GORHAM — On the University of Maine’s website, in the “About UMaine” section, you will read the following words: “Opportunity for all members of the University of Maine community and its constituents is a cornerstone of our mission.”

Of the many fictions that the university’s PR department peddles to the public on a daily basis, this one is among the most egregious.

If “opportunity for all” is truly a “cornerstone” of the mission of the state university system’s flagship, why is the system paying a lobbyist over $130,000 to ensure that students working on UMaine System campuses don’t get a fair shake?

The Maine Legislature recently passed a statewide paid-time-off law. One of the final changes to that law – after a lengthy lobbying battle by Samantha Warren, the University of Maine System’s director of government and community relations – was the last-minute exemption of student workers. After successfully cutting student workers out of receiving paid sick days, the UMaine System administration (in documented coordination with the Maine State Chamber of Commerce) turned its lobbying effort toward ensuring that students would not be included in statewide minimum-wage increases – which blocked student workers from receiving $12 an hour in 2019.

Warren defended this de facto wage freeze on more than a hundred student workers. She argued that the UMaine System, despite being one of the largest employers in the state, would not be able to afford the extra $57,325 in labor costs without “challenging our campus to continue delivering critical services.” If the interest is to cut costs without appearing like a “greedy business” (as then-Chancellor James Page phrased it in an email last March to the Board of Trustees), perhaps the administration could look at Warren’s six-figure salary before it forces students to accept starvation wages for four-plus years.

With the cost of living in Maine skyrocketing across the board, these lost wages sting student workers, on and off campus. The average one-bedroom apartment in Orono costs $1,244. Books and supplies come in at around $1,000 a year on average. Tuition has risen another 3 percent this year, with in-state students paying a total of $22,104 per year (out-of-state students pay almost double that, at $42,414).

The abhorrent cost of a University of Maine education doesn’t end there. Per the administration’s own calculations, the average University of Maine graduate has $25,512 in student loan debt. As most of us know, that principal doesn’t tell the whole story. With the average federal interest rate hovering around 5.8 percent nationally, graduates who don’t secure a substantial salary immediately upon graduation are guaranteed to be facing an even steeper bill than that figure indicates.

High-paid lobbyists like Warren may forget a time when they were a paycheck away from being broke, but UMaine System student workers know that reality well. They live it every day. While at the University of Southern Maine, I have been working as a student associate in the Office of Service-Learning & Volunteering. I live with the constant stress of knowing that, were I to get sick for a week, I would lose my already-limited source of income.

The UMaine System’s effort to infringe on the rights of student workers directly counteracts claims that providing “opportunity for all” is the cornerstone of the mission of any of the system’s campuses.

Opportunity would be equipping student workers with a higher baseline wage that we could carry with us into the professional job market after graduation. Opportunity would be the peace of mind of knowing that, if we get sick, we won’t get fired and lose our sole source of income. Opportunity would be competitive on-campus wages that would put the entire UMaine System in a position to attract a greater influx of working-class students, from both in and out of state.

The UMaine System’s values are reflected in its administration’s decisions, not in some inspirational copywriting on the University of Maine website. Investing in a lobbyist like Warren to push back against basic labor rights rather than in the student workforce is a reflection of the system’s true values.

Those values, for now, are painfully evident to us. In the eyes of Samantha Warren and the UMaine System, student workers are just another exploitable commodity in defense of the bottom line.


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