BANGOR, Maine — The work of a task force looking into the future structure of the University of Maine System ratcheted up last week when three of the group’s subcommittees presented preliminary recommendations and heard tough talk from consultants.
The “New Challenges, New Directions” task force report presented preliminary recommendations in a May 20 meeting, a sign the group is beginning the process of putting together their final report, which is expected to be released in early July.
Task force members were reminded of their critical role Wednesday when a consultant told them their findings and recommendations — the acceptance or rejection of which will be decided by the UMS board of trustees — could shape public perception of the system.
Aims McGuinness, a senior associate for the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems, which is based in Boulder, Colo., said the task force is facing a challenge.
“I think the credibility of the University of Maine System is on the line here with the public,” said McGuinness, who was an executive assistant to the UMS chancellor in the early 1970s. “There should be no doubt that this system needs a public agenda, and [the system] has to have a capacity to align that agenda with your finance policy and your accountability policy, and to sustain it over a period of time.”
McGuinness and Dennis Jones, president of the national center, both met with the task force, which grew out of Chancellor Richard L. Pattenaude’s “New Challenges, New Direction: Achieving Long-Term Financial Sustainability” proposal.
The proposal seeks to deal with an estimated $42.8 million systemwide shortfall in the next four years.
Chancellor’s office changes
Pattenaude charged the “New Challenges, New Directions” task force with examining one of the proposal’s three arenas, “Structure and Governance,” which has to do with the system’s organizational and financial operation.
The other two arenas are “Administrative, Student and Financial Services,” and “Academic Programs and Services.” The “New Challenges, New Directions” task force, chaired by former Central Maine Power Co. president and UMS board of trustees chairman David Flanagan, is charged with addressing Arena Three.
A former president of the University of Southern Maine, Pattenaude knows the outcome of the task force could change his job description or even do away with his position, depending on what the task force recommends and what the trustees adopt. Pattenaude has been chancellor since July 2007.
“Personally, if that would be the best thing for the state of Maine, I’m OK with that,” Pattenaude said in an interview early last week. “This is not about job protection. This is about trying to create the best higher education system for Maine. I understood that was a risk when we began this process. But if you believe in higher education and want to build the system, you have to look at all options.”
A weak or eliminated chancellor’s office doesn’t seem to be the direction in which the task force is moving, however, based on preliminary recommendations.
Among those recommendations, according to a report presented by one of the task force’s three subcommittees, is a “strong, independent Chancellor with the authority to manage the direction and resources of the system and its seven universities.”
That subcommittee also recommended the chancellor’s office be based in Augusta, rather than its location on Central Street in Bangor, so the chancellor can focus on the system’s relationship with the Legislature and governor and implementing a public policy agenda for higher education.
McGuinness endorsed that idea.
“The leadership of this system needs to be seen in a balanced way dealing with all regions and parts of the state,” he said. “Being housed in downtown Bangor is just about as deadly as being housed in downtown Portland. … You need to be in Augusta essentially because it is a place responsible for looking at all parts of Maine.”
Staffing for the chancellor’s office, the committee recommended, should be reviewed and reconfigured to align with the office’s role, and funding should be based on state appropriations, not funds from the system’s seven campuses.
Another subcommittee also endorsed a move for the chancellor’s office to Augusta.
That subcommittee also recommended a common academic calendar and a unified general education curriculum across the campuses.
That would remedy comments the task force heard during public forums about the difficulties of students transferring between campuses and of different academic calendars that make it difficult to coordinate some activities.
Other recommendations included the re-establishment of associate degree programs, a study of state educational needs to both develop a public agenda and also examine low-enrollment classes and programs on all academic levels, the strengthening of summer programs and a faculty exchange between campuses.
The third subcommittee looking into finances presented a report but did not offer preliminary recommendations.
While the Arena Three task force is seeking to address strategic planning for what Pattenaude hopes will be years to come, the looming fiscal year 2010, which begins July 1, is of immediate concern.
Around the system, officials are expecting layoffs as the campuses seek to balance their budgets. The flagship UMaine campus in Orono announced recently it will make cuts that will affect 140 positions, including 32 layoffs.
Layoff numbers could grow or shrink depending on the status of the economy and the system’s investments, the state appropriation in the upcoming year, fall enrollment numbers, and how the task force’s recommendations are implemented.
“Layoffs are always the last thing you do, …” Pattenaude said. “We’ll just have to wait to see how the budget plays out. [There are] lots of variables.”
In the past 18 months, Pattenaude said, the system office budget has been cut by $1 million through layoffs and cuts in outlays for memberships, travel, equipment, program money and consultants. The system office will not take stimulus funds, he added.
Four positions were eliminated in the central office, including a receptionist’s position and the department of external affairs and the position of director of external affairs, held by longtime UMS employee John Diamond, a former House majority leader and the chairman of the Bangor Region Chamber of Commerce board of directors.
“We have been doing your basic shrinking, turning over every stone, looking at saving dollars, making some very difficult decisions such as external affairs,” Pattenaude said.
Pattenaude said central office staffers are chipping in to fill the holes, with a rotating schedule of staffers who sit at the reception desk, doing their own work while answering the phones.
Pattenaude has not had a raise on his $220,000 salary since 2007 and other senior salaries also have held steady. Some senior staffers, including Pattenaude, also worked days without pay this year to try to ease the immediate budget crunch.
These issues are nothing new for any institution, Pattenaude said, and they’re happening nationwide, with some public systems in much worse condition. The volatility of the current situation is, however, unprecedented in Pattenaude’s experience.
“Compared to any time since I’ve been here, month to month [the changes] are more volatile,” Pattenaude said. “Whether it’s investment income, state revenues, people deciding to go to college, people choosing to go part-time instead of full-time, these are all impacted by the economy. It has a ripple effect.”