The Universal Notebook: USM needs advocates, not apologists

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Back in May, in a column about the ongoing financial woes at the University of Southern Maine, I blamed the problem on “a stunning lack of foresight and a failure to adequately fund higher education.”

Five months later, with a new president and a new round of cuts, nothing has changed.

There is nothing wrong at USM that adequate funding won’t solve. The problem is that university chancellors, presidents, provosts, deans, trustees and, yes, alumni, have failed to effectively advocate for higher-education funding.

As a member of the Class of 1971, I bear some of the guilt. USM, at least the commuter campus in Portland, has never engendered a great deal of alumni loyalty, which is part of the reason it has been allowed to slip into what some on campus see as a manufactured financial crisis.

Last month, in his Policy Wonk column, Orlando Delogu tolled the mournful numbers, noting how legislative appropriations for the University of Maine System had fallen from 15.2 percent of undedicated state revenues in 1968 to just 6.3 percent in 2013.

When former Central Maine Power Co. CEO David Flanagan was appointed to replace an ineffectual USM president, I naively thought, “Well, OK, maybe now we’ll have an effective advocate for USM.” But, alas, Flanagan has so far turned out to be more of same.

Citing a projected (and “projected” is the key here) budget gap of $16 million, Flanagan last week announced that he would be cutting 50 faculty positions and dropping three more majors with another round of cuts to come.

If all administrators and trustees are going to do in response to deficits is push Panic Button No. 1 (Cut Budget) or Panic Button No. 2 (Raise Tuition), we might as well let bag boys at Shaw’s run USM.

How about going up to Augusta and kicking some appropriations butt for a change, Mr. Flanagan? If the university really is $16 million short, get the Legislature to ante up. It’s chump change. They owe it to you. They owe it to us. We owe it to ourselves.

The one positive thing that Gov. Paul LePage has done while in office is to pay the state’s outstanding debt to hospitals. It’s now time we put someone in the Blaine House who will pay the state’s outstanding debt to the state university system.

The main reason many faculty and students at USM believe the university’s fiscal crisis is manufactured is that it is primarily a result of inadequate state funding. Then there is the nagging question about how, if there really isn’t enough money, the University of Maine System has managed to squirrel away $100 million over the past five years (from $84 million in 2009 to $183 million in 2013) by shifting funds from the operating budget to unrestricted net assets.

Flanagan makes effective use of a blood-red graph that purports to show the $16 million deficit that requires all the new layoffs and program cuts. But those numbers are budget projections, not actual numbers. In fact, USM is pretty much breaking even. There is no deficit that a little private fundraising and a lot of legislative lobbying couldn’t fix.

Then, too, some at USM feel like victims of an anti-Portland bias, noting that USM and the University of Maine in Orono award the same number of degrees each year (about 2,000), but USM’s $140 million annual budget is $100 million less than UMO’s $249 million budget.

Were I a conspiracy theorist, I’d be tempted to believe what some in Portland seem to believe: that this whole “metropolitan university” push at USM is just a thinly veiled attempt by anti-intellectual corporate cronies to defund the university, get rid of tenure, kill off liberal arts education and replace it with professional training conducted by part-time faculty. Anyone who wanted a traditional undergraduate education could then go to Orono or Farmington. USM would be a trade school.

The money we put into the University of Maine System is the primary investment we all make in the future of Maine. It’s time for USM alumni, UMO alumni and all Maine residents who value public higher education to stand up and demand that the Legislature stop nickel-and-diming our universities to death.

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Freelance journalist Edgar Allen Beem lives in Brunswick. The Universal Notebook is his personal, weekly look at the world around him.

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