It wasn’t just bad timing when the University of Maine System leadership gave a $40,000 a year raise to a top administrator at the same time it was cutting faculty and programs on its campuses. It was a statement of values.

When enrollments and revenues drop, administrators have convincingly argued that they had to make tough choices and downsize the organization, even if that meant fewer opportunities for students in the short run. But when an administrator gets an offer of a better job elsewhere, the budget crisis doesn’t matter.

This is not a situation unique to Maine. In 2013, the highest paid public employee in all 50 states worked in a university, according to the sports journalism website Deadspin. In 40 of them, it was a coach.

As the share of college costs paid by students and their families climbs, universities are in hot competition with each other to hire the best talent. And they are willing to spend the money.

In Maine, Chief Financial Officer Rebecca Wyke, who will now take in $205,000 a year from the public system, was too valuable to lose, in the eyes of Chancellor James Page. He said he needs a top-flight financial manager now, and he determined that he would probably have to pay a replacement even more. In his judgment, the system would be better off with Wyke than without her, and it’s hard to argue against that.

But it’s much harder now to discount the argument made by students and faculty at USM, who have been saying that the system is spending too much on administration while education suffers. The fact that other states are involved in this bidding war for administrators doesn’t make a choice like this one more palatable. The cost of a college education is climbing out of reach for many families. Those students who do graduate often are saddled with debt. Since 2009, jobs for graduates have been hard to find. All of these factors will contribute to declining enrollments and financial struggles, no matter how well the finances are administered.

When Page says the system needs Wyke and her financial management skills, but it can live without a New England studies program or a chance for a student to major in geology at USM, he is saying something about the values of the organization he leads: What happens in the classroom is less important than what happens in the back office.

That may be the harsh reality in a time of shrinking resources, but it’s not the choice that most students, their families and taxpayers who foot the bills at the university think they are making.

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