ORONO — Having been a history professor at the University of Maine since 1986, I repeatedly have been dismayed by the University of Maine System’s common practice of providing make-work jobs for most deans, vice presidents and presidents who, voluntarily or not, have left their posts.

The latest example is that of outgoing University of Southern Maine President Theodora Kalikow, who will be paid her full $203,000 presidential salary (plus benefits) to lead a “community engagement initiative” for the UMaine System for the last year of her contract. This appears to be her principal new task as acting vice chancellor of academic affairs.

“Community engagement” is one of those academic buzzwords that sounds nice but that needs to be deconstructed in order to grasp its varied meanings.

Does it mean promoting the institution to political, business and labor leaders? Don’t we have a system official (and probably more than one) to do that? Does it mean reaching out to the proverbial general public to enlighten the masses about what the system actually does for them and for the state of Maine? Don’t we have other folks already doing that?

So what will be new about Kalikow’s duties? Yes, I’ve read the already tiresome phrases about 21st-century public higher education and about coordinating the seven campuses with the relentlessly top-down system dictates and with one another. I was not impressed.

All seven campuses have in various ways been in the business of “community engagement” long before the system was established in 1968 (with a naively utopian vision of a chancellor and just a handful of assistants providing each of the campuses with considerable autonomy).

What else has “cooperative education” at the University of Maine meant for nearly 150 years if not “community engagement”? And what has the former teachers college (or “normal school”) at Farmington been doing for even longer if not training teachers for another kind of “community engagement”? Related examples from the other five campuses could readily be cited.

Of course, the invocation of the infinitely more tiresome phrase “strategic plan” makes this 21st-century initiative strictly kosher, so to speak. Like Hebrew National hot dogs and other products whose manufacture is supervised by rabbis, this “strategic plan” answers to a higher authority.

President Kalikow came to USM at a time of both campuswide demoralization and declining enrollments. How well she handled these huge challenges is certainly not for me to say. She had been a splendid president of the University of Maine at Farmington for 18 years and had made that lovely campus into one of the foremost public liberal arts colleges in America. She deserves the respect and appreciation of all Mainers for her achievements.

Why shouldn’t she offer to teach a course or two or three stemming from her expertise and experiences as a college and then a university president? Why shouldn’t she teach either undergraduate or graduate students or both and so undertake a different form of “community engagement”? I suspect that lots of students from throughout Maine and elsewhere would find such academic offerings fascinating. Surely she has much to teach us.

But I know that – with some notable exceptions, like former University of Maine President Peter Hoff – returning to the classroom is frowned upon in Maine public higher education elite circles. It is considered a sign of failure. The traditional “sage on the stage” has been pushed off and made, at best, the equal of his or her students, if not simply evicted from the premises.

As widely proclaimed consumers, the students have the last word. So better to spend thousands of precious dollars on projects like Selma Botman’s unneeded report on recruiting foreign students when, as an expert in Middle East history, Botman – who was USM’s president from 2008 to 2012 – might instead have taught valuable courses in that area.

Still, maybe future administrators facing reassignment might reconsider this prevailing aversion to teaching. For many of us, it remains a noble profession.

— Special to the Press Herald