What’s happening at USM; one student’s perspective…

Sorry to be the downer, but maybe we should talk about what’s happening at USM. Just in case you feel somewhat clueless about what I mean, we’re talking USM cuts.

So, how are these cuts affecting the School of Business? From what I’ve seen, read, and heard, Business isn’t really being affected. Of course if they do cuts in Theatre and Economics, it may slightly affect our non-business core, but I don’t foresee any intense problems. If you read the emails sent out a couple weeks ago, there is also talk of merging Econ into Business. Again, this doesn’t really seem to pose any problems for Business.

What can you do about it? There are different people you can talk to. You can always set up an appointment with your advisor if you’re really concerned and want to talk to a professional. You can always talk to a member of Student Senate and air out any concerns you have, either by stopping by the Student Government Office (in Woodbury, next to the male bathrooms), or by going to a Student Senate meeting; meetings are Friday afternoons, and switch between the Portland and Gorham campuses.

Personally, I’m kind of ignoring everything. While I follow some different groups on Facebook that keep me somewhat up-to-date with what’s going on, and I listen and take part in conversations discussing the cuts, I feel as though we do not have enough information to really make an informed opinion. Don’t get me wrong, I realize there are cuts going on (and being bilingual in French means I’m not exactly chill with that cut), and clearly I have opinions, I would just like to have more information to better understand what exactly is going to happen.

Sam Michaud, Peer Advisor

Two BIG things I wish I had known as a first year student.

1.  Wish lists and course registration information.

Looking back on my first year, I wish I had known more about making wish lists and searching for classes on MaineStreet. During my first semester I had received emails from my advisor telling me to set up an appointment to meet and start thinking about courses for next semester. My initial thoughts were, “spring semester is still a few months away, I’ll have plenty of time to figure out what I need to take.” I ended up meeting with my advisor before the fall semester ended, and little did I know, I was a little late to the registration party. A lot of the classes I needed to take as prerequisites for classes in upcoming semesters had already been filled. Entering my fourth year here, I am fully aware of how important registration dates and deadlines are, and always have a wish list ready to go when course registration for upcoming semesters opens up. For instructions on MaineStreet wishlist and registration see: http://www2.maine.edu/pdf/EnrollingViaWishList.pdf

2.  You will have to use this stuff again in life.

I don’t remember how many times I’ve said the phrase: “why am I learning this? I am never going to use this again in my life” or “I just need to get through this semester and I’ll never have to deal with this again.” In some cases it’s true that you won’t specifically be using each thing you learn in college in your everyday life outside of school. Unless I become a geologist, I don’t know of any situation where I will need to know the difference between igneous and sedimentary rocks, but at least I will know it if that opportunity arises! Learning each topic individually may lead you to believe that the classes you’re in are pointless and that you only need them as prerequisites for courses down the road, but everything I’ve learned since day one is being applied in my courses now. And now that I’m nearing graduation, it is much easier to see that those courses have so many real world applications in business. Nearly all of them have aspects that I can see businesses use on a daily basis, and I now know that I will definitely be using this stuff again in my life.

~Stefano Didonato, Peer Advisor, USM School of Business

Peer Advisor – Sam Michaud – What I Wish I Knew Coming Into College!


Hi! My name is Sam Michaud! I’m a junior double major in Accounting and General Management and a Peer Advisor in the School of Business! I’m currently involved in Accounting Society, the Secretary for USM’s chapter of the Golden Key Honor Society, and this year’s lead for the Alternative Spring Break group. I’m a Peer Mentor for the Honors’ Program, which I’m also a part of. I’m originally from Canada, but moved to a northern Maine town called Van Buren when I was really little. I speak French and English fluently, and have a tendency to drop French in my daily speech. In my free time, I love to read, listen to music, watch movies, and hang out with my friends!

What I Wish I Knew Coming Into College:

Get Involved! It took me almost an entire year before I finally started getting involved and now I love it! I’ve made some awesome friends outside of my classes. It’s fun being able to get together and talk about things that are important to everyone there. And you can get great contacts from the outside (read: non-college) world!

It’s Okay to Change Majors! I feel like I’m that rare student who just knew what she wanted and went into the right program for myself. I have friends who have changed majors multiple time and it’s fine. College is about finding out what you love and what you can do with it. So go ahead, take that random class that sounds awesome to you, and find your path in life!

There Are a Million Resources! Maybe I’m exaggerating, maybe I’m not, but it certainly seems like it. No matter what you need help with, what you need information for, there is something on campus that can give you it or knows where you can get it. I usually search on USM’s website or ask my friends. Someone, somewhere knows. And feel free to use those resources; they’re there for a reason!

Get to Know Your Advisor! I feel like this is a no-brainer. Your advisor one of the few people you will have constant contact with throughout your collegiate career. Get to know them, and let them get to know you. They can prove to be an invaluable resource during the school year, and a great reference when you’re going for an internship or job. This also goes for your teachers; they can be a great help when you don’t understand something discussed in class or simply want more information. [Faculty have regular office hours; check your syllabus or ask. If you don’t know who your advisor is, check your MaineStreet Student Center or the department your major is housed within.]

Get Used to the Annoying People in Class! There will always be annoying people in life, whether it’s the girl who doesn’t seem to understand anything, or the guy who can’t stop talking. There’s not really anything you can do, and complaining doesn’t help. Have a nice rage-session with your roommates/friends and move on; there are more important things in life to worry about.

Deadlines are Important! Learn when everything is due, from your homework, projects, anything for internships and graduation, tests, priority registration for next semester, and whatever else comes with a date attached to it. Get a planner, specify a marker board for homework, or fill your room with organized sticky notes; being organized and knowing when things are due will save your grade in class.

Take a Breather! Yes, there are enough things going on in your life to make you want to panic and run for the hills. Learn what your limit is and schedule breaks. You won’t be useful to anyone, let alone yourself, if you’re constantly on the go and about to fall apart. Schedule a night out with friends or a take a break by staying in. Refocus by taking a break when you don’t understand a homework problem. Make sure you’re sleeping enough; turn that alarm off on weekends and let your body catch up. You can get more done efficiently if you’re not always feeling rushed.

Learn Your Study Method! Some people can cram study an hour before a test and others need to study for weeks. Learn what makes you retain the most information. Try new ways of taking notes, sit in a different part of the classroom, or find a new study location. Google search for study tips.  No one studies the exact same way so learn yours!

Above All Else: Have Fun! Meet new people, learn about different things, and check out the area. The School of Arts have student theatre performances and musicians. Different groups throw on different events throughout the year. The first Friday of every month is the Art Walk in Portland. With your student ID, you can get into the Portland Museum of Art for free. If you’re interested in volunteering, the Office of Engaged Learning has connections for you. Welcome to college, have fun with it! –

Sam Michaud

Stefano DiDonato, School of Business Peer Advisor, Fall 2014

Hello! My name is Stefano DiDonato. I am currently a senior at USM pursuing a double major in general business management and marketing. I have lived in Maine my entire life and currently live in Gorham, where I graduated high school in 2011. I am also a new peer advisor interested in spreading what knowledge and insights I have learned in my past few years here to fellow students.

College can be tough, and even more so when trying to graduate all on your own. In my first couple years at USM there were countless questions I had about certain things that I just didn’t know where to go to get answered. I knew advisors were a great resource for information, but came to find that in certain situations a peer advisor was great! For instance, if I had a question about a certain class, a peer advisor who had taken the same course could answer that question better because they understand the situation on a more personal level.

Having the ability to give students the option to walk in and get questions answered in my mind would be a great resource for students to use. Some questions that students have might not seem like significant or important questions. Those questions tend to be the ones that go unanswered because people may not feel those questions deserve an entire meeting with their advisor in order to get them answered. Being able to walk in and ask questions on your own accord seems like an easy way to get the answers you’re looking for, no matter the importance.

Looking back on my past few years here, my biggest regret was easily not asking questions because I didn’t feel they were important enough to warrant an advising session or meeting. This is one of the major reasons I decided to become a peer advisor. Had I gotten answers to a lot of my questions I would most likely have gotten more involved on campus, and might have improved my overall experience.

The strategic challenges to mid-range universities

Recently, someone forwarded an email to me from an organization called StraighterLine.  I’d never heard of it, but it turned out to be a company that offers online college courses in two packages:

  • “Freshman Year for $1,299,” where students can take up to ten online courses for $1,299.
  • A “subscription” approach for $99 per month plus $49 for each course.

That a for-profit institution of higher education would offer rock-bottom pricing for online courses was not, in itself, surprising.  What was surprising was that forty institutions of higher education have already signed up to accept StraighterLine courses for credit, and up to 1,800 members of the American Council on Education (ACE), using its credit recommendation service ACE CREDIT, could consider 55 StraighterLine courses for credit.

The “ecosystem” around StraighterLine shows that it’s not just Massively Open Online Courses (MOOCs) that USM (and institutions like it) have to worry about.  It also has to worry about the rock-bottom priced, online course mills.

We could argue the niceties of how valuable those courses are as learning experiences, and many faculty members at mid-range universities have done so.  However, if the “job to be done” (an element of the Customer Value Proposition [CVP] element of business models; see my previous blog) is to get a degree, many people out there won’t bother, and aren’t bothering, with the nuances.

USM and institutions like it have to show that their CVPs are different and rewarding enough to be worth the premium price.  (It’s hard to think of USM as “premium priced,” but compared to the StraighterLines of the world, it is.)  Large public and private universities, and elite liberal arts colleges, have succeeded in showing their value, and they command the admissions rates and tuition rates to prove it.  However, it’ll be tougher for the USM’s of the world to do that.  Moreover, part of the answer may be a larger amount and selection of online courses, but that’s only part of it.  What is the full answer?  Nobody seems to know….

Running a university like a business

Theodora Kalikow, the president of the University of Southern Maine (USM), recently posted what she called a “rant” titled “A Business Model?”  In the rant, she responded to criticisms some USM faculty had voiced about how she “ran the university like a business.”  She said she was trying to “run the university like a university.”  This got me to thinking—does USM really run like a business?  Does it really have a business model?

Any business model needs four components:

1.  Customer Value Proposition. This solves an important problem or fulfills an important need for the target customer.  Clayton Christensen at Harvard Business School says that part of a Customer Value Proposition is the “job to be done” for the customer.

This is where I think USM has begun to fall short, but so have many other mid-range traditional universities.  The elite private colleges and universities and the flagship public institutions still have a clear “job to be done,” which is some combination of education aimed at helping highly able students to mature and of doing high-level research and scholarship.  Such institutions will always have this kind of role to play, and they have suffered little in the way of student applications, admissions and private and public funding.  

However, what is the “job to be done” by mid-range universities like USM?  They tend not to contribute to the maturation of highly able students, and they tend not to have large research portfolios.  So how do they add value?  The answer is far from clear. 

2.  Profit Formula.  I don’t care how “pure” you want your organization to be, if it does not have the cash flow to continue operating, it will close down.  A Profit Formula boils down to having gross profit margins sufficient to maintain, or even grow, operations.

USM is (and institutions like it are) not doing well here, either.  For example, USM’s faculties in various professional fields (education, engineering, business, nursing, social work and public policy, to name a few) hold national or international accreditations, which are expensive to get and to maintain, even though they result in robust enrollments.  However, the University of Maine system has frozen tuition and fees, yet accreditation and other costs are high, and rising.  It’s basic arithmetic—gross margins are insufficient.

3.  Resources needed to deliver the customer value proposition profitably.  These might include people, technology, services, equipment, information, channels, alliances, and brand. 

One distinctive problem universities (including USM) have is “resource rigidity.” This is when resources are too specialized and it’s difficult to deploy them for new purposes.  Tenured faculty members, for all their virtues, are a good example.  They tend to be specialized and difficult to deploy in ways not commensurate with their disciplinary training.  You can’t have an English professor teach Accounting, and the reverse might be even less pretty. 

To make matters worse, rigid resources that are around for 30-40 years (aka tenured) make it difficult to be flexible in response to market trends.  If the market says you need a larger number of Information Systems (IS) faculty and fewer German faculty, and the only way to pay for the IS faculty is to lay off the tenured German faculty, you are probably at an impasse. 

Elite and well-funded private and public institutions get around this problem by adding faculty in new fields, when needed, and losing the less-demanded faculty by attrition.  Those kinds of institutions have enough “slack” that they can live with the resulting inefficiency; even mid-range universities use to be able to do that, but no longer can.

4.  Processes, to coordinate the resources in ways that meet the customer value proposition and bring in the necessary cash flow.  

USM, like many public universities, is very bureaucratic and its processes tend to promote the status quo, not innovation.  The tenure system contributes to this.  So do accreditation, prescribed curricula, and lack of pedagogical adventurousness.

Bureaucracy was not a problem when the education market was robust and consumers of higher education had fewer choices.  It is a problem now.  Most of the new rivals in higher education, the for-profit institutions, have less bureaucratic baggage and less resource rigidity.  They also tend to have lower costs, the savings from which they pour into better customer service along with schedules and pedagogy that are more convenient.

Pres. Kalikow is correct—running a university like a university requires a good business model, even if some people don’t like the term.  The question is, does USM have an acceptable one?  I would say that the answer is unclear, but not encouraging.

Government spending: Cuts vs. Tax Increases? Research shows that cuts stimulate the economy more effectively than tax-and-spend

Former Congressman Barney Frank has a new occasional column in the Maine Sunday Telegram.  In his initial column on March 17, 2013, (“Government spending can create jobs”), Mr. Frank ironically said, “…Persistence by the right in contradiction of the evidence reflects the difficulty of settling policy debates. Outside of a controlled experiment, it is hard to isolate the impact of any one action from the multiple factors affecting outcomes.”

The irony is that economists have been working on the very task of “isolating the impact” of multiple policy approaches.  As Mr. Frank says, we must look at the resulting evidence.  However, the findings are inconveniently counter to his argument.

In “The Design of Fiscal Adjustments,” (Working Paper 18423 of the National Bureau of Economic Research; available on the Bureau’s website), Alberto Alesina and Silvia Ardagna, both of the Economics Department at Harvard, examined over fifty instances of various spending cuts and tax increases in 17 OECD countries between 1978 and 2009.  Their objective was to examine this mix of policies to see what worked.

Their findings?  Cuts in government spending tended to create either economic growth or, at worst, mild recessions.  On the other hand, tax increases tended to create “prolonged and deep recessions.”

Therefore, if Mr. Frank truly believes in using evidence to inform policy decisions, as I do, he’ll have to change his interpretation on the central point of his first column.  in the case of government spending cuts vs. increases in government spending, the findings run counter to his argument.


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