ORONO — For almost everyone familiar with Henry Ford, he epitomizes the development of centralized production of cars and trucks. No other American of the 20th century did more to centralize manufacturing than Ford.

As the Ford Motor Co. became the nation’s largest automaker during the first three decades of the 1900s, Ford nevertheless insisted on micromanaging his increasingly far-flung empire. In this respect, he probably would have approved of the University of Maine System’s relentless centralization and micromanagement of ever more aspects of public higher education.

The system’s centralization moves include not just the hiring – or, more often these days, the canceled hiring – of full-time faculty, but also the approval and, increasingly, the elimination, of academic programs; plus the taking of control over IT, travel and procurement away from the seven campuses. Repeated pleas from faculty and campus staff to rethink the latter three ideas in light of other higher educational systems’ mixed success in this regard were completely rejected.

Hence, the public relations message from the trustees’ recent Fort Kent meeting that the system’s sale of its headquarters would just be continuing the decentralization of basic functions does not exactly match the trend of recent years.

Henry Ford himself was conflicted about the virtues of centralized management and impersonal, large-scale workplaces.

At the same time that he built the biggest, most centralized factories in America – at first, Highland Park, and then River Rouge, both just outside Detroit – he revived 19 declining small communities, all within 60 miles of Ford World Headquarters in his native Dearborn, Michigan.


Each plant made small but important parts for cars and trucks. These became known as Ford’s “village industries.” His investments saved all 19 towns from catastrophe during the Great Depression.

Ford was also conflicted about the virtues of urban industrial life, a common theme in American culture dating to Thomas Jefferson and his fellow advocates of preventing England’s industrial revolution from coming to America. Ford’s village industries were intended to revive small-town life but, unlike the Jeffersonians, to do so with the same cutting-edge tools, machines and even some assembly lines found in the big company urban plants.

In a similar vein, why not relocate at least some system employees to the smaller campuses as an endorsement of the continued viability of Fort Kent, Machias, Presque Isle and Farmington? Surely there is no barrier to instant communications among the system’s campuses. Ford would have loved such a move.

Ford frequently made surprise visits to one or more of the small plants and let the anxious workers know whether or not he approved of their operations, including their cleanliness. This kept the workers on their toes. Ironically, it was later revealed that he had secretly planned to revisit one of those sites the day after he died in 1947.

One could certainly expect similar spot checks by top system administrators on whatever campus they called home. Indeed, one could imagine their literally looking over the shoulders of presidents, vice presidents, deans and others as well as faculty and staff. This could be a good idea, though perhaps too intrusive.

Finally, the story of the Ford Village Industries proves that the decentralization of headquarters does not necessarily translate into the decentralization of authority.


Henry Ford maintained absolute control over the small plants enterprise throughout his life. One would be rather naive to assume that closing the University of Maine System’s Bangor office and having its top administrators relocate to one or more of the seven campuses – a rough equivalent of the 19 village industries – would necessarily bring about the decentralization of financial control and of decision-making.

To the contrary: The likely trustee approval in November of shifting the control of most campus funds, including crucial individual campus reserves, to the vice chancellor for finance and administration takes system centralization to an unprecedented level. Vacating the university system’s Central Street offices in Bangor has no bearing on this if one goes beyond self-serving public relations proclamations.

Hence, the initial enthusiasm for what appeared to be a win-win plan for helping public higher education in Maine should be restrained for now. As the phrase goes, the devil is in the details.

— Special to the Press Herald

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