USM student sends message to President Kalikow- “You will be remembered as someone who failed”

Not surprisingly, the announcement by University of Southern Maine President Theo Kalikow that she plans to cut 4 programs and between 20 and 30 faculty jobs- in addition to the 14 jobs already cut this year- has caused quite a stir on campus.

Philip Shelley, USM class of 2014

Philip Shelley, USM class of 2014

A current USM student named Philip Shelley is one of many who have taken an outspoken stance against what they perceive to be the corruption of their university’s core values and purposes.

I would be happy to sound off on Ms. Kalikow for her inept leadership of one of Maine’s most socially valuable educational institutions, but I was lucky enough to have the chance to read a letter written by Shelley, addressed to Kalikow, and I am confident that I could not possibly say it better than he has.

When I asked Shelley to say a little bit about himself here’s what he sent me:

I am a native New Yorker, a non-traditional English major. I was an alcoholic rock musician (I grew up at CBGBs) for most of my adult life. I also spent ten years in NYC ad agencies. I came to Maine to escape from New York and to fulfill a dream of becoming a high school English teacher. The farther I have progressed down the path, the more I love it, and the more convinced I am that education is currently the most critical battleground in the fight for the future of this country.

Here is his letter to Kalikow, she may never care enough to read it, but it’s a wonderful commentary on the state of USM and our educational systems in general:

USM President Theo Kalikow. Photo credit- Troy R. Bennett, BDN

USM President Theo Kalikow. Photo credit- Troy R. Bennett, BDN

Dear President Kalikow,

I can’t tell if you are a decent person who finds herself trapped, ashamed, maybe even afraid, in an increasingly ugly and untenable situation, or if you are simply a hatchet-person, someone whose job is to put the warm-seeming older-woman face on the longstanding neo-liberal plot of a cabal of truly bad men who in no unequivocal terms mean harm to USM and the public university system.

Either way, your legacy will be that you went out of your way to placate men who are truly our enemies (and they are, as far as I can see, all men), men who do not understand and do not care about what goes on in a university, or how a university actually functions; men who brazenly flaunt their deep antipathy and antagonism to the core values of the academic community at large; men who wish to turn education into a corporate product.

You will not be remembered as someone who made hard choices and difficult compromises at a time of crisis, but as a frontline collaborator in the dismantling of the public liberal arts university during a time of manufactured crisis, and with it, the democratic promise of a free and secure citizenry comprised of creative, critical thinkers.

You will be remembered as someone who failed or refused to defend academic values; as someone who bought into the hollow promises and single-value systems of bankers and technologists.

Once we concede that education must be defended in economic terms, we have conceded everything. We are now playing according to the value systems of people who want only to destroy us. To destroy the liberal arts. To destroy shared governance. To destroy the tenure system. To destroy unionized workers. To destroy an educated and free-thinking citizenry. To destroy creativity. To destroy any remaining sense of empowerment and security among students, staff, and faculty.

In hindsight, you, the Board of Trustees, the Chancellor’s office, The USM Foundation members, and the Provost have all been startlingly clear about their endgame for USM: you all want an institution with more bogus online classes and even complete online degree tracks, where the teachers are mostly poorly paid, insecure adjuncts, and where the courses are tailored to the needs of the local business community, to whom the institution will be formally answerable, and to whom slave labor will be farmed out in the form of “internships.”

That “vison” can be aggressively marketed (“Make your own schedule! Go to school whenever it’s convenient for you! Make more money in your lifetime!”), with increasingly worthless degrees churned out by the truckload for an increasingly desperate public, whose massive debt-load serves to fatten the coffers of the bankers and business leaders who happen to serve on the BoT and the USM Foundation.

This is you speaking in the Bangor Daily News in July 2012:

Kalikow, who met with reporters throughout the day Tuesday, said institutions of higher education must be flexible in the face of changes in society, the economy and technology. She said USM, located in what Page described Tuesday as Maine’s “economic engine” of greater Portland, must continue to build connections in the surrounding businesses and community organizations.

“We can cut the budget and streamline operations and create relevant classes and blah, blah, blah — but if we don’t have those community connections, a university won’t be successful,” she said.

“Blah blah blah”? Why were you so glib and dismissive about your core mission when speaking to the press that day? And in April of last year, you rolled your eyes at me in a public symposium about the future of the humanities when I asked whether it was your responsibility to defend academic values against the encroachment of those who would seek to value everything on a monetary basis. I wrote about this encounter in the Free Press:

Last month I attended a public symposium on the future of the humanities at USM, where I asked President Kalikow what responsibility the academy has to hold the line against the encroachment of purely economic values on what was previously protected cultural space. Kalikow rolled her eyes at me as if to say, ‘Oh lord, here we go with the ‘value’ questions,’ and then replied with a spirited defense of speed, ease and convenience in higher education, along with the assertion that McDonald’s is not always bad.

I left the symposium offended and disheartened by her glib dismissal of what I believe is probably the critical question regarding the future of this country. I also completely disagreed with her answer: nutritionally, economically, socially, environmentally, discursively and spiritually, McDonald’s is always, always bad.

Students and faculty (and allies from around Portland and the world) have spoken clearly and eloquently. While the occasional online class may augment a course of serious academic study, we don’t want the inane “convenience” of online education – we want the support of a genuine flesh-and-blood community, and real world relationships that increase all of our strengths and abilities exponentially. Anything worthwhile and of value requires genuine effort. We reject Netflix U and we resent the condescending implication that students “demand” junk-food education. We want jobs, but we aren’t here for career training, and our engagement with the surrounding communities means a lot more than (and goes a lot deeper) than kowtowing to local businesses.

The only people who want this garbage are the people who stand to profit from it and who are trying to ram it down the public’s throat by creating false demand and false financial crises. The students don’t want it, and the faculty don’t want it. Against impossible odds we have built a thriving community of creativity and productive scholarship here at USM, and we value what we have.

But instead of defending it, you helped destroy it.

Unless you muster up a last-minute turnabout display of integrity, that will be your legacy, President Kalikow.

I beg you. Help us. Do not turn your back on an institution that has given you a life and a mind beyond measure. Do not abandon the academic values and ideals that have nurtured you your entire life. Do not be an accomplice in the destruction of creativity, and critical, thought and the commercialization of every public good in this country.

Philip Shelley

Class of 2014
BA English, Summa Cum Laude

Chris Shorr

About Chris Shorr

Chris is a sixth generation Portlander who loves all things Maine. He has worked with mentally ill and marginalized adults at a Portland non-profit, on a lobster boat in Casco Bay, at several high-end Portland restaurants, and at a local meat packing plant. He also ran for Portland City Council in 2013, wrote a weekly column in the now defunct Portland Daily Sun, and currently writes a weekly column in The Portland Phoenix.