The View From Away: Re-imagining USM will take more than reversing cuts
The news that officials will reverse some proposed cuts to the University of Southern Maine budget is a mixed blessing.
It is a blessing in that it would be a mistake to balance the university’s budget disproportionately on the back of arts and humanities programs that, while more challenging to monetize in strict business terms, represent an invaluable piece of the higher education puzzle. Over time, the lessons of arts and humanities education make the students more nimble, creative thinkers and therefore more valuable employees throughout their careers.
It would also be a mistake to shift the emphasis of a public university away from education and toward job training, a task to which many other types of schools are better suited. Therefore the apparent emphasis on cutting arts and humanities in favor of partnerships with businesses is also a blessing. I say “apparent” because the timing of the announcements may have been unfortunate, in which case USM’s larger problem was in public relations rather than strategy.
It is difficult to tell because the timing was what it was and because it is difficult to see how the UMaine system, and USM in particular, is following an articulate, comprehensive strategy for the future. Perhaps the proposed cuts were intended to be a first step toward such a strategy. Charitably put, it could have been more effectively presented.
It is not a blessing in that it still leaves daunting fiscal challenges. The university does need to right its financial ship. The reversal of the proposed job cuts (I presume the vision of the school forming strategic partnerships with the business community is still on the table), simply means something else will have to be done. It also shortens the horizon, as a new plan will have to be formulated now.
This may pave the way for deeper, less considered cuts. There will certainly be a temptation to come back with quick, decisive action. Whether that action would be in the best, long-term interest of the university is an open question.
After the cuts were announced, some of the responses to the criticisms from those connected to the university were puzzling, two in particular. Critics of the cuts were urged to show more sensitivity to the people who were making the proposals. Their argument was that it was painful to make those decisions because they actually worked with the people who were losing jobs; they were losing great teachers, trusted colleagues and in many cases longtime friends.
Surely this is true, but the logic of this argument as a response to criticism escapes me. The point of the criticism is that the proposals were a mistake. A mistake is no less a mistake because it causes pain to the person making it.
Maybe their intention was to say that because the decisions were so hard on them personally, they would not have made them unless they were absolutely necessary. I hope not, because that argument presupposes that the emotional difficulty of a decision imbues the decision maker with a higher level of insight than someone without that attachment. That logic would effectively cut off criticism by outsiders.
The other puzzling response was the argument that the critics of the proposal did not take into account how much the university does with the public sector. They point to many frankly impressive programs in place that are not in partnership with the business community. Critics failure to mention them was seen somehow as giving an inaccurate picture of the school.
The problem with this reasoning is fundamental. Critics were not talking about what the university is doing now, the exact opposite in fact. The criticism was not an attack on the status quo. It was an expression of concern for the future, based on the configuration of planned budget cuts, and publicity surrounding the proposed rebranding of USM.
A pattern of budget cuts that skews against arts and humanities disproportionately, in conjunction with a stated desire to draw closer to the business community, places the university on a very slippery slope toward succumbing shortsightedly to market forces, to the detriment of the students. They point to a direction in which even the very successful programs of which the school is justly proud could be threatened by a turn away from liberal arts education and from the public sector.
On the other hand, a successful implementation of a comprehensive re-imagining of the school, one that is implemented equitably among all the relevant constituencies, may indeed prove to be the way forward for the whole university.
Let’s hope that is the direction university administrators are exploring.