FORT KENT, Maine — The chairman of a task force charged with finding $42 million in savings in the University of Maine System’s budget reiterated Wednesday that the panel is operating under the assumption that the seven campuses of the system will remain — including the University of Maine Fort Kent campus.
Still, in the wake of comments made last week to the task force during a public meeting on the UMaine flagship campus in Orono, the buzz around UMFK is that the northernmost school in the UMaine System will be closed. One speaker said during a similar public meeting at UMFK Wednesday afternoon that the possibility has led to students already thinking about transferring elsewhere.
“I’m of course very sorry to hear that,” task force chairman David Flanagan said in response to the comment made by Angela Theriault of the academic services department.
The New Challenges, New Directions task force has been traveling to the system campuses to take public comment, which it will use in making its recommendations on the future structure and functions of the system to UMaine Chancellor Richard L. Pattenaude and the campus presidents.
Some speakers in Orono had told the task force that the staggering $42 million shortfall estimated over the next four years could only be dealt with by closing some of the smaller campuses. The campus in Fort Kent wasn’t named that day, but it is one of the smallest in the system.
Flanagan and five other task force members heard from faculty and students about the concerns for UMFK’s future as they faced a standing-room-only crowd in a conference room in Nadeau Hall on Wednesday.
“As a task force, we know that you’re in a tough position and you really can’t defend every campus from some of the statements that were made,” said John Murphy, the UMFK vice president for administration. “But as a task force, we’re hoping you will assist us in educating the rest of the state on the importance of the seven campuses. Although we don’t expect you to defend us, we do expect you to rebut any misinformation that may be floating around as a result.”
Flanagan told the crowd that he made a statement regarding the task force’s assumption of seven campuses at the outset of last week’s Orono meeting.
“We responded [to comments in Orono] that our mandate was to look at a solution to the structural deficit that preserved the seven campuses,” Flanagan said. “I don’t know how to be clearer than that.”
Several people who spoke Wednesday questioned the number of administrators and salaried employees at the Orono campus and told the task force they were discouraged by what they see as Orono’s unwillingness to cooperate with the smaller campuses.
“The system needs to act like a system and encourage competition, but discourage one campus from trying to dominate over the others,” said Joseph Becker, an English professor.
“I’ll bet you that within the larger campuses you could find significant savings just by [looking at] how [some employees] justify their existence,” said Roger Roy, an associate mathematics and business professor. “What value do they add to their particular campus? Those numbers have grown and I’ll bet you there is significant savings there.”
Aside from comments about UMFK’s future, there were arguments for and against centralizing aspects of the system, which has been another hot-button issue in other public sessions with the task force and Pattenaude himself.
Some areas in which speakers said UMFK could use centralized help are in facilities management and marketing and advertising for the system in Maine and the nation.
Other speakers suggested the community college system should be included in a centralization plan, especially because some of the community colleges have teamed up with private institutions. Leslie Guerrette, assistant director of finance, said she is currently in a master’s program through private Husson University with classes held at Northern Maine Community College in Presque Isle.
“Why am I doing that? Because I want a graduate degree in business, and I can’t get it through the UMaine System unless I take everything online,” she said. “And I don’t want to. I like to sit in class, learn from my classmates and have a real class experience. I’m an example of the tuition dollars we’re losing.”
Nathan Knight, one of a few students in attendance, said the smaller campuses are places for students from small towns to get an education and succeed. That characteristic of the school should be a way to recruit and maintain students, he said.
“It’s not a school, it’s a family,” said Knight, a Monson native studying education. “I know almost everyone in here by name and that’s more helpful than you can ever imagine, and that’s how we’re going to keep students in the system.”
The task force will hold a similar meeting on the University of Maine Presque Isle campus starting at 9 a.m. today in the Allagash Room in the Campus Center. The task force will be at University of Maine Machias at 9 a.m. Friday in Kimball Hall.