The University of Southern Maine was mentioned in ‘We Are Creating Walmarts of Higher Education’, a December 26 Atlantic Monthly article about universities cutting programs in order to graduate more students for less money.
Some campuses of the University of North Carolina system are mulling getting rid of history, political science, and various others of more than 20 “low productive” programs. The University of Southern Maine may drop physics. And governors in Florida, North Carolina and Wisconsin have questioned whether taxpayers should continue subsidizing public universities for teaching the humanities.
USM has been facing conversations like this one at least as for as far back as when I was a student there. When I revisited the USM Honors Program in 2010 to co-teach classes with Professor Dušan Bjelić, the German program had been cut and I was proud to see the students respond by occupying the Office of the President. I recall their primary message being one of skepticism of where the university of a whole was going with cuts like the one inflicted on the German program, and of what role the cuts would play in undermining the overall value of education.
I attended USM largely out of necessity. I did not come of age academically until it was too late in high school to prove my intellect to court financial assistance to the schools I eventually found to be compelling. There were some things that I enjoyed about USM, and a lot that I found difficult and frustrating. In my experience, one of the primary difficulties for the student who seeks engagement, debate, and meaningful academic exchange is offered little by way of stimulation in most generally directed courses, and a banal level of interest on the part of the classmates who attend them.
The only refuge I found were in courses (and their engaging, supportive professors) that are destined for the chopping block should the only standard be their financial viability. Thank you to Dušan Bjelić, Kate Wininger, Bethany Round, Kate Wininger, Ronald Schmidt, Sara Treible, Mahmud Faksh, Jason Read, George Caffentzis, Kaitlin Briggs, Jura Avizienis, Francesca Vassallo, Christopher O’Connor and others went out of their ways to make the experience one that was worthwhile. Between my involvement with these courses and related staff, and non-academic extracurricular sanctuaries such as WMPG, the college/community radio station, and the Free Press, the student newspaper, I was able to fashion for myself an experience I look fondly look back upon.
Though should this so-called Walmartization of the University system continue, I fear for the fate of those courses and sanctuaries as well as for the brains and personalities responsible for making them possible.
And so the future student in search of an intellectually rigorous experience (as well as many in the present) is left a deteriorating options for their academic career after high school. Numerous studies show the long-term comparative economic advantage that comes from attending university, even though the student must foot the bill themselves strictly to simply have a fighting chance for solvency. Unfortunately, the offerings that make this track compelling to those who must attend it face uncertain futures when economic viability is as important a factor in determining their fates as their contribution to making possible a well-rounded, rigrorous, thought-provoking education.
Update: Nigel Stevens is a 2010 USM alum and he was one of the students who protested the aforementioned cut of the German program. He offered the following response:
One of the most frustrating and confusing things about all this is the fact that it is not even as simple as “universities cutting programs in order to graduate more students for less money.” While that would be a terrible fate for ostensibly public education, it at least logically follows the austerity narrative. Austerity is never really about deficits and budget shortfalls though. It always rears its ugly head as the objective, natural, and unavoidable solution to a political power struggle. This means that the numbers are never really the issue, but rather which metric to impose to get the desired results.
One of the things that was so crazy about the attempt to cut German Studies was that, according to an independent audit, the program actually made money for the university (unlike many of the still worthwhile, but capital intensive STEM programs). After all there is low overhead for popular humanities programs, so one could easily imagine a strategy that actually involves investing in the humanities. That is, if graduating more students for less money were really the end game. Truth be told though, what’s going on here is pretty clear: local biocapitalists, aging bureaucrats, and bankers want their publicly-subsidized “pipeline of human capital” and they couldn’t really give less of a shit about anything else. The Board of Trustees doesn’t care about your education, they don’t care about the taxes you pay, they don’t care about your student debt, they don’t even care about the long-term financial health of the university; all they seem to care about is their dystopic, job training scheme.