College consolidation a bad idea

By Margaret Cruikshank

I happened to see the reply by James Page, chancellor of the UMaine System, to a Wall Street Journal article headlined “Maine Colleges Hit the Skids” (Jan. 15). Page acknowledged that the universities face many challenges. One of the biggest, as far as I can tell, is his management.

In his letter, the chancellor says that he and the board plan to “deliver a more rich and diverse set of programs to all our students regardless of location.” But the severe cuts at the University of Southern Maine were so unfairly and thoughtlessly carried out that the American Association of University Professors will investigate. An AAUP investigation is an unusual event. I remember one in California in the 1980s in which an autocratic president was deposed. All of the USM students whose professors and programs have been cut will certainly not get a rich and diverse set of programs in Maine.

Page states that his administration is “moving to a single administrative structure defined by function rather than location.” What this means in translation, I believe, is that he and his second in command, Rebecca Wyke, will control the budgets of all seven campuses of the university. This may sound efficient in the business world, consolidating small offices into one big one, but higher education is different. Some autonomy for the seven universities is crucial to their identity. Students and professors identify with one campus, not with a Big Brother central office. Each campus is unique in a way that each store in a chain is not.

A big problem with consolidation on this scale is that it would reduce the seven presidents to figureheads. If they cannot control their budgets, how much real power would they have? In the future, anyone who applies to be a president of one of these campuses would be well aware of their figurehead status. Would we then get first-rate academics to apply?

It is no coincidence that four university presidents left the system recently. They did not need a crystal ball to tell them what their jobs would turn into, under a central command structure.

Now that Governor LePage has driven the highly competent head of the community college system, John Fitzsimmons, out of office, James Page must wonder if he is next. Bullies need new targets. LePage knows nothing about higher education, but he does enjoy firing people.

A good step toward reform for the University of Maine System Board would be to replace the political appointees with people who have extensive experience in higher education, not just extensive experience cutting programs without understanding the ramifications of the cuts.

A system that does not even have a common academic calendar should create one long before it tries to run seven campuses under one budget.

Margaret Cruikshank is a retired lecturer in women’s studies at the University of Maine, where she was on the graduate faculty. She also has taught at the University of Southern Maine.


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