A circle of college death? Or just Augusta’s latest attempt to reform higher ed?

Mike: Cynthia, we have “humbug” reports from Orono and the mayor of Portland asking for more money for USM. Eliot wanted to merge the university system with the community colleges, while Mike wanted everyone to go to school for free for a year. How should Augusta approach higher ed? They could probably just appoint Jack Cosgrove supreme overlord…

Cynthia: Two brilliant women tried and failed to reorganize USM, so why not pay millions to a football coach to crack some heads together?

“Come on, you eggheads! Reorganize! Or give me 50 push-ups.”

Maybe a game pitting faculty against the administration — shirts versus skins — could raise money for textbooks.

It’s time we take the issue of higher education in Maine seriously.

Mike: Faculty versus administration versus system versus Legislature versus taxpayers versus students. It’s like the Hunger Games, except I’m pretty sure everyone loses.

Fortunately, one of the things the governor has been pushing for is finally coming into effect: transferability of credits between the universities and the community colleges. It is a huge symbolic and operational step, but minor in the overall scope of things.

We need to reduce some of the overhead across and within the systems. Some campuses should further specialize: does each university really need to offer an English degree program or a creative or fine arts major? Why does each campus have its own distance learning program? Can’t that be consolidated? And why are we duplicating many of these programs within the community college system? It’s maddening!

Cynthia: Maddening is the “the University of Maine at Augusta, Bangor Campus.”

The formula for state universities is pretty simple: attract out-of-state kids who will pay full tuition, and use their money to subsidize in-state kids and to give grants to super-smart students who will raise the academic bar, that will attract brighter students, etc.

It’s the circle of college life.

To entice students from away, Maine colleges need vibrant campuses — Chipotle, Starbucks, and public transportation. Trust me, I know — my daughter’s a senior in high school applying to out-of-state colleges, and my son is a college sophomore in Rhode Island.

So, transfer credits? Sure. Consolidate? Absolutely. It’s silly to have seven universities with 14 campuses, plus dozens of outreach centers and learning sites for only 40,000 enrolled students.

The real political questions is, will Republicans in rural areas don their “fiscally conservative” hats and support consolidation and reform, even if it means closing campuses in their districts?

Mike: Wait a second — parochialism knows no particular party. The hue and cry about cuts to USM are coming from Portland. Not exactly a bastion of Republicanism.

But the vibrancy of the local town does not a college make. Some students want overpriced coffee, others want overpriced education in pristine settings. See, for example, the College of the Atlantic. Bar Harbor is a nice town, but it is pretty quiet in January.

And before I get attacked by all Chellie Pingree’s fellow alumni, most education is overpriced — tuition is one of the few areas outpacing medical inflation.

Yet we’ve left my original question behind. What should Augusta do about it? Should the Legislature make some of these decisions and dictate to the system? Or should they just throw more money at it since that will help mitigate the need to make tough choices?

Cynthia: My fellow Mainer, ask not what Augusta can do for the University, ask what the University can do for Augusta. It is the brain trust of well-paid public servants, right?

To answer your question more directly, “Augusta’s” role is to appropriate money for a higher education model that serves the public interest, period. The governor and lawmakers shouldn’t enable those who seek to balkanize the system for self-preservation by making the issue a partisan one, or a parochial one.

A good first question for any focus group tasked with figuring out how the University can survive might be, “how many university spokesmen with salaries greater than $100,000 should it take to change a light bulb?”

Mike: Or we could ask why the Dean of the Law School makes more than the Chief Justice of the Law Court. Or plot each faculty member’s instructional credit hours against their salary and see what type of return we are getting. The questions and analysis are endless, although the money is not. And therein lies the challenge.

For better or worse, the university and community college systems are creations of the Legislature. Legislators and governors are elected to decide what, exactly, serves the “public interest.” Therefore, they are an essential part of the solution, whatever it may be.

Yet that solution necessarily will include the trustees of both systems, and it is a governor’s prerogative to make those nominations. Will your side of the aisle reject partisanship and fairly consider — as you did — Governor-Re-Elect LePage’s nominees to the boards? Or are we going to face a standstill on moving reform forward because of politics?

Cynthia: When it comes to people dependent on public coffers, it’s much easier throwing poor people under the bus than well-heeled bureaucrats holed up in remote offices, isn’t it? Why no shame-game for those at the top?

Affordable, quality, public education is a pillar of the Democratic Party, but we aren’t miracle workers. We can’t force-feed smart, innovative policies on a party in power dead-set against good ideas coming from the outside.

Both Mike Michaud and Eliot Cutler’s proposals make a lot of sense. The governor? He wants to punish struggling high schools that pass along students unprepared for college, and sell student loans to employers in exchange for tax breaks.

Reducing taxes that could support public education while withholding money from failing high schools sounds like a circle of college death.

If Augusta must act, it’s up to the governor to lead, and it’s going to take more than throwing the word “liberal” around and harping on welfare.