Many of us, college and university professors, would like to see our students take a more active role in their education. That’s because students are not consumers; they produce their own education in a collaborative manner with their professors and their fellow students. That’s the only way higher education can work.
Well, students at the University of Southern Maine, where the university administration is laying off faculty, closing academic programs, and imposing Draconian budget cuts, are demonstrating what it means to take an active role in their education.
One example, shown in the clip above, is students’ occupation of the most recent meeting of the University of Maine Board of Trustees.
A second example is a remarkable column by Michael Havlin, a recent graduate of the University of Southern Maine, who is now attending the University of Massachusetts Amherst for a dual master’s degree.
When I first enrolled at USM four years ago I was, frankly, a punk, a hoodlum, a trouble maker. When I enrolled, I had little intention of ever even actually graduating, let alone going on to pursue a secondary degree. I came to have fun and maybe get an OK job out of it.
And so, like the hoodlum that I was, I enrolled as a business major. The very first classroom I stepped into — late, of course — was Introduction to Microeconomics with Rachel Bouvier. I did not know at the time, but I would slowly find my passion in that classroom. After taking a few more courses in economics, I knew I had found my passion, and so I declared a second major.
My thoughts of quickly getting out of USM and finding some silly business job quickly dissipated as we analyzed topics such as inequality, labor rights and the environment.
I liked my business professors and courses a great deal, and I learned a lot in them. But, unlike in business, where I was taught how to do, in my economics classes, I was taught how to think. I learned how to write, how to analyze and how to challenge the status quo. I was inspired to actually do something with my life. My time with the economics department at USM gave me, the former hoodlum who comes from a working-class family, the opportunity to get an actual education. USM gave me the opportunity to pursue whatever dreams I wanted.
The University of Maine System Board of Trustees, USM President David Flanagan and Provost Joseph McDonnell apparently don’t want USM to be that kind of school anymore. Through their proposals to lay off 50 faculty members and cut two more academic programs, they’re sending the message that they don’t think that you — or your tuition — are worth a real education.
You can debate the reality of a financial crisis here at USM. In fact, a lot of people do, some of whom have Ph.D.’s in quantitative fields.
But, one thing you cannot debate is that the so-called budget crisis is being used to camouflage an agenda to drastically change the University of Southern Maine. My fear is that change will transform USM from a university at which you can get a transformative education like I did to one in which you can only learn how to punch numbers into an Excel spreadsheet or administer vaccinations at Maine Medical Center. The writing is on the walls: a USM whittled down to a center for job training in business, nursing and technology.
By cutting from USM’s academic core, the Board of Trustees is showing that the vision they have for USM is not one where students can be challenged and given the tools necessary to, perhaps, someday get a Ph.D. If you want that kind of education, you could go to a private school like Bowdoin or Bates — somewhere I am sure we can all afford.
It appears as though the administrators’ new vision is one where USM is simply an appendage to the corporate world, year after year, turning out debt-ridden, standardized workers to the business needs of southern Maine.
Maine is better than this. Mainers who can’t afford places like Bates and Bowdoin deserve a good education, too. We all deserve an opportunity to reach our potential.
We have a true gem here at USM, and we need to protect it, not just for ourselves, but for the future middle-class Mainers who want the same opportunity that I had.
A recent article chronicles national media attention on the situation at the University of Southern Maine. Here is the Facebook page of Students for USM’s future. You can donate directly to their campaign, the USMFuture Preservation Fund.