A recent Portland Press Herald article (“USM cuts threaten thousands in grants for four students,” Nov. 6) about the probable loss of NASA research grants that support the work of four students is heartbreaking. If this description seems excessive, consider what that tells us about the dismal unraveling of the University of Southern Maine under its troubled leadership of the past few years.

As one who spent much of her professional life in senior management at NASA, I know that research grants and contracts awarded by federal agencies are not, in fact, awarded to the student or faculty investigators. They are awarded to the institution. This is so because federal research administrators know that institutional commitment to a project is essential to its success.

To ensure that commitment, federal research grants and contract awards include a sizable percentage (in the case of USM, 42.8 percent) of additional funding per grant dollar to finance facilities and administrative costs – or research “overhead.” Preserving credibility with sponsors of student and faculty research is important to the university’s future. Cuts that undermine sponsored research to which the university has committed diminish that credibility.

The saga of USM’s struggles to cope with serious budget shortfalls has displayed an approach toward institutional management that seems exclusively preoccupied with numbers. Business management in the United States, which now dominates the management of USM, has for years been bewitched by the notion: “If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it.”

Thus have we all become instruments – whether consumers, managers, students, teachers or citizens – of various accounting exercises. Sophisticated computer software renders those exercises increasingly remote, and the original values being measured ever more mysterious, while the output of ultra-high-speed computations become the only reality that seems to matter.

But when asked to consider the things that really do matter to us, rarely do we respond with things that can be counted.

We treasure the first cry of a healthy newborn, the laughter of children, a Bach cantata, the sweet faces of Botticelli’s painting of Springtime, seeing the heavens through the Hubble Space Telescope, the beautifully explicated political wisdom of The Federalist Papers and those sacred religious texts that comfort us when in darkness.

These are the kinds of qualitative values that we live for, and that cannot be captured by the accountant’s calculus.

To the extent that we have created institutions to preserve such things, and to ensure their survival through scientific study and investigation, through the mastery of music and literature, through philosophical scrutiny, as well as through advancing technology and engineering, we have created universities.

A university’s overriding “business” is the awarding of academic degrees for completed programs of enduringly worthwhile study. As any academic institution’s degrees lose essential content and thereby lose qualitative value, follow-on graduate programs at other institutions will discount them, prospective employers will discount them, students will stop coming, alumni stop giving, donors fear to waste their limited funds, the public stops caring and a death spiral looms.

And now here we are, the calculus driving the unraveling of USM is the calculus of the marketplace. One reads in vain of indications that the probity of its academic degrees is the USM administration’s overriding concern.

If it were, the dreary recital of budget cuts would list every possible expense that does not directly serve the content of the degrees it hopes to award – e.g. physical plant, administrative overhead, consultants’ fees, athletic programs – before we’d read of eviscerating faculty and academic program content.

Dire budget crises are endemic to public-sector organizations. They challenge leadership of such organizations to regain a laser-like focus on heir essential purposes and to dispense with things that do not directly serve those purposes.

That kind of leadership finds ways to make the numbers conform to the institution, rather than the other way around.

Vaporous and costly exercises in university rebranding, revisioning, and reinvention only contribute to the centrifugal forces threatening USM’s essential purpose. USM must decide – publicly, and as an institution, not an accumulation of fiefdoms – what constitutes essential study for each of its majors and each of the degrees it awards.

Then it can insist on the latitude to redeploy faculty, most of whom are competent in different areas within their disciplines, as fluctuating enrollments require. This is tough work, much tougher than announcing academic staff and program cuts, which is the easy way out. It is also the wrong way out.

— Special to the Press Herald