System should drop chancellor’s office

Posted July 17, 2009, at 5:58 p.m.

I commend the University of Maine System board of trustees and chancellor for conducting a self-study designed to “craft a long-term approach to transforming our University System.” While the effort is laudable, the results fall short of the goal. The reports represent nothing more than moving deck chairs around while maintaining the status quo.

Many states are searching for ways to make public higher education more effective, efficient and affordable while others are well along in the process. I was surprised to note that the self-study identified two systems — Pennsylvania and Kentucky — which do not compare well to Maine at all. New Hampshire was also selected, which would be useful, but that comparison ignored the structure and operation of the states’ systems. My own research reveals two states that are truly similar and should be examined before the trustees close the book on this task.

Maine has approximately 1,316,500 residents and had an opening UMaine System enrollment of 32,608 students last fall. For those students, Maine has a chancellor’s office with vice chancellors, program directors and support staff and seven separate campus presidents all reporting directly and equally to the chancellor. Only the chancellor reports directly to the board of trustees.

Compare that with Montana, which has 967,500 residents and a fall 2008 opening enrollment of 38,724 students in its public university system. Montana has two universities, each with a president who supervises three smaller institutions: former state colleges. Both presidents report to the board of regents and there is no chancellor.

Idaho, with a population of 1,523,800 and a fall 2008 opening enrollment of 43,430 students, is organized very much like Montana but with three universities. Each university has a president who also supervises several regional centers and reports to the Idaho State Board of Education, which functions as a board of trustees. Idaho, like Montana, operates effectively without a chancellor’s office.

Larger states are also operating effectively without an intervening officer such as a chancellor. Consider Arizona, which has three public universities enrolling over 118,000 students. All three presidents report to the board of regents, and the collaboration among the three institutions is impressive, particularly in that each univer-sity supervises several small campuses throughout the state.

The question is obvious. If Montana, Idaho and Arizona can manage larger total enrollments than Maine’s without a chancellor’s office, why can’t we accomplish this and save most of the cost of operating such an office in the process? The solution is equally obvious, and it is also a route to greater collaboration among the cam-puses. We must give serious consideration to consolidating the seven system campuses into two institutions, both reporting to the board of trustees.

The people of Maine are receiving more than we deserve from our smaller campuses, which feature creativity and initiative. However, they are limited by the size of their enrollments, the number of full-time faculty they employ, their rural locations and limited facilities.

Using the Montana or Idaho models, just think of the amount of sharing and collaborating that would be possible if the four smallest campuses were truly campuses of the University of Maine? While each carries the University of Maine name, they are really University of Maine System campuses and not components of the state’s highly regarded comprehensive, land-grant, graduate and research university. With consolidation, these become an integral part of a university of 17,625 students where students at all five campuses could cross-enroll, faculty would have direct interaction with colleagues from their discipline, where purchasing, personnel and benefits management and all the other functions of academic programs, campus life and services could be shared.

The campus names could remain as they are. Having the Augusta campus become an integral part of the University of Southern Maine would consolidate the southern part of the state. That would give us an integrated system of two universities, each reporting directly to the board of trustees and eliminate what has become a costly and unnecessary function, the chancellor’s office.

Is this a reflection on the performance of the chancellor and his staff? Of course not. They are all good people performing well. But the reality is that they are really not necessary for Maine to have a first-rate, high-quality and efficiently operating higher education system.

The self-study appropriately urged greater collaboration among the seven institutions. What better way to facilitate that cooperation than through a process of consolidation? On April 14, Chancellor Pattenaude told the Legislature that “transformative change of our University System absolutely must occur in order to fulfill our mission in a financially sustainable manner.” There is absolutely nothing transformative in the self-study recommendations that we have seen to date. Those recommendations change nothing about the system structure and very little about the way we do business. It is not too late for positive, significant and substantial change to be presented that will truly make a difference to the people of Maine.

Thomas D. Aceto is a former University of Maine faculty member and vice-president who serves on the University of Maine at Machias board of visitors. He retired in 2002 after 11 years as a Massachusetts public college president.

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