It’s been a wild few weeks for the University of Southern Maine, with professors and students protesting proposed faculty and academic programming cuts with sit-ins on campus, a march in Portland and demands for emergency legislation in Augusta.

The goal is to force USM President Theodora Kalikow to abandon her proposed reductions or convince legislators to preempt them with a 12-month moratorium, while a study group examines budget issues within the University of Maine System as a whole.

I certainly respect the passion and energy that students and faculty are devoting to protecting their school and, in some instances, their livelihoods, but am nonetheless struck that their ire is oddly misplaced.

Rather than protesting the proposed cuts in Augusta, they should be protesting successive governors and legislatures that failed to prioritize higher education spending and modernize its delivery, largely creating the current crisis.

The university system is facing dramatic demographic, political and financial challenges that are pushing the institution to the financial brink and causing it re-evaluate its very structure.

At USM, enrollment is down from over 10,000 students in 2008 to 8,900 students this year, an 11 percent decline. Given that trend and Maine’s well-known demographic challenges, there is little expectation for enrollment growth.

Twenty years ago, USM derived approximately 65 percent of its operating revenue from state appropriations and 35 percent from student tuition and fees. Today the situation is almost exactly reverse.

USM’s systems and buildings were largely built for a bygone era, when the university maintained a monopoly on delivering a low-cost, high-quality education to local students. Those days are gone as USM competes with a variety of public, private and for-profit schools, as well as educational innovations such as massive online open courses, called MOOCs.

Put it all together and you get a $13.9 million structural gap in USM’s 2015 fiscal year budget, including an $8.2 million loss due to lower enrollments and $5.7 million in expenses such as health care, utilities, deferred maintenance and student aid.

Simply put, USM’s instructional capacity is dramatically misaligned with the students it serves.

As a result, Kalikow and the university system are desperately trying to create the best possible academic offerings to serve students within existing budgetary resources. That approach shouldn’t seem novel, but a history of a strong faculty, weak administration and legislative indifference have pushed USM to its current crisis.

Yet when Kalikow proposed the first tentative steps to address the crisis through the elimination of 12 faculty positions and four academic programs – collectively representing a meager $2.1 million in savings – the uproar from the faculty Senate and a handful of students was loud and immediate. So much so that Kalikow rescinded the faculty cuts in an optimistic gesture intended to press the “reset button” with the faculty Senate.

That’s in spite of the fact that, since 2006, administrative positions (dean and above) have been reduced by 51 percent, salaried staff by 22 percent and hourly staff by 33 percent.

But here’s the thing: If the faculty, Kalikow and students can’t constructively move forward on $2.1 million in cuts, how will they ever reach agreement on the remaining $11.8 million?

To be clear, Kalikow and her administration deserve some blame for the current brouhaha, having done a lackluster job articulating the principles and criteria by which cuts should be made.

Is it according to student enrollment? To the workforce development needs of Maine’s business community? Or some other metric? We don’t know. And as a result, it’s difficult to get all of USM’s internal and external stakeholders rowing in the same direction.

The president also needs to more powerfully articulate her vision for USM’s future. I recently listened to USM’s dean of management and human services, Joe McDonnell, lay out a compelling concept for USM as a “metropolitan university” with a central mission of engaging the local community, serving its needs and developing its leaders.

This service-learning based approach – already embraced by the Muskie School and the School of Education – is designed to move the university from a public cost to a local resource intimately aligned with Greater Portland’s strengths, attributes and needs.

The metropolitan university model could create new and attractive educational options for students often drawn to USM because of its location in Maine’s most populous and prosperous city. It also offers the potential for growth rather than endless cuts.

But even here, Kalikow and her administration need to articulate a coherent and compelling road map for how USM becomes Portland’s metropolitan university, especially given the current economic crisis.

Portland needs a strong, vibrant and sustainable USM. Getting there requires steadfast leadership, an inspired vision, a real plan and stakeholders committed to genuine reforms. The time for nibbling around the edges is past.

Michael Cuzzi is a former campaign aide to President Obama, Secretary of State John Kerry and former Rep. Tom Allen. He manages the Portland office of VOX Global, a strategic communications and public affairs firm based in Washington, D.C. He can be contacted at:

[email protected]

Twitter: @CuzziMJ