Forecaster Forum: USM finances shouldn't be lampooned, cannot be ignored
I was sorry to read Mike Langworthy's unnecessarily sarcastic column regarding the challenges of putting the University of Southern Maine on a sound and sustainable footing ("The View From Away: USM is open for business (poets need not apply)," March 31).
Although the column tried to imply that changes at USM are gutting the arts and humanities, nothing could be further from the truth. What is absolutely correct, however, is that students choosing USM in the years ahead will find a more focused and affordable curriculum from which to pursue a wide array of academic credentials.
Furthermore, USM will continue to provide our region with well-rounded students who have critical thinking skills as well as intellectual curiosity and who will contribute to our economic, cultural and civic lives. None of that is being compromised in the process of reducing the faculty and programs to the size of the student body.
One of the imperatives in any public debate is to agree on the underlying facts. If we can agree that the numbers are the same from any perspective, then we can have a robust and honest discussion about choices such as fewer or more programs, higher or lower tuition, fewer or more professors, etc.
Here are the numbers that are not likely to change any time soon:
• There is a gap of $14 million between what USM takes in and what it spends, an ongoing gap that Chancellor James Page says will continue to grow if no action is taken.
• USM has had a 10 percent decline in enrollment in the last five years, while the cost of employee compensation and property maintenance continues to rise.
• USM receives $2.6 million less today in state appropriations than it did in 2008.
• Since 2006, administrative positions (dean and above) have been reduced by 51 percent, salaried staff by 26 percent, and hourly staff by 33 percent, but the faculty by only 15 percent.
• Nationally, outstanding student debts have topped $1 trillion, debt that poses a serious threat to economic growth.
We have talented and valued faculty members at the university but, unfortunately, more than we can afford. Asking the Legislature and governor for more money isn’t practical as they wrestle to fund other pressing needs such as K-12 education, roads, bridges, pensions and social welfare. We can only hope they don’t make further cuts in the university’s appropriation.
We also have students who are anxious to complete their studies at an affordable cost and in a timely manner. That is a reasonable expectation.
Another challenge for USM is the growth in the education market. I use the term "market" because southern Maine has a bounty of competitive, accredited institutions of higher education from which students can choose: USM, University of New England, Maine community colleges, St. Joseph's College, Husson University, and Kaplan University, to name a few. USM, however, can’t be expected to provide courses for which there is too little demand, and expect to remain affordable.
As the saying goes, facts are stubborn things and these facts are not debatable. What can be discussed, however, is how we can best deliver a quality education for undergraduate and graduate students at an affordable price here in the heart of the Maine economy. That is the public purpose of a public university.
I hope that critics and commentators will do their best to embrace the realities facing USM and propose realistic solutions that are centered on educating students for lifetime employment and intellectual fulfillment.
Falmouth resident Tony Payne is vice chairman of the USM board of visitors.