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Not An April Fool’s Joke: Massive Cuts at USM

April 1, 2014, 8:53 am

les-miserables-poster001In my previous post, I made a reference to massive cuts at the University of Southern Maine. The cuts have sparked student and faculty protests, and an administrative response that is truly scary, both in its willingness to accept scarcity logic as the educational status quo and its desire to impose faculty and staff reductions by intimidation. This includes cutting entire departments to break faculty tenure.

A strong dissent from the New England American Studies Association can be found here. (Where is a statement from the other American Studies Association?)

I have also received permission from Associate Professor of English and Women’s Studies Lucinda Cole to reprint her account of the state of things. Some of you may have already seen it on Facebook.

To the ‪#‎USMfuture‬ Student Who Asked Me That Question

At the last three faculty meetings I attended at the University of Southern Maine, armed guards hovered outside the door or circulated through the rooms, hands moving to their hip holsters whenever faculty members raised their voices. Never before in my 25 years at USM had I witnessed such shows of state force against the faculty, even when the campus mobilized in 1995 to demand the ousting of then-Chancellor Michael J. Orenduff, a protest that eventually lead to his departure for an institution in the southwest.

After Friday’s faculty meeting (March 28, 2014) of the College of Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences, which was devoted, in part, to a controversial plan designed to reduce the number of departments in the college, an observing student asked me why so many faculty either remained silent or debated details of the plan without ever attending to its consequences for students, for shared governance, or for tenured faculty whose retrenchments will be played out in courts over the coming year. What drives this behavior, he asked—self-delusion or self-interest?

While both are likely candidates, I suspect the real answer is fear.

Although the newspapers have done a good job of presenting the numbers that the UMaine System provides to justify their reallocation of resources, and sometimes publishing counter-evidence, what the newspapers cannot capture is the culture of fear created by the anti-labor lawyers and their cronies on the Board of Trustees. This anti-labor culture is enacted by the President and Provost, the former brought out of retirement to implement their policies, the latter an appointee of a deposed University President. The Provost serves “at the pleasure of the President,” as he keeps repeating, which means that she can fire him if he steps out line or refuses to do her bidding. much as I, as Director of Women and Gender Studies, serve “at the pleasure of the Provost.” Our Dean in CAHS is herself an appointee of that same deposed president, her job deeply dependent on staying in the good graces of the President and the BOT.

This lack of job security has a chilling effect on the ability of Deans and Directors to contest the reallocation of resources and to protect their faculty against arbitrary decisions on the part of the Provost and President.

Long before the spectacle of tenured and tenure-track faculty being herded in to receive their retrenchment papers while students protested in the halls, this administration has been cultivating a culture of fear. Theo Kalikow’s appointment began with the creation of a “Leadership Institute” into which hand-picked members of the staff, faculty, and administration were inducted.

Their first assignment was to read a book called Our Iceberg Is Melting: Changing and Succeeding Under Any Conditions. Written by John Kotter, formerly of the Harvard Business School, and advertised as a “low-threat tool” for changing organizations bound by tradition, the little book features members of the Penguin Leadership Council compelled to adjust to changing circumstances or die. The first of the Eight Step Process of Successful Change is to “Create a Sense of Urgency”; this sense of urgency, we’re told, must be reinforced continually because otherwise “they will say the danger was overstated and that any change is not needed.” Despite concrete evidence that the UMaine’s system so-called budgetary crisis was partly a product of strategic bookkeeping, faculty and staff have over the past two years been subjected to a series of expensive external consultants touting “creative disruption.” Meanwhile, faculty received an ongoing stream of ominous emails from the president’s office, one of the most dramatic being “Survival Is Optional.”

This onslaught of fear-mongering rhetoric has been underwritten by surprising, last-minute changes in contracts for untenured faculty; by the Provost’s Office creation of a Hunger Games-like competition for promotion, tenure, and sabbaticals; and by the President’s ongoing threats that some as-yet-to-defined axe will fall—“You aren’t going to like them,” President Kalikow kept saying. Her warnings were punctuated and reinforced by armed security guards escorting long-time employees from their offices, shows of unnecessary corporate violence that finally resulted in the highly-publicized (and videotaped) forced march of tenured, sobbing faculty into the Provost’s office.

Even worse, the administration encouraged faculty to turn against one other by suggesting that younger faculty could be “saved” if older faculty would retire. Some did, some didn’t. But this insidious practice encouraged faculty to turn on each other rather than on the administration, who claimed throughout that they, after all, were simply making USM “sustainable.”

Whether or not USM’s iceberg was indeed melting, this BOT, Chancellor, President, and Provost took a blow-torch to it.

To what end? According to Kotter’s book, the penguins formerly ensconced on their melting icebergs will become “nomadic,” moving from iceberg to iceberg, a practice that never lets up “until a new way of life becomes firmly established.” At this point, a “new system of rewards” will be offered, through which it is “ensured that changes would not be overcome by stubborn, hard-to-die traditions” (123). Translated to academic culture, this means that tenure-track positions will be replaced by lectureships and online classes; nationwide standards for tenure and promotion will give way to demonstrations of having promoted the new branding; and raises will be used to reward those who show willingness to forget academic values and to promote a “new normal.”

What the BOT and faculty underestimated in this plan, however, is the power of USM’s students to fight the model of education they are being offered, with its hordes of “nomadic” or contingent faculty and the death of academic values. They have put their bodies on the streets, and their considerable skills online to create a network of allies that some faculty, in their fear or self-interest, have been unable or unwilling to emulate.

And thus the guns. While USM students circulate information about the necessity for peaceful protest, instructing fellow students about what is legal and productive, the BOT and USM administration fall back on shows of potential violence. Having failed to subdue the students and faculty through threats to their livelihoods, they resort to implicit threats on life.

As faculty sit in college and university meetings, we do so after a prolonged period of emotional abuse and under the overt or covert threat of violence. Given the systematic sacrifice of our colleagues to this misguided attempt at re-branding USM, many of us are a little dissociated, unable to respond coherently or helpfully to the rapid changes in our job conditions. Some are positioning themselves for the “new system of rewards,” and others hope to hold on until they can afford to retire. I found out a few days ago that a colleague got a job offer from Northwestern–the best possible outcome for her, although a real loss for us and for our students. The administration promises another round of cuts to staff in conjunction with a presumably faculty-driven reorganization of programs in the College of Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences.

So– to my student who has been fighting for us and for an education of which he can be proud, let me admit that faculty at USM are not only traumatized but are, as a group, often less brave than the students who fight for them. Our usual mode of critical thinking and civil debate has been tethered to the tenure system and to its guarantee, through teaching and scholarship, to free speech. Whether or not free speech disappears with the iceberg of job security remains to be seen. In the meantime, I thank you for reminding us through your words and actions of the principles that made the American public university system great.

Hat tips to: Josh Lukin, Aaron Lecklider.

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