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Cutting higher education

How corporatization is transforming the University of Southern Maine
By NICK SCHROEDER + CAROLINE O'CONNOR  |  October 16, 2014

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I know—you’ve gotta be tired of reading about USM. Trust me, us too.

But there’s a problem. USM is being fundamentally transformed, and its chief executives aren’t being clear about why.

The administration at USM, and the at the University of Maine system in Bangor, want us to think of them like you would a private business. Specifically one that’s in the red, and which needs to cut labor costs in order to stay afloat.

They swear up and down that they’re in crisis, that they’re facing a $16 million deficit in Portland and an even greater deficit systemwide. Yet many within their ranks—many of them economists, public policy researchers, and sociology professors—are challenging the numbers, insisting they don’t add up. So we, the public, have to choose which side to believe.

We believe that UMS is not in a fiscal crisis. And if they are, the highly paid administration at the head of the system are creating the conditions of the crisis themselves in order to mandate a large-scale transformation that serves business interests at the expense of the public good, and the expense of students. They’re taking a public resource that gets a large part of its revenue from state and federal taxes, and redirecting that money into the private sector, to the benefit of corporations. And they’re cutting teachers, good ones, and attempting to hire new ones—or the very same ones back—at reduced rates with far less job security.

And they’re very good at it. The system administrators seem to shuffle costs and revenues between campuses every year; obscure mysterious speculative funds; build an increasing reserve of unrestricted net assets that don’t get counted toward the budget; and erode the shared governance that has characterized public higher education in favor of profit-driven models of privatization.

What’s so wrong with privatization? Here’s how Pulitzer Prize-winning sociology professor Paul Starr defined it in 1988. Privatization “emerges from the counterargument against the growth of government in the West and represents the most serious conservative effort of our time to formulate a positive alternative.”

The strategies of privatization, at higher education institutions across the country, include 1) getting rid of workers with union contracts; 2) hiring part-timers to do the work at a fraction of the cost; 3) coercing faculty to retire when their medical benefits are too high; 4) increasing unrestricted net assets for deployment in strategic investments; and 5) prioritizing educational programs that reward private sector industries at the expense of those in public policy, planning, sociology, and the arts.

At a forum hosted by the Portland Community Chamber on October 1, before a room of business and industry leaders in greater Portland, UMS system Chancellor James Page laid it out:“If the University of Maine System is going to be successful, we must forge, develop, expand, even create a partnership between the universities and the business community…”

He continues: “I’m talking about a genuine partnership by which we become your best partners and your greatest assets, helping you think through the economic life of your business in this region of the state.”

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