ORONO, Maine — Faculty, staff and students at the University of Maine had a chance Monday afternoon to hear directly from the man who has proposed a plan they fear will centralize some functions in the University of Maine System office or other campuses and pull resources away from the system’s flagship campus.
A standing-room-only crowd of around 250 people gathered at the Wells Conference Center to question Richard Pattenaude about “New Challenges, New Directions: Achieving Long-Term Financial Sustainability,” a plan he unveiled last month to stabilize the system’s financial health.
Pattenaude took more than 20 questions about the process by which the system is being examined, the possibility of certain university functions being centralized, the issue of retaining the identity of the university, and the potential impact on employees.
If nothing is done, Pattenaude said, the system would face a $42 million shortfall in the next four years. The University of Maine’s share would be $28 million to $30 million.
“This is a transparent process,” he said. “We shouldn’t do anything unless it saves money, makes sense or serves our students and our mission better. Does that mean we’re going to ask you to get out of your comfort zone? Well, it better, or you’re going to get a $30 million bill.”
One of the primary concerns among the group was the possibility that functions performed by the University of Maine will be centralized at either a different campus or in the system office.
“Systemwide services can be at a variety of levels,” Pattenaude said. “Sure, those folks have an enormous impact on campuses. But there is an implicit assumption that those folks are going to make damaging decisions. Implicit. Well, we try not to invest in stupid [ideas] too often. If something’s stupid, what I’ve learned is I will learn about it very quickly.”
Another concern brought up by several audience members was that the University of Maine, with the largest student body and most resources in the system, has the same voice as the smaller campuses in Machias and Fort Kent, especially when academic decisions are made systemwide.
“I’m trying to remember the last time the University of Maine was blocked in anything it really wanted to do,” Pattenaude said after a few seconds of applause directed at the questioner. “Proportional governance at a president’s or chief academic officer’s level is implicit simply in the respect given to the institution and the weight to its importance. … I came from a large campus. I understand the question very clearly. I spent 16 years in that environment and never felt the need for proportional representation.”
Another person questioned the growth over the years of both the system and chancellor’s offices themselves, and wondered how much of the total systemwide budget has been spent on that expansion. Pattenaude said he has reduced operating costs, but there has been growth because of the staff needed to operate PeopleSoft, the central computing system.
There also was considerable concern about keeping research money in Orono. Pattenaude said he expects the task force that has been put together under part of the “New Challenges, New Directions” plan will examine the mission of each campus and reaffirm UMaine’s role in research and graduate studies.
“This is the research university of the University of Maine System,” he said. “This is a place that is essential to the development of the state.”
One undergraduate student told Pattenaude that students were financially “worn down” and worried that if savings cannot be achieved, the cost would be passed on to them.
Patrick Spinney, an Eastport native who is working on his Ph.D. in engineering, said he still hasn’t heard all the details he wanted to hear about the plan.
“[Pattenaude] has an explanation for that, which is in the past people have put forward plans that were shot full of holes,” Spinney said after the meeting. “He’s trying to be more vague. My concern is with the projected shortfall, whether the whole administrative savings is sufficient. I haven’t seen any numbers.”
Pattenaude gave the audience his e-mail address (firstname.lastname@example.org), encouraging contact with him. He had other meetings Friday in Orono with senior staff, faculty and the board of visitors.
The chancellor plans to hold similar sessions at the six other system campuses.