Making a queen sacrifice in Maine

chess_queen_WendyCopeAnother American university is planning to close academic programs and lay off faculty, a move I’ve dubbed the queen sacrifice. The University of Southern Maine is facing a serious budget shortfall, and has responded with cuts.

“We can no longer afford to carry all the programs we have”, explained USM’s president. Programs and departments facing the axe include:

American and New England studies, geosciences, arts and hmanities at the school’s Lewiston-Auburn College facility, and recreation and leisure studies.

A number of faculty and staff will be terminated:

[President Theo] Kalikow said she is recommending between 20 and 30 faculty reductions. She said she also is proposing between 10 and 20 additional staff position cuts…

[T]he number of full-time faculty will be reduced from 310 to about 280.

Twelve received layoff noticed today. Some of those position reductions are from other programs not scheduled to be closed:

faculty layoffs came in the departments of economics, English, sociology, theater, the honors program, in the School of Music, and in the Muskie School’s graduate program in public policy and management.

The university is considering emphasizing a different set of programs:

Kalikow… hinted at potential future investments in new programs in perceived growth areas such as cybersecurity and entrepreneurship, as well as new health- and business-focused adult completion degree programs.

Some students and faculty are protesting.  Student-teacher ratios may increase.

What caused this financial problem?  Enrollment decline, as in many other cases:

the school’s enrollment has dropped from the equivalent of 7,348 full-time students in 2005-2006 to 6,460 full-time equivalents today.

Or enrollment plus other factors, a:

“perfect storm” of factors including lower revenues, higher costs, flat funding and a decrease in student enrollment of about 12 percent over the past seven years.

The USM queen sacrifice move connects with a multi-campus strategy:

Kalikow said the proposed cuts would set the stage for a rebuilding effort for the university, which she hopes will include further integration of the Lewiston-Auburn facility into the more tightly connected Portland and Gorham campuses. That integration will increase efficiencies and make courses currently isolated at the different sites more accessible across all locations, she argued.

Summing up, Southern Maine is apparently experiencing a typical set of problems now facing American higher education: declining enrollment and rising costs.  USM is also responding in a now familiar way: reducing humanities, laying off staff and faculty, looking to STEM and professional programs for increased revenue.

Since pursuing this queen sacrifice theme, I’ve received criticism to the effect that in many cases the terminated programs are not so central to a campus mission as a queen is to a chess player’s group of pieces.  There is much sense to this, at least statistically, but I meant the metaphor to capture the qualitative importance of some programs to many in academia.  For example, according to one USM faculty member:

Mark Lapping, a professor at the university’s Muskie School of Public Service and a former provost, said the American and New England studies program has generated some of the school’s most high-profile scholarly research.

I picked that particular chess metaphor to capture this qualitative sense.  I’d also like to emphasize the emotional power of such cuts, both within an individual institution and for individual academic disciplines.

It seems that 2014 will see more of these events, unfortunately.

(link thanks to Claudia Scholz; photo by Wendy Cope)

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26 Responses to Making a queen sacrifice in Maine

  1. Jim Groom says:

    Interesting, I am seeing the move of Infocult reportage to this blog, and I lvoe it 🙂 GO SAVE THE QEEN!

  2. redbaiters says:

    Or even, GOD SAVE THE QUEEN!

    Jesus, I suck.

  3. How very sad.

    It seems like yesterday but it was in July 2009 that I remember cheering when I heard about this good news as it related to the teaching of languages and cultures in the System. While everyone else was cutting languages with low enrollments, they were willing to wait it out.

    Not anymore, it seems. What a shame.

    • You’re right, Barbara. It is sad, and it’s happening.
      The economic damage of 2008 was deeper than many thought, and the recovery far weaker.
      Now the demographic tide is hitting.

  4. skjandrews says:

    Some interesting letters here:

    Archives like these will document the cultural resistance to this move. Perhaps that should be the other element to your chronicle. It is certainly a sad moment.

    IHE had this piece as well…
    which looks at some of them you’ve already chronicled and a few you may not have.

    • Excellent finds, Sean. I agree that they’ll prove fine records of our time.

      But I’m not wholly convinced.

      First, is there any cultural resistance? I’m not seeing much in the US. Faculty resistance seems to be small, local, and often focused on technology, The Democratic party is largely bent on education “reform”.

      Second, the economics aren’t imaginary. In this case, the state of Maine reduced its funding (once more). Enrollment decline makes sense, if the Maine system draws students from that area, where teen #s continue to shrink and the adult learner population isn’t growing. Meanwhile, medical expenses continue to boost university budget expenses.

      Caveat: those charges against the Maine system office are strong. I don’t know what the counterarguments are in that case, and would like to learn. When it comes to admin on campus, you know that “administration” is a bad shorthand for *all* non-teaching staff.

      • skjandrews says:

        You are right that much of the resistance is fragmented – and most of it that spans campuses isolated in pockets of people who are more likely to be interested in the neoliberal assault on higher ed more generally. And certainly the dems are terrible on this. But I was thinking of this more in terms of E. P. Thompson, who recorded equally unlikely attempts to challenge power and economic changes – the kind of stuff you are cataloging in the /Second Industrial Revolution/ readings. The Luddites etc.

        The economics aren’t imaginary, but they also aren’t natural. Funding went down because politicians reduced the funding. Enrollment declines might be real, but even given that, it is pretty poor planning to just cut funding and let the chips fall where they may. And the unilateral nature of these cuts is bound to piss people off. And there are some high profile people that have been caught in the cuts – like Jason Read, who would have been cut except for the fact that someone senior volunteered to keep him from losing his job, and is now talking a lot about it on social media:

        Queen sacrifice is right. It will be interesting to see what effect this might have on future enrollment, though there is likely no way to measure that. But if students sense that they might have faculty or programs cut at a moment’s notice, how likely will they be to stick around? As you seem to be insinuating, there is a fine line between sacrificing programs and simply closing up shop. And part of me wonders how much of this is more geared towards the latter – and how much of that is related to the debt taken on by the system and therefore the demands of their creditors. Not sure what to make of this post, but it would be fascinating to see the debt loads of institutions making these sacrifices. In those cases, the demands of creditors may be more important behind the scenes than any of the “real” economic or demographic imperatives.

        Wall Street demands liquidation – especially of labor with friendly working contracts.

      • There’s more to the economics, starting with the largely unrecovered-from destruction of wealth in 2008. This “recovery” has kept family resources far lower than anyone expected. So college costs more, and people can afford the old prices less easily.

        I’m not sure what Wall Street wants from all this. They’ve got many good things here, including vast amounts of loans, elaborate real estate, tons of insurance, etc.

    • That’s an eloquent, passionate letter.
      “someone whose job is to put the warm-seeming older-woman face on the longstanding neo-liberal plot of a cabal of truly bad men”: ouch.
      “You will not be remembered as someone who made hard choices and difficult compromises at a time of crisis, but as a frontline collaborator in the dismantling of the public liberal arts university during a time of manufactured crisis, and with it, the democratic promise of a free and secure citizenry comprised of creative, critical thinkers.”

      Note his view that technology and flexible education represent a decline in educational quality.

      • skjandrews says:

        While we both know that those factors aren’t necessarily indicators of a decline in quality, the way they are being pitched by the zombie lobby (as a cost/labor saving strategy) that is the likely outcome.

  5. Can we call it a zombie lobby now?

  6. skjandrews says:

    I usually call it that after John Quiggin’s book:

    Basically, anyone who still believes austerity is a way to solve these problems is reanimating dead ideas. And if Mark Blyth is to be trusted (and who couldn’t trust his accent?) these zombie ideologies, like those of Shelley, are dangerous as well.

  7. Ann Kovalchick says:

    The metaphor works because the sacrifice is faculty, and like the queen in chess, is pretty central to the game. duh.

  8. gseverett1 says:

    So is this better than a queen sacrifice?
    It’s in your back yard, Bryan. The article mentions reductions in the size of faculty; do your sources say anything about a reduction in the size of the administration?
    I also note the sharp criticisms of Neuhauser and McGrath in the comments. Nevertheless, it’s hard to argue against a 15% Reduction In Force in the face of a 15% drop in the number of high school graduates.

  9. skjandrews says:

    Looks like the Queen might be back on the board – or however you’d explain it with the metaphor:

  10. Pingback: Backing away from one queen sacrifice | Bryan Alexander

  11. Great catch, Sean. Just blogged.

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