LEWISTON — “The Death Ship,” a 1926 novel by the pseudonymous German writer B. Traven, tells the story of a crew sent to sea in a broken-down vessel, so that the owners can collect the inflated insurance when it sinks.
This was a practice in the old days among certain ruthless businesses. From the point of view of professors and staff in Maine’s universities, our education system feels like we are on a death ship.
University of Maine System Chancellor James Page’s effort to streamline the system by having each campus offer certain specialties is not a bad idea, but it has been taken too far by lesser-thinking administrators. This proposed redistribution corrects some imbalances of academic specialties. However, when this model is applied to the base curriculum in the arts and humanities or natural or social sciences, it goes too far.
All students need to have access to such courses at their home universities. It might make sense to concentrate wood sciences at Orono or fisheries at Machias. It might even make sense to have a graduate program in post-modernism at Farmington or permaculture at Presque Isle.
But courses in writing, history, physics, literature, mathematics, ecology, art and other subjects need to be offered at all the university campuses. Furthermore, many of these base curricula have been developed with their own communities in mind.
The university system claims that it is eliminating redundancy, but in many cases this is a straw man. At the University of Southern Maine’s Lewiston-Auburn College, for example, we have courses in Franco-American studies that are designed to address the majority Franco-American population of southern and central Maine. Our campus also has courses on motherhood and gender studies that are important, given that 80 percent of our students are women whose average age is 30 years old.
We have a course on labor, which reflects our working-class community, as well as a course sequence on world history (the only such courses at USM), which reflects the new diversity in our home area. Thus, the elimination and redistribution of base courses like these does not work in the case of Lewiston-Auburn. A similar argument can be made for the base curricula at other public university campuses in Maine.
It is good news that USM President Theodora Kalikow and Provost Michael Stevenson were removed from office, because they were trying to accomplish this goal of the university system by mindlessly cutting successful base and signature courses at USM. In recent years, the practice of the leadership at the university campuses has been to ignore and even censure proposals for positive changes from the faculty and staff.
Ten years ago, for example, we proposed a statewide program in Franco-American studies, but it was shot down by the provost at the University of Maine.
Three years ago, I proposed an inter-campus effort to revive the master of arts in historical archaeology, which is the entry-level degree for specialists to engage with businesses for approval of heritage-sensitive construction projects. At that time, the president of the University of Maine supported it, but Kalikow’s predecessor at USM shot it down. (I’ve just reopened the proposal with the governor.)
And our signature studies in the new field of Big History – which uses a multidisciplinary approach to examine history from the Big Bang to the present – are the only such program north of Harvard University. All of these could put USM on the map, but instead of engaging with success, successive administrations have been chopping their way to mediocrity and failure.
Hopefully, USM’s new president, David Flanagan, and his provost will repair this dialogue at USM. It does seem, so far, that Professor Richard Barringer’s steering group on defining the concept of a “metropolitan university” for the metropolises of Portland and Lewiston-Auburn, as well as the other communities in central and southern Maine, is making strides in this direction.
It will be some time before we discover if we have set sail on a death ship, a cargo ship, a cruise liner or a ship of state, but in the meantime, we hope for dialogue instead of dictatorship. The relevancy of higher education in the state of Maine is at stake.