The View From Away: USM is open for business (poets need not apply)

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Administrators at the University of Southern Maine have proposed deep budget cuts skewed heavily toward the arts and humanities, and announced their vision for rebranding USM as a “metropolitan university.”

This is an emerging paradigm in which a school develops programs for and strategic partnerships with the local business community to serve local industry and increase the marketability of its students, or customers, as some administrators have taken to calling them.

Before law school, when I was a college “customer,” studying the arts, history and culture of our society and those that have gone before taught me how to think critically. Later I got job training in law school. I have not used the job training for years because the critical thinking skills allowed me to switch careers. In fact, every year since I graduated from college, those skills have become more important to functioning effectively in all aspects of life. So forgive me a modest skepticism.

However, assuming the officials’ metropolitan university paradigm is the way forward and my educational experience is obsolete, I strongly encourage them to be bold. Don’t sneak into the future, stride into it like the new sheriff in town.

For starters, change the name.

“University” is an outmoded term, conjuring up images of Oxford, Cambridge, and other mausoleums clinging to the antiquated “go to college and learn to think” model. Potential customers need to know you are there to train them for jobs. This is Maine, and Maine is open for business. It’s right there on the sign in Kittery. Go with something like “Southern Maine Institute” or “Greater Portland Job Training Nexus.” It will be an invaluable marketing tool.

Truthfully, you really should take it a step further, and generate some easy revenue. Sell naming rights to the school, like professional sports teams do with stadiums. “Southern Maine Institute” is catchy, but “Linda Bean’s Southern Maine Institute” makes a real statement. It’s a win-win.

This may seem absurd, but it is nothing more than the concept of remaking a university into a strategic partner of local industry carried to its logical conclusion. The metropolitan university claims to serve the community, but it defines service to community largely in terms of service to the local business community. This might not be a fatally flawed concept – if a community were nothing more than the sum total of the economic activity that goes on within it.

If so, then cutting arts and humanities programs is a no-brainer. Texas Instruments does not need poets, or even people who know what a poem is. Businesses need people who can contribute to the bottom line.

From this point of view, artists are an embarrassment. Mozart never built a factory in his life. Mark Twain was a terrible businessman. You can look it up. The only good financial decision Van Gogh ever made was dying. There are no plaques from the Athens Chamber of Commerce reading “Homer: Salesman of the Year.” From a business point of view they’re useless.

The problem is, society is not the sum of its financial dealings. It is also art, culture and the intricate web of shared and contrasting beliefs that shapes how people live. Understanding those intangibles cannot easily be monetized, but it is as important to a functioning society as any technical skill. The metropolitan university concept fails to acknowledge that all aspects of society are inextricably intertwined, that while it may take an Andrew Carnegie to build libraries, it is just a big empty building without people to fill it with books.

Proponents of rebranding USM argue it is necessary in the face of changing demographics, reduced state funding, and competition from for-profit schools that do not aspire to providing liberal arts education. This argument would be a lot more compelling if administrators had made meaningful attempts to implement strategic plans generated decades ago for the UMaine system, when it could have gotten out ahead of these problems, instead of being forced to chase the market.

Nevertheless, self-inflicted as they are, the wounds are real. Decisive steps do have to be taken. Perhaps USM really cannot afford to play a role in producing the next generation of musicians, writers, scholars or thinkers. Administrators need to be clear that that is the message they are sending kids by cutting arts and humanities in favor of a partnership with local industry: if your post-high school aspirations transcend acquiring a marketable business skill, USM is not the place for you.

Of course, those kids can always go to Farmington, Umaine’s “classic liberal arts” campus, at least until USM’s visionary rebranding works, proving that the entire concept of liberal arts education is an obsolescent luxury reserved for people with the foresight to be child prodigies or born into enough wealth and privilege to afford it.

Then they can attend the Farmington campus of the Marden’s South Central Maine Job Center, Powered By Unum.

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Mike Langworthy, an attorney, former stand-up comic and longtime television writer, now lives in Scarborough and is fascinated by all things Maine. You can reach him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter: @mikelangworthy.