May 22, 2018
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Rebalancing UMS

Like state government, expenses at the seven-campus University of Maine System have long exceeded revenues, an unsustainable situation that has led to double-digit tuition increases and annual pleas for more money from Augusta. With the state facing its own gaping budget gap and families stressed by a recession, the university system must look internally to rebalance its budget.

Chancellor Richard Pattenaude, with the backing of the UMS trustees, has an ambitious plan (especially in its timing) to do this. It takes current cost cutting efforts to new levels while ensuring that the system’s seven campuses and central office work together. Its scope and expectations for quick action will make many uncomfortable, but the university system cannot continue on its current course.

At its core, Chancellor Pattenaude’s plan aims to cut nearly $43 million from the system budget in the next four years. Although this is a small reduction in the system’s overall budget, the changes that are necessary to achieve those savings may be profound.

For example, the chancellor has called for a review of all academic programs to eliminate duplication and underutilized programs. Courses with fewer than 12 students and programs with fewer than five graduates a year will get special scrutiny. This does not mean that they will be eliminated, which could hurt students, but that new approaches, such as combining courses across campuses, must be adopted to keep them viable.

The push to centralize back office services, such as finances, human resources and technology services, has already run into opposition at the University of Maine, where the faculty Senate last week passed a resolution warning that it would oppose the centralization of services at the system office. This is unfortunate because first, there has been no discussion of what shape such combined services would take and second, it is premature to assume the work would be done at the system office rather than at the campus level.

If the chancellor, trustees and task force appointed last week to gather information about better ways to organize the university system can’t openly propose ideas without them being voted down before the discussion begins, the process is doomed, which benefits no one.

As Chancellor Pattenaude said in presenting the plan to UMS trustees last month: “Change is necessary, but it must be sensible and fully support the many achievements made to date and must always benefit our students.” These are the right standards. Backed by the directive to listen to groups both inside and outside the university system, to look at models for university organization from other states and to improve relationships between the system campuses, the plan can succeed.

Without such a deliberative approach, across-the-board cuts, program eliminations and retirement incentives can cut university spending. The chancellor has chosen a more reasonable path for the cost-cutting work. In the end, some of the results may be the same — there will be fewer courses offered and fewer people employed — but the university system should be stronger and more focused.

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