Bob Neal

Few institutions were more publicly affected by COVID-19 than our universities and colleges. Enrollment fell, campuses emptied, and schools went into a holding pattern.

Coming out of the holding pattern, universities and colleges face at least two major challenges as they try to establish their new normal. One is the quest for evermore money. The other is the closing of the academic mind.

Let’s begin with the money because this is, after all, America, where money talks.

State institutions are being stiffed by legislatures which, in the 1960s, wanted to build a college at every four-corners and today want to squeeze them dry. Enrollment in 2020 fell by more than 660,000, cutting tuition income by billions of dollars. Enrollment is up this fall, but maybe not to 2019 levels. Stats for this semester aren’t in yet.

When I taught at the University of Maine (1980-83), the state covered about 76% of Orono’s budget. Today, according to the UMaine Budget Model Primer, the state chips in a bit less than 29%. I know of a university in New Jersey that gets just 13% of its budget from the state.

The two ways I know to have more money are to spend less and to find more. Colleges have chosen to try to find more, so their presidents may spend more time raising money than running major educational institutions. UMaine, for example, has gone after more money by admitting more out-of-state students, most of whom pay higher tuition than Mainers. About 30% of Orono’s enrollment is from out of state.

A problem built into academia is that there is little restraint on growth. Businesses must increase sales if they are to grow and add products or services. Colleges turn that process around. They persuade their boards of trustees to create a new program, then they leave their president and her staff to shake the trees for more money to keep the program going until it pays for itself, which, I’ll bet, is seldom.

If a program doesn’t draw a crowd, colleges seldom drop it. When President Theodora Kalikow cut some programs about 15 years ago at the University of Maine at Farmington, you’d have thought from the uproar on campus that the sky had fallen and the world had ended. When I drove to Farmington on Thursday, though, I noticed that UMF was still there. And the world.

This subject is so complex that one could devote a writing life to it and not come up with comprehensive solutions. Still, here are a couple of ideas. Governors and legislatures need to step up and provide a larger share of the funds for their state colleges. In return, schools need to be more forthright about their missions, needs and constraints.

For example, does Maine really need seven branches of its state university? UMaine Machias has already answered that question by turning its administration over to Orono.

More ticklish, should Maine admit 85% of applicants? Especially when, for example, at Orono fewer than 20% of those admitted matriculate? Colleges are locked into a vicious cycle. They admit ever more students, knowing that the share of those who will attend their school is ever lower. How much is spent on admitting students who go elsewhere?

This may be the classic tragedy of the commons. Colleges protect their own interests, even though that damages the larger interest, in this case higher education.

Our colleges and universities, which are meant to be bastions of free inquiry, meant to be teaching young people to think for themselves, meant to be open to all persuasions, are becoming, if they haven’t already become, closed-minded bastions of safe-think.

Anne Applebaum, a historian and moderate-conservative writer, shows in the October issue of The Atlantic how schools have throttled debate and diversity of opinion as they react to micro-individualism and hyper-sensitive “helicopter-child” students.

Students complain that certain writings or the mention of some historical facts make them uncomfortable or offend them. Those students file complaints, which administrators investigate. Professors become leery of even mentioning, say, a macho-misogynistic writer such as Norman Mailer or an enslaver who beat and raped his “property.”

So, the richness of the educational experience becomes poorer. I disliked both Mailer’s persona and his writing. But I won’t argue either with his success or with people who liked both. And history happened. The best way we can avoid repeating the worst of history is to try to thoroughly understand it and take steps not to repeat ourselves.

Try getting a solid conservative speaker, say, the writer George Will, to campus these days, let alone a right-wing nut-job like Steve Bannon. Not likely.

Applebaum quotes John Stuart Mill in “On Liberty,” who wrote that the threat to freedom isn’t government, it’s social conformism, “the demand that all other people shall resemble ourselves.”

As higher education rethinks its normal, maybe it can figure a way for administrators to run schools, not raise money. That could well include finding the courage to stand up to the social conformism that Mill and Applebaum rightly condemn.

Bob Neal liked colleges and universities so much that he attended six of them. And taught at four, if you count three ill-fated weeks at Kent State. Neal can be reached at [email protected]

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