UMaine system hardly a sinking ship

By Hugh Curran

As much as I have admired Mr. Stephen Weber’s commentaries in the past involving the University of Maine, his most recent article (May 14), titled “It is hard to sell tickets on a sinking ship,” is overstated and somewhat strident, so I feel compelled to make some corrections.

I would agree that a number of buildings at the University of Maine in Orono are in need of repair and renovation but, contrary to Mr. Weber’s opinion piece, there has been a considerable investment in the infrastructure over the past decade.

For instance, two substantial engineering and forestry buildings, within view of my own office, were constructed; a state-of-the-art Recreation Center for students was built; the Wells Common had a complete makeover to create dining facilities and a conference center; Stewart Common was renovated and now houses the Art Department and the Innovative Media Research and Commercialization Center (IMRC). In addition, an “Advanced Structures and Composite Center” for research into wind power was recently completed and is “on the leading edge of offshore wind technology development [having] raised $53 million over five years to support technology development.” Besides all of the above, the Collins Art Center went through a major renovation; the New Balance Field House and the Memorial Gym were modernized; all of these involved years of effort and financing from private and public bond sources at a cost of over $150 million.

As you can see from the above, the issues concerning the university are not all involved with a deteriorating infrastructure, although a great deal is needed in order to repair and renovate older buildings. The questions that could be better addressed are: Why is there such a large gap in the lack of investments in maintenance and repair of older buildings while new buildings are being constructed? Why are the salaries of full- and part-time faculty kept at such low rates relative to the expensive investments in buildings? Why are so many faculty being encouraged to retire early when there is a concomitant need for experienced faculty in leadership positions? Why is there such a chasm between operating costs (annual budgets) and resulting deficits while the Legislature keeps reducing the amount of money allocated to the University of Maine System?

It is true that tuition rates remain relatively low compared to the rest of New England, but that is for the benefit of students so as not to overburden them with ever higher debts, which in Maine averages about $30,000 per graduate. Mr. Weber does not seem to look at these issues from a student or faculty perspective, although he does note that there is a continuing reduction in the level of experienced faculty. In fact, there is a fear among some of the most committed faculty that if they retire they will be replaced by part-time faculty and some of the courses they offered will be phased out, or that their departments or programs will be cut back, which in turn will provide ever fewer choices for students. The reduction in courses offered in the humanities has been taking place for some time, not only in Maine but around the country. The conventional view is that the purpose of higher education is for job training, but this is not the traditional or sole purpose of a university. As a college administrator recently noted: among the 10,000 new employees who were taken on by Google, 8,000 were hired because they were graduates of liberal arts programs, with the understanding that such graduates were more capable of the kind of innovative thinking that Google preferred.

Recent surveys indicate that only 15 percent of students nationwide are taking liberal arts and humanities courses. Due to escalating tuition and fees, students feel compelled to take courses that train them for specific jobs in order to pay back their loans. Most of my students work part time, some full time, in order to reduce tuition costs and to pay for room and board. The present situation in Maine replicates other states’ educational problems, even though, as Mr. Weber notes, the University of Maine trustees have shown an inability to respond well and should show that they “believe in the ship and its future.” It should be noted that other countries in the developed world invest in their youth by keeping tuition as low as possible rather than burdening them with debts at the very time they need to be settling into their communities and purchasing homes, which most are unable to do at present.

There are positive signs on the horizon. A recent University of Maine report noted that an inter-campus analysis is close to being completed that will include all of its colleges and universities. The Board of Trustees is developing plans for a new financial management structure [while] closing the system office in Bangor before the end of 2015 and locating administrators on various campuses. These are, hopefully, good first steps to righting the ship known as the University of Maine.

Hugh Curran of East Blue Hill teaches in the Peace and Reconciliation Studies program at the University of Maine at Orono.

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