Will the protests at the University of Southern Maine spark a national student movement?

Like so many other institutions in this, our neoliberal land of opportunity, universities have become infested with rent extracting parasites. Were I to say “We call those parasites administrators,” that would be wrong; surely there are administrators who are caring, competent, necessary, and neither over-paid nor corrupt. That said, university administrators are not, by definition, central to any university’s mission: Teaching and research, performed by professors, are. Therefore, it seems odd, or not, that we don’t look to the university administrative layer for budget savings first. But that’s what we’re doing. We’re feeding the tapeworm instead of freeing the host from infestation. The protests against budget cuts at the University of Southern Maine (USM, in Portland, ME) provide an excellent case study.  —Lambert Strether

On March 27, Aljazeera reported that the students and faculty at the University of Southern Maine (USM) were entering a second week of protests over the school’s decision to lay off up to 50 faculty and staff and eliminate various liberal arts programs in the name of fiscal austerity. USM, a public university, is one of seven University of Maine institutions with plans to dismiss a total of 165 faculty and staff in 2014. USM President Theodora Kalikow insisted that a transformation of the University system was necessary to deal with a structural gap in expenses and revenue.

The first quote is from Lambert Strether’s recent post at Naked Capitalism. You can read his entire article here. In it, he answers questions about why colleges and universities around the country are so strapped for cash, why students are being asked to pay higher tuition, why tenured professors are being laid off and humanities departments closed. He points out that at the same time colleges and universities are enforcing “austerity” measures on students and faculty, they have triple A bond ratings and are building new facilities like crazy. So what’s going on?

You can gather from Strether’s sarcastic comments that the budget cuts and the “restructuring” of colleges and universities are not being carried out in good faith. What he describes are colleges and universities that have become a microcosm of the society at large, where the 1%, in this case the “administrators,” suck up the lion’s share of the resources that should be going to students and faculty. The misallocation of resources at the national level, where the elite take more and more wealth for themselves, has “trickled down” to our institutions of higher learning. The greed and corruption of the corporate and finance sector, aided and abetted by all three branches of government, has moved into the university, where neoliberal, corporate ideas increasingly dominate what used to be considered institutions of higher learning.

For a working definition of “neoliberalism,” we turn to Wikipedia:

Neoliberalism is a political philosophy whose advocates support economic liberalizations, free trade and open markets, privatization, deregulation, and enhancing the role of the private sector in modern society.

Reflecting the neoliberal approach, which is to seek individualistic, free-market solutions to every social and economic problem, the administration at the University of Southern Maine now refers to students as “customers” as if the university was a “mall” where they “purchase” knowledge in different “profit centers” formally known as educational departments.  Strether quotes one of the student leaders of the protest (which is being carried out in solidarity with faculty):

And we want to look at the way money is being spent in the administration throughout the University of Maine system. I think we really see this whole supposed financial crisis as part of a nationwide trend of the corporatization of public higher education and the corporate war on public higher education. And so we’re interested in talking about it in those terms.

And what I see happening is people being told that they can no longer have a humanities education here, they can no longer have a thriving social sciences department. I think that this is what we’re moving towards . . .

And how is that money spent?   Lambert quotes a faculty member of USM who shows how money is being siphoned off to high-paying non-teaching jobs and bloated administrative departments that often provide cushy work for the well-connected. This is in contrast to the slave wages paid adjunct faculty.

The University of Maine System office in Bangor—where no one teaches anybody anything—spends $20 million a year, almost 10 percent of the state’s higher education appropriation.

Just take a look at the budget. The $20 million the system office spends not teaching exceeds the $14.95 million spent annually by the three smallest University of Maine campuses (at Fort Kent, Machias and Presque Isle). If it doesn’t teach, doesn’t grade, doesn’t create assignments or even talk with the faculty who do all these things, how does the system blow through 20 million bucks a year?

There are 291 people employed at the University of Maine System office, of whom 87 (30 percent) are administrators. One of the most senior, and expensive, positions in the system is that of the vice chancellor for academic affairs. That’s a provost, and there’s a provost on each campus. The system has a chief student affairs officer, as does each campus.

… Any claim that the system is in financial trouble, or that it’s broke, is absurd. If anything’s broken it’s the system’s priorities. The system devotes a mere 27 percent of total expenses to the core academic mission. Every year for the last five years the share of expenses devoted to education has declined while the share sucked up by the administration has increased.

Strether stresses that the corporatization of higher education is not unique to the University of Maine system. The starving of educational resources and the bloating of administrative functions is a feature in universities an colleges nationwide. He quotes a Johns Hopkins University professor, Benjamin Ginsburg who wrote The Fall of the Faculty: The Rise of the All-Administrative University and Why it Matters. Ginsburg says, “US campuses have seen far more significant rises in administrators (85 percent) and professional staff (240 percent) than faculty (51 percent) between 1975 and 2005.”

A professor for over 40 years, Ginsburg argues that such data are commensurate with a calculated effort in college administrations to achieve neoliberal, profit-based goals such as erasing tenure tracks, reducing political speech, and increasing focus on student job placement rather than encouraging knowledge and critical thinking.

Ginsburg says “deanlets”—administrators and staffers often without serious academic backgrounds or experience—are setting the educational agenda. Consequently, students are denied a more enriching educational experience—one defined by intellectual rigor. 

My hope is that the student/faculty protest at the University of Southern Maine sparks a new national student movement, one that challenges tuition hikes and also ties the unfair austerity measures to the deeper issue of the neoliberal takeover of education, government, and society at large, and the silencing of political dissent.  If we’re lucky, students will take over where Occupy Wall Street left off.