Down East 2013 ©
Last week, Maine saw the first whisperings of the student voice.
A working group made up of faculty and administrators at the University of Maine put forward a proposal on March 24th to cut a wide array of programs and majors in order to save the university $12.3 million. So far, the idea has been met with disapproval and anger from students.
A recent demonstration (listed on Facebook as “The End of Academic Apathy Protest!”) saw dozens of students pack the hall outside a public information hearing on the proposal, carrying signs with slogans like “Our Money, Our Choice” and “Chop from the Top,” a reference to the fact that the proposed changes target mostly professors and academic programs rather than university administration.
Other recent proposed cuts have flown under the radar, including the plan for $5.9 million in cuts for the upcoming academic year, achieved mostly through the elimination of staff positions, and an $8 million reduction in higher education funding in the state budget, passed last week. The working group's proposed cutbacks, however, have proved harder for students to ignore, likely because of the optics of eliminating entire areas of study.
Slated for the chopping block are majors in foreign languages, music, theater, women's studies, several engineering degrees and the entire public administration department. Overall the proposal would mean sixteen fewer undergraduate majors, six fewer master’s degree programs, and the elimination of eighty full-time faculty positions.
“The students at UMaine have not had a common voice on many issues recently, and this proposal has united the campus,” said Kalie Hess, a language major and the organizing force behind Fund Maine's Future, a new student group created to fight the cuts. “At the University of Maine, it has become increasingly clear to me that students value the intrinsic values of an education and that we are willing to fight to maintain these majors that we consider a critical aspect of our flagship university.”
I'm proud to say that Hess is, like me, both a graduate of Orono High School and a former field organizer for the Maine People's Alliance. In addition to holding protests, Fund Maine's Future also submitted a motion with the UMaine Student gGovernment, which passed unanimously, opposing the cuts.
Hess and her advocacy group, however, may be too late.
The decision-making structures of the University of Maine System aren't built for student involvement. There was no student representation on the working group that came up with the planned cuts and the Student Government hasn't historically taken an active role in proposing alternatives to tuition increases and program cuts (the Student Senate only took up the resolution in opposition to the current plan after a petition was brought to them signed by hundreds of students).
The university system's highest body, the Board of Trustees, only has a single voting student representative serving one two-year term, compared to fifteen non-student representatives appointed by the governor for up to ten years.
The lone student trustee is currently Ben Goodman, a sophomore at the University of Maine. Goodman says he wants to be an advocate for all students and has begun traveling to each campus in the system to learn about student concerns. He also met with the fledgling group called the University of Maine Student Coalition, which he described in a statement to the Board as “a group of student representatives from each UMS campus, working to help inter-campus communication between students.” (Goodman also hosts a great radio show  on the campus station, which political junkies should be sure to tune in for.)
Goodman's role, however, isn't a perfect example of student representation. His seat is filled not through an election or nomination by student government, but through an appointment by Governor Baldacci. Goodman, perhaps not coincidentally, is also President of the Maine College Democrats.
In addition to the student seat, the student governments at the seven UMS campuses are each allowed to appoint a student representative to advise the Board of Trustees and sit on committees (and UMaine and USM each have a graduate student rep) but the students in these positions can't vote or attend in-camera meetings.
The lack of student representation in university decision making is especially galling when one considers how much of the University budget now comes from student tuition and fees. After a 74 percent increase in in-state tuition from 2005 to 2009, student tuition and fees now represent 52 percent of the University of Maine System's unrestricted operating budget . State appropriations amount to only 36 percent of this total.
Despite the investment students are making in their education and the fact that they are exactly the kind of young, educated people that Maine's government and business leaders are working so hard to attract and retain, they still have little voice in our system of public higher education, even informally.
Yesterday's Advancing Maine conference, simulcast at campuses all over the state and billed as a “day-long summit to assess Maine’s future workforce needs and help guide Maine’s public universities in program development, and in creating a public agenda for higher education,” had plenty of speeches from business leaders and civil servants but not a single student voice on the agenda .
Goodman fears that without more student input and activism, Maine's universities will atrophy.
“I'm really scared to death. I think this is just the tip of the iceberg and that's why I'm so glad to finally see students up in arms,” said Goodman. “I hope we see a new wave of activism because when you're talking about cutting French at a university in a state that was founded as New France — to me, I just can't understand that.”