USM conflict should prompt students to demand fundamental change

Troy R. Bennett | BDN

Troy R. Bennett | BDN

Students at the University of Southern Maine have spent the last week occupying hallways and staging marches and protests to demonstrate their opposition to plans to fire faculty members and eliminate departments at their school.

This is a show of solidarity and strength, but it’s also a sign of just how powerless these students are when it comes to the future of their institution and their education.

Necessary or not (and protesters say they’re not) the proposed cuts were decided by the University President and Provost, and professors had already begun to be fired, before students (and most faculty) were even aware of them. Even now, a week later, the President of the Faculty Senate still isn’t able to get his hands on the financial reports used to make these decisions. This centralized control and lack of transparency is a direct result of  students being denied any formal decision-making power within their university.

Chris Camire, former USM Student Body President and former Chair of the Student Senate, was nice enough to walk me through the current situation (his blog post on the subject is a must-read for anyone looking to understand what’s happening at USM) and the broader state of student representation on campus. What I learned is that in any decision-making process that really matters at Maine public universities, students are denied a real voice.

The USM Student Senate, as is the case with similar bodies elected each year by students at the various UMS campuses, is mostly a mechanism for levying and distributing student activity fees (to fund things like the campus newspaper) and has no formal, institutional role in broader university decision making. There are no elected students with a vote in the Faculty Senate or on the President’s council. Of the 16 members of the University System Board of Trustees, which oversees finances for the universities at the state level, there is only a single student representative and they are appointed by the governor rather than directly elected by their fellow students. The current student trustee, appointed by Governor LePage, is a senior studying public policy and a Republican activist from the University of Maine at Farmington.

This complete lack of formal, decision-making power seems especially unfair when you consider that student fees now account for 53.48% of University System revenue. The state now contributes just 34.23%.

Maine’s public universities are meant to serve the students of Maine and students are the ones now paying the majority of the costs of their operation, yet they have no real say in how things are run.

It doesn’t have to be this way. When I was student union president at Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia, I sat (along with a number of other student representatives) on both the Academic Senate and the university’s Board of Governors. When it came time to renegotiate a new deal on higher education funding with the provincial government, students and university administrators had equal representation.

The student governments themselves are also much stronger just a short ferry ride away from Portland. My union had a budget of around six million dollars, five full-time student executives, employed more than a dozen full-time staff and hundreds of part-time students, ran businesses, restaurants and insurance plans and was invested with a specific mandate from the province to represent the students we served. Together, the student associations at the various public universities formed a powerful lobbying bloc that could influence government policy and public debate over higher education.

In addition to their stop-gap demands regarding the current cut-backs, UMaine System students across the state should also be insisting on changes that give them more of this kind of institutional power. They should be lobbying for more (and democratically-elected) trustee seats. They should demand representatives with full voting rights on the various faculty councils and presidential budget committees and they should insist on forming a statewide student organization that can work with faculty and administrators to move this debate beyond on-campus infighting and start influencing the real decisions about funding and priorities for higher education made at the State House.

These are changes that would cost the nothing in fiscal terms but would be enormously beneficial to students. Imagine if, instead of being forced to lie down in hallways now to be heard, those same students could have been reviewing budget proposals months ago and helping to make decisions more in line with what they require from their university.

If they don’t insist on these kinds of changes, then even if students win some small concessions in the current fight, a new group of undergraduates will just be forced to hold the same protests and fight the same desperate battles a few short years from now, just as they did a few short years ago (notice the exact same slogans on those signs?)

Students should see this crisis as an opportunity and use it to organize and build lasting power. It will benefit them, future students, and our entire state. After all, what better way to confront Maine’s problems of out-migration and an aging population than by getting those who represent Maine’s future more involved?

Mike Tipping

About Mike Tipping

Mike writes about Maine politics and policy with a focus on analysis and explanation. He works at the Maine People's Alliance and Maine People's Resource Center, writes a political column for the Portland Press Herald