Thursday, January 17th, 2019

The loss of liberal arts education

Francis Flisiuk

Posted on April 14, 2015 in News
By Brian Gordon

On Wednesday night,  the Criminology Student Association hosted a panel of five professors who gave a talk titled “Deforming the System: The Loss of Liberal Arts as a Blow to Student Success.” About 40 students attended along with a few faculty members. The professors laid out their vision of a potential future where education becomes a commodity that only the middle and upper class students can afford, thus leaving most USM students with a deformed education.

The first person to speak was professor James Messerschmidt, chair of criminology, who said the tide has turned for public funding, “It’s a user-pay system, [students] are now expected to pay the lions-share of tuition. There’s been a dramatic shift in the funding of public universities like USM.”

“Public universities are now defined, I believe, as a business. Education is understood as a product and students are increasingly recognized simply as customers,” he said.

In 1986 students paid 35 percent of the total tuition. The state paid 62 percent and 3 percent came from “other revenue”. Today, it’s the exact opposite: Students are expected to pay 59 percent of the total tuition cost, state appropriations represent 35 percent and “other revenue” make up the last 6 percent.

“The legislators view USM not as a necessary social service for the common good but as a discretionary for optional investment,” Messerschmidt said. “If we are a business, then we simply can’t compete.”

Ronald Schmidt, professor of political science said, “The state has made a choice about what higher education is, it’s a private choice. You can choose to buy it or not to buy it. I don’t agree with it, but that’s the decision they’ve made.”

According to Messerschmidt, retrenchments like the ones last year at USM, which saw 51 faculty, five academic programs and 100 staff expunged from the university, aren’t happening at private colleges. Retrenchments also often don’t happen outside liberal arts departments.

“Given that the vast majority of students at USM are working class, while their peers attending private colleges are middle and upper class, what we have happening is an aggravation or worsening of social class inequality of higher education,” said Messerschmidt.

Among the attendees of the lecture speaking on the importance of liberal art degrees was Katie Grenier, a sophomore criminology major who likes USM but is uncertain of its future. She’s looking to transfer out of state because she doesn’t know if her program will be around much longer.

“I’m kind of nervous about the future of the criminology program at USM so I don’t really have a whole lot of choice but to transfer in the fall,” said Grenier, a Winslow native.

USM’s criminology program is the only one north of Massachusetts.

Grenier is attempting to transfer to George Mason University in Virginia. It will be more expensive, but for Grenier, it’s worth it.

The criminology department has been halved from a peak of six full time professors ten years ago to three today. Students have struggled to find enough classes to work towards their major.

Grenier is taking a research methods class online with “a random professor from California,” and said she’s missing out big time on the classic classroom experience.

Jillian Harrington, a senior criminology major felt relieved she was graduating in May, as she was able to finish her degree largely without being affected by the cuts. However, Harrington still expressed curiosity concerning the value of her degree, in a market of employers that have read the bad press surrounding USM.

“I wonder what my degree is going to mean in the next ten years,” said Harrington. “If I’m going to a job interview, I wonder whether I’ll get it over someone who was at a private school.”

English professor Lorrayne Carroll chided students to read the university’s constitution and get involved.

“The conversation has to be informed, not deformed,” said Carroll.

Her long-winded and passionate diatribe complaining of “transient administrators that haven’t been here long enough to make informed decisions,” was aimed largely at a man sitting three seats to her left, president David Flanagan.

Flanagan interrupted the presentation, coming in ten minutes late, and asked if he could take a place on the panel as defender of the recent cuts to liberal arts at USM.

“I am transient, I’m only here for a year but I am familiar with the issues of USM,” said Flanagan.

Flanagan served for 10 years on the board of trustees, two of which he held the title of chairman.

“We do have a problem in this country of not supporting universities enough, and that’s not a successful society,” Flanagan said. “Colby, Bates and Bowdoin, the elite, continue to be very high quality but for everyone else the quality is at risk of moving to a lower level. I think that’s a legitimate concern.”

“I think more money in public higher education should be a higher priority for our society,” said Flanagan.

Flanagan then outlined his vision of how a metropolitan university looks, operates and functions through partnerships with people and businesses in the community. Flanagan said he doesn’t think we should just stick out our hands and ask for money, but instead show the legislature real results.

A student who’s already putting his forthcoming bachelor’s degree to work is political science major, Joshua Dodge. For the past semester he’s been working in Manhattan for the State Department as a liaison to the United Nations. According to Dodge, he helps diplomats live in NYC by, for example, taking care of their parking tickets or getting them safely from the airport.

Dodge credits USM hugely for his success and Professor Francesca Vassallo of the political science department for getting him into this internship.

Dodge doesn’t think USM is ‘under attack’ but does wonder about the value of his degree.

“I would be lying if I said that I never worried about my program being on the chopping block. We all have,” said Dodge. “It’s no longer guaranteed anymore that we will have a job when we graduate from college, especially one in our chosen field of study.”

Kathy Bouchard, a senior criminology major is just glad to be graduating this May before nothing is left of her program. Both Bouchard and Harrington plan to return to their native Massachusetts to look for work and attend graduate school.

Bouchard thought the cuts were unfounded and said, “Is that the goal of USM to make this an efficient education? If you cut liberal arts you cut programs that cause us to think.”

Professor of criminology Dušan I. Bjelić who’s been at USM for 25 years and is a native of Serbia thought it was ridiculous that he went to university for free in a “much, much, much poorer country,” while in America we get burdened with debt for our education.

“I don’t understand how we have so much wealth [in America] and productivity yet so little money to share,” said Bjelić. “I just don’t buy it.”

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