The closure of educational programs and the laying off of staff and faculty at the University of Southern Maine might be new, but it has been a long time coming. Things could have been done much differently, and still could, but a root problem lies with the political process in the state of Maine.

The conversion of Maine’s normal schools into a university system in the 1960s was a well-meaning attempt to patch together a modern program of higher education from out-of-date institutions.

In thinking how to solve the university crisis, I have to question: Who in the 21st century would locate a university in Machias, Fort Kent, Gorham or Farmington? They were strong population centers in the era of “wind, wood and water” in the mid-1800s, but they had become small suburban communities a century later.

This problem of Maine’s higher education is a well-known issue that few people have wanted to address. Any politician who would agree to close a university in their district would be hounded from office by their constituents. So, predictably, there has been a tacit agreement among Maine’s legislators: “I won’t close yours, if you don’t close mine.”

That has been a policy of electoral detente.

As the population has changed in Maine, the old university system has stayed in place. Financial and curriculum crises have resulted in squabbles between universities, departments and communities.


Chancellors who sought to make significant changes in the university system were forced from office. Last year, the new university system chancellor, James Page, and the university presidents, with the approval of the university trustees, began to quietly redistribute the focus of courses at each university. This way, they did not have to advocate for closure of entire campuses and incur the wrath of politicians and voters.

As a result, physical sciences were apportioned to Orono, USM got social-professional programs, while arts and humanities went to Farmington. The argument is that they are trying to “reduce duplication.” What is really resulting, however, is an irrational “cut and paste” mess.

I’m an associate professor at USM’s Lewiston-Auburn College and have taught here, in the city where I was born, for the past 15 years. By training, I’m a geographer, archaeologist and historian, with a specialty in North American studies.

Now the president and provost of USM want to close our highly successful and award-winning Arts and Humanities Program. Our program has grown five-fold in the past five years and brings in almost a half-million dollars a year. We provide courses that are offered nowhere else in the state system, let alone at USM.

We offer the only world history courses at USM, the only big history course north of Harvard University, and we have an award winning Franco-American Studies program that works closely with the Franco-American Collection, the Franco-American Center and Museum L-A.

Instead of strengthening the Arts and Humanities Program, as we have asked for more than a decade, the USM leadership has blocked our requests to expand and cooperate with other university programs in Maine. In other words, they have created a crisis that they claim they want to fix.


And now, President Theo Kalikow is outsourcing arts and humanities to her alma mater in Farmington, where she worked for 15 years as president. That creates an ironic problem where students will not be able to access the successful courses that we offer in the second largest metropolitan area of the state — ironically, while USM is attempting to rebrand itself as a “metropolitan university.”

This covert redistribution is what is driving the present attempt to dismantle parts of USM. USM has become a test case. If they get away with it in Cumberland and Androscoggin counties, they will try to get away with it at the other universities. It has even gained national attention as an attack on the tenure process and the education unions.

In addition to trying to close three successful programs; they are destabilizing a dozen more, which will then be later outsourced to Orono and Farmington. What we will be left with in Southern and Central Maine will amount to a small trade school for social workers.

The question is: who decides this?

Why is this not a major issue in the political campaign season? Why are Mike Michaud, Paul LePage and Eliot Cutler not engaged in this as a major issue?

In truth, they are just doing what politicians have done for decades — duck and cover.

It should be decided by Maine families, Maine workers, Maine students and Maine teachers. Students and taxpayers pay the bills that run USM and all the universities. They are the real management and they need to speak out.

Our children’s futures and the future of Maine are at stake.

Barry Rodrigue is an associate professor of the Arts and Humanities Program at the University of Southern Maine, Lewiston-Auburn College.

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