate programs as reasons for inclusion.

The project, which is considered ongoing, aims to document all the schools that violate academic freedom, cut departments and programs and participate in research surveillance. They also include schools that practice close policing of protests, especially ones that lead to violence and discrimination. The ASA have called upon the scholars, teachers, administrators and activists of America to pay attention to these troubling patterns in public higher education. So far there are 25 American universities on the online map. 

“We were already sensitive to the kinds of pressures that our colleagues [at USM] were working under,” said Matt Jacobson, former ASA president and acting director of public humanities at Yale. “We’ve been especially alert to situations where high-achieving programs were under threat.” 

According to the introduction on the website, the ASA hopes to call to attention these “crimes against education” and show that these situations are not isolated incidents. Jacobson said that USM’s decisions, like national ones made towards education, are guided by a narrow, utilitarian vision. 

“We hope to raise questions about our educational priorities as a society,” said Jacobson. 

 Immense budget gaps, mass layoffs and the shrinking or elimination of popular academic departments are all issues that are part of larger trends nationally. ASA, along with many other institutions’ blogs and publications, compare USM’s crisis with problems across the country, all of which can have potentially devastating consequences. 

“For the last 50 years there has been a tug-of-war between educators and non-educators for the soul of the American university. Educators are losing to politicians in some places and to corporate board members and regents in others,” said Jacobson. “Local struggles in this setting are most often cautionary tales about the power that non-educators have over educators.”

USM’s steady decline in enrollment and projected budget shortfalls have been documented for many years now. However, instances of USM’s future being discussed, through more national channels, has been relatively recent.

The first wave of attention USM received was back in March when former president Theo Kalikow announced the elimination of American and New England studies, geosciences, arts and humanities at Lewiston/Auburn and recreation and leisure studies. Soon following was the first in a series of layoffs or “retrenchments” of a dozen faculty members. Protests by the new founded campus group, Students for #USMFuture, were held and USM started to peak in the national higher education spotlight. 

The goals and activist initiative of the group prompted a note of support from renowned linguist, philosopher and cognitive scientist, Noam Chomsky, who wrote to theatre graduate, Caroline O’Connor, “Very glad to learn about what you’re doing. Badly needed. I hope you have good success.” The messages of concern and coverage of the protests and administrative decisions trickled in from sources like, Inside Higher Ed,  Naked Capitalism, Occasional Planet, Popular Resistance, The Real News, Aljazeera, Common Dreams, as well as every local media outlet. 

According to Chris Quint, the executive director of public affairs, everyone has the right to print what they want, but no national writers or bloggers have ever reached out to anybody within USM’s administration for a statement. 

“These national outlets and even in state, have not once contacted me or anyone within the administration, to get our perspective,” said Quint. “I’m sure if they had the opportunity to sit down and talk with us, and hear our plan for how we are making sure our university is financially viable. They would have a different opinion on how we’re doing things.”

Quint said that USM’s administration is in no way restricting anybody’s access to academic freedom. Quint makes decisions based on what is going to keep the university viable and be in the best interests of the students. 

“If they want to print whatever they want without actually talking to anyone, that’s their prerogative,” said Quint. “I can assure you that the president, the chancellor and the board of trustees have no intention of turning USM into some corporate entity.”

According to higher education commentators like New York Times writer Paul Krugman, USM’s story deserves more attention and is representative of problems in public education, like neoliberalism’s infiltration of educational institutions. 

Krugman wrote a short opinion piece and called USM’s fiscal situation an “ugly example” of how a school’s educational qualities can be degraded once valuable professors are fired and departments are gutted. Krugman also attributed sharply rising tuition and sharp cuts in state funding as factors in the financial problem. According to Krugman, USM’s administration is eager to downsize liberal arts and social sciences, which has direct educational consequences. 

Other writers, like Lambert Strether at “Naked Capitalism,” argue that USM, like many struggling public colleges, has become a microcosm of society at large, with top administrators representing the 1% who hold and delegate all the resources. Strether believes that greed and corruption have trickled down from the corporate and financial sector and has dominated some of America’s institutions of higher learning. USM’s administrators need to allocate the funds more strategically, or risk being accused of leading the school towards corporatization, which again is cited as a situation not unique to USM. 

Columnist Madonna Gauding at the Occasional Planet agrees and adds that in an educational environment where the administrators refer to the students as “customers,” where the school’s budget is being spent should be something everybody is keeping an eye on. 

Gauding hopes that the USM student and faculty protests spark a national movement that fights back against educational issues like tuition hikes, lack of funding and silencing of political dissent. 

“Students are being denied a more enriching educational experience,” said Gauding. “If we’re lucky, students will take over where Occupy Wall Street left off.”

“If we care about USM’s future and the future of public higher education, we need to stop flat funding our public universities,” said Dave Kerschner, a USM doctoral graduate. 

Regardless of where the specific source of USM’s budget deficit lies, one thing is for certain: schools are going through similar problems and using USM as an example of what can go wrong, when the administration is forced to cut faculty and programs. 

Lauren Besanko, a criminology graduate and local politician, said that she’d be surprised if USM wasn’t on the radar of players in the social justice and education arena. 

“USM’s story would fit right into the narratives on austerity and the war on education in America today,” said Besanko. 

According to Jacobson, the term austerity has become a buzzword for the easy gutting of values and programs that more Americans don’t want gutted, like a good education for young people. 

“The battle over USM cuts right to the bone of all of this,” said Jacobson. “We’re thinking that Maine will certainly be on our outlook.”

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