In John Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath,” an outraged sharecropper threatens to shoot a tractor driver who is about to knock down his house.

The driver says he’s got the wrong guy. He gets his orders from the land company, and it would just send out another driver if anything happened to him. It would do no good to shoot someone at the company, he explains, because it gets its orders from the bank and the bank gets its orders from a big bank back East.

“Where does it end?” the exasperated farmer asks. “Who can we shoot?”

That scene reminds me of what’s going on at the University of Southern Maine this week, as students and faculty protest a $14 million – or 10 percent – cut to the university’s budget, which has resulted in the layoff of 12 faculty members. The targets of the protests are university administrators, President Theo Kalikow, Provost Michael Stevenson and University of Maine System Chancellor James Page.

The protesters are right to be angry, but just like the sharecropper, they’ve got the wrong guy. What’s happening at USM is not a made-up crisis or a simple case of top-heavy administration. It would be much better for the students and faculty if it were.

What they are living through are the crushing results of long-term demographic trends, disruptive technology and neglect by generations of policymakers. The state is growing older, university enrollments are declining and the state commitment to subsidized higher education, never very strong, has been on a downward path for decades. It’s easy to see where this is headed if something doesn’t happen.

Maine has tried to do higher education on the cheap. In 2010, Maine spent 18 percent less of its income on higher education than the national average and 37 percent less than other rural states, according to GrowSmart Maine’s report “Reinventing Maine Government.”

Meanwhile, Maine has 37 campuses and satellites of its public university and community college systems competing for inadequate resources to serve a state with the population of San Diego. This is not a problem that can be fixed by firing a few administrators.

It’s also one that can’t be fixed by cutting programs and hollowing out the university, which is what, from the outside, looks like what’s happening at USM. Layoffs are demoralizing – take it from someone who has worked in the newspaper business during the last decade. People are willing to make sacrifices if they think they are building something, but no one is enthusiastic about watching what they have built get destroyed.

So how do they get out of this?

The first responsibility is for the university system, its faculty, administration and trustees. A 2009 study of the system called for it to start acting more like a system and not seven self-sufficient institutions.

Every campus can’t offer everything, and people who care about the system’s ability to serve students and taxpayers can’t howl when programs are cut on one campus to avoid duplication. Something like a physics major at USM may sound important, but when it’s offered at another campus, it may not be worth saving.

The next group that has to step up is the Legislature. It is a crime that just as a college degree becomes essential to finding a place in the workforce, it is getting priced out of reach of ordinary families. The state has to take this seriously and provide Maine students with the support they need to go to college, or accept the consequences of a low-wage economy.

A $14 million cut for one campus of the state system is disruptive and unfair to the current students who will not be around long enough to benefit from a restructured system. Lawmakers should find a way to lower the impact of these cuts.

And especially important for USM is engagement with the community. It should have been sobering for the protesters to notice how few people outside the faculty and student body were outraged about these cuts.

The business community did not rally to preserve programs, patrons of the arts did not stand up for favorite faculty, civic leaders did not protest the loss of prestige.

This is the result of years of isolation, where the university did its thing in private. Those walls have got to come down.

USM and the Portland area would both benefit from an open institution where students got credit while working in nonprofit organizations, small businesses could rely on professors and students to research new products and markets and the university made it easy for students to chip away at degrees while they are living busy lives. If that’s what Kalikow means by a “metropolitan university,” then that’s what USM should be.

None of this will be easy and there is no guarantee that any of it will work, but this is not a made-up crisis and it won’t just go away. The protesters may wish they could just shoot someone, but resolving this won’t be that easy.

Correction: This story was updated at 5:39 p.m. on Wednesday, March 26 to correct the name of the USM provost.

Greg Kesich is the editorial page editor. He can be contacted at 791-6481 or at: gkesich@pressherald.com