Why I am not bemoaning the firings at USM

Disclaimer: I have not been following this story closely and I know little about the eleven faculty members who were let go thus I have no opinion on the degree in which their dismissals were or were not warranted. And I have heard several of the fired faculty members described in glowing terms and I have no reason to question the sincerity of those remarks. My instincts tell me that cutting staff makes for a sinking ship mentality–which leads to student transfers and lower enrollment. Were the budget trimming up to me, I’d look to cut administration positions and close down the Gorham Campus; but that has more to do with anecdotal evidence rather than actually studying the issue. In any case my comments that follow are not about the 12 USM professors specifically.


It sucks to get fired. It double sucks to get fired without cause. And it really sucks to get fired when you are doing a good job and the people above you are making loads of money and screwing things up in the process. Ask an auto worker, an iron worker, a coal miner, a waitress, or any number of people who slog away at a job only to be tossed aside like an empty ketchup bottle. It sucks, and our society is certainly poorer for it. But in the near-term, it really sucks for the person getting fired.

The USM firings brought forth an outpouring of heart thumping support–Facebook is awash in statements of “I feel your pain”–much of the population seems to have become moirologists. Naturally the firings are being framed as part of a bigger problem. But, will returning to the status quo by re-instating the USM 11 change anything?

The Academy (to use the most pompous word for “colleges and universities”) is a mess. The problems extend beyond USM, the University of Maine System. Issues here in Maine are symbolic or indicative of national problems in higher ed. It is expensive for students and families; faculty morale is low; the problems are myriad; and the solutions are generally uninspired.

When it comes to fixing the Academy I hardly have qualification or space to lay out all the things that need fixing (much less the fixes themselves), but if we are really serious about fixing education, here are a few things to consider:

A fired history professor has few job skills other than being a professor. Many academics only know how to apply their discipline in an academic setting, this is certainly the perception of English Professors but it applies to more practical fields as well. I was at a party recently where a professor of architecture had to admit that he did not know what a joist is. One ABD (All But Defended/Dissertation) friend abandoned their dissertation on something to do with Faulkner’s sense of loss to go on to make about a zillion dollars a year writing copy for an energy company. The trick seems to be to know when to cut bait.

A Liberal Arts Education is Lousy Preparation for Many of Life’s Tasks  Students who attend liberal arts colleges are participating in a tradition that exceeds my knowledge of history but is very much in the manner of the 18th and 19th European University where the children of the elites received a classical education as preparation for  ruling state or managing the family farm (think Downton Abbey). Such an approach does not really translate into a 21st century democracy. The sorta good news is that all college graduates are in kinda the same boat–in other words everyone is equally unprepared at graduation. Society is the big loser on this one.

Education does not teach people to work together   A large percentage of jobs (I’m going to guess well over 85%) entail working with other people. This likely involves collaboration (e.g., carrying a bookcase), or simply interaction (e.g., providing someone with information)–heck even writing is a far more collaborative process than folks might think. Unfortunately, our education system stops prioritizing group work sometime around 1st grade. Non-liberal arts subjects (like sports, theater, band, vocational projects) seem to be more more advanced in group work, although this needn’t be the case. Although things may be changing but in general, students rarely have an opportunity to work together in any sort of useful, constructive, or well supervised way. The result is dysfunctional workplaces and institutions staffed by armies of lone actors.

Academic specializations are becoming absurdly specialized  The worst thing that can happen to an academic is to happen upon another academic who happens to have the same specialty. To guard against this, academics–particularly those in the fields of English, Art History, and other theory-driven disciplines–carve out the most obscure niche specialization imaginable. One friend who has tenure reinforces this practice by adding an “-ist” to whatever his collegues specialty is.  “So and so is an ‘Warhol-ist’ or a ‘Pekar-ist’ or a ‘McEwan-ist.’ ”  The problem is that a Doctoral dissertaion is extraordinarlly arduous. I don’t begrudge anyone the discipline and fortitude for achieving a PhD. But the sad fact is that as a result they come out of their 7-year cloister with a knowledge base so narrow that they end up not knowing shit about shit even in their own field. To say that they have lost the forest for the trees is an understatement. These people have lost the trees for a leaf, or a part of a leaf, or aspects of a part of a leaf as it relates to 19th century proto-theories of 2nd wave feminism. We have the academic advisors to thank for a system that turns out experts who don’t actually have any expertise and whose only marketable skill is to brow beat future graduate students into ever smaller theoretical fields within theoretical fields.

Tenure/Jobs for life is an odd system  Apart from Supreme Court Justices, who hold their posts based on good behavior, most jobs don’t come with a lifetime guarantee (not even at L.L. Bean). Such a perk does not seem wholly warranted. There is also the delicate relationship between tenure-track faculty and the crappy adjunct positions which needs looking into.

–The vast majority of learning happens between the ages of 1-5  And yet the vast amount of resources and stock is invested in the period of one’s educational career where they are least able to process information. This line of reasoning prompted Buckminster Fuller to suggest that the educational system be flipped on its head, with a greater focus on early childhood. [One small piece of anecdotal evidence here is that children don't need bookmarks, their uncluttered and unfettered minds can simply remember page numbers.]

And so on.

Taken in context, losing eleven academics is not going to change a whole lot.

[Thanks to Jeff Weinberger for editorial input]

Zack Barowitz

About Zack Barowitz

Zack Barowitz is a writer, artist, and flâneur. He is the radio host of "This Land Is" on WMPG Tuesday nights at 7:30. His work can be seen at ZacharyBarowitz.com.