An obscure moment, frequently recalled, has become indelible. In Auburn, Maine, more than two decades ago, Congressional candidate John Baldacci hosted a barely attended campaign event. It was unremarkable until the candidate and an unknown Franco-American briefly held everyone’s attention.

In face-to-face conversation, the old gentleman, whom I will call Vincent, responded to something candidate Baldacci said, by asking, “Why is it, that once you guys get elected, you suddenly get so smart?” The candidate, smiling and ever political as his role required, gently responded, “If you want to get smart, go to college.”

Vincent, offended by the answer, soundly tapped the floor with the tip of his cane, cocked his head to look up at Baldacci and emphatically stated, “I don’t need a college degree to know when someone has his hand in my pocket.”

The two men were markedly different.

John Baldacci, college-educated, had served on the Bangor City Council and in the Maine Senate.

Vincent, likely shared a biography with hundreds of Lewiston’s Franco-Americans. Many of these men, when they were still boys, sometimes through circumstance, sometimes through free choice, quit school, abandoning their education and began a lifetime of work in local mills. Year followed year as they worked the remainder of their lives or for as long as they continued to be valued by the mills. When too old to continue working, they, like Vincent, were left with only pride and memories.

The candidate, for this event, intended to be likeable — a regular guy, a man of the people; Vincent, wearing his outdated vested suit, wanted respect, even from a Congressional candidate.

Vincent, like many of us, was there to evaluate the candidate’s worth, the candidate’s values and decide if he deserved respect. But, those of us, like Vincent, who weren’t knowledgeable, were disadvantaged. In the end, we would have to depend upon our experiences and our instincts, which for Vincent must have prompted his memorable remark.

Recently, I read that the University of Maine System has requested increased annual funding from state legislators which will increase from $200.6 in 2016 to $229.1 million in 2019, an amount the University’s Chancellor James Page has ennobled by describing the request as an investment.

I immediately thought of Vincent, who obligingly rushed forward from where he resides — only in memory. He was unchanged and still every bit as indignant. Encouraged and reassured by his presence, I couldn’t avoid thinking someone was trying to slip their hand into my pocket.

Like Vincent, I lack the knowledge to defend my suspicions and I am forced to rely upon instinct and limited experience.

The University of Maine system has an annual budget exceeding a half billion dollars. How can ordinary people know if that is too much or too little? Even millions of dollars will lose their identity, their necessity and even their nobility when commingled with a budget that large. It isn’t enough to be told the additional money has a noble purpose because additionally requested public funding is always accompanied with an urgent or noble purpose — sometimes both and even when neither is accurate.

And yet, because we know a large portion of the university budget will be for employee salaries and benefits and because, individually, each of us either have experiences with salary and benefits or, like the most of us, lack them, we can make comparisons.

Vincent during his lifetime worked continuously and still found spending what he earned more of a necessity than a choice. He would have been impressed that Chancellor Page’s annual salary is already $277,000. But, he might not understand why Page and other full-time university employees are annually paid for 12 holidays, annually receive 20 sick days and 20 to 24 vacation days and who may also be allowed to stay home during the several school holidays.

Vincent, whose work in the mill was strictly enforced by a time clock, wouldn’t understand why many university employees can, themselves, decide the length of their work week — sometimes deciding to work 40 hours, sometimes not, while confident their pay will continue and not be diminished.

The university has a noble purpose; it exists to educate our populace that they may be better employed, both for their own and for society’s benefit. That purpose is unfulfilled when the university allows its employees to work less while paying them the same or more in salaries and benefits and, accordingly, makes education unnecessarily expensive and of diluted value. And worse, workers in the community, with neither benefits nor security, who find the university unaffordable, and who see Baldacci’s suggestion impractical, are still unfairly obligated through their taxes to continue funding it.

Vincent, would certainly be impressed by the good fortune of university employees, especially when compared to mill workers unable to attend college. Today, he would be just as offended by Baldacci’s suggestion and, today, he would be just as certain that someone’s hand was in his pocket.

Richard Sabine is a resident of Lewiston.


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