Ending UMS Inertia

Posted June 26, 2009, at 7:33 p.m.

A task force report on the University of Maine System offered some strong, but needed, medicine in its draft report this week. It criticized the system for its costly “internecine competition,” a laissez-faire attitude that allowed campuses to do what they want and for lacking a plan that aligns the system’s priorities with the state’s economic development strategy. While work to improve these and other areas is overdue, looking at the university system in isolation and requiring that it maintain its current structure ensures that this work is only partially successful.

The core theme of the group’s report is that the system and its seven campuses must remake themselves and change how they interact to survive the financial difficulties that are likely to persist for some time. The system is expected to have a nearly $43 million shortfall in the next four years.

“The current structure is one where the campuses are forced to deal with each other as competitors rather than collaborators, in an expensive zero-sum game,” the task force concluded. “The system tends to repose in inertia, or to move forward by the uncoordinated initiatives of individual campuses, rather than by explicit policy decisions.”

As a result, the report says, the system has an agenda that rightly focuses on student success, research and development and financial sustainability, but is not connected to the state’s economic development goals and does not reflect the state’s economic challenges. Its budget is based on continuing what happened in previous years without an evaluation of what students want and the state economy requires. Campuses don’t trust one another or routinely collaborate. Instead, they compete for students and funds, resulting in “expensive internecine competition” that the state can ill afford.

In one of the worst examples of the system’s shortcomings, students still have difficulty, 40 years after the system was formed, transferring credits from one campus to another.

All of these things must change. Although the task force recommends some specific fixes, such as having campuses specialize rather than offering overlapping majors and increasing systemwide services, the larger problem facing the university is the inertia mentioned by the group. It will be difficult for campuses to shrink their missions or stop doing work that may more efficiently be done by another campus.

This is where the chancellor and the board of trustees, who could have made many of these changes years ago, must stand firm, while also realizing that the campuses are not interchangeable. The University of Maine, with its expanding research and development enterprises and numerous graduate programs, shouldn’t be expected to operate under the same financial model as a campus that offers only associate and bachelor’s degrees.

It is also where entrenched political interests can short circuit needed reform. Angry at a proposal to merge the administration of the three smallest campuses, lawmakers two years ago passed legislation requiring that the university system’s seven campuses stay open and separate. This has forestalled needed discussion of alternative higher education structures.

The same resistance can’t be allowed to stall the changes, both local and systemwide, needed to ensure the university system can better serve students and the state as a whole.

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