The University of Maine System board of trustees recently received three reports summarizing the work of groups recommending comprehensive systemwide reform.
There is no doubt that Maine public higher education, as currently constituted, is neither sustainable nor efficient. Reform is both necessary and overdue.
This commentary focuses on the report of the New Directions, New Challenges task force, which examined structure and governance. In addition to its failure to identify any real costs savings, the task force did not properly address certain fundamental issues, especially the system office that has been burgeoning out of financial control for several years due to centralization of services brought in by former Chancellor Joseph Westphal.
The task force report points out some of the strengths that do exist in Maine’s university system, which has received its share of praise during its 40 years in existence. One of those strengths is the system’s structures that allow the committed faculty to maintain responsibility for the education our students receive. We, at the University of Maine, know that the faculty at the other system universities are as deeply committed to these bedrock academic principles as we are. Because of that fundamental role we play in university life, we feel a real responsibility to offer our perspectives on the proposed changes and to recommend different approaches in the best interests of current and future students.
The task force stated that there is no reason to change the governance structure, claiming that the existing system has not been adequately used. In fact, although several experts suggested to the task force that other models would be more effective, there is little evidence in the written record that the task force actually discussed any other models of structure. We recommend that the task force more seriously look at successful, cost-effective models used by other states, rather than remain with a failed status quo. Continuing with the current system will soon disrupt the integrity and quality of the students’ education
The task force compares the present model to Maryland, which has used three different models in the past 10 years and is having difficulties now. We need to consider other possibilities, such as those centering on one or two hubs with the smaller units integrated into the larger campuses. Pennsylvania, though a wealthier state, uses this model to reduce the number of individual campus presidents and eliminate a stand-alone system office as a means of cost reduction and better integration into the ongoing business of education. Minnesota uses a similar model that is quite effective and equitable to the all units of the system. The Connecticut model locates the land grant campus separately from the other state universities and treats them equitably.
The Maine system continues to limp along with less than 30 percent of expenditures going toward the most important mission: instruction of students. All the governance models cost valuable education dollars, but some, such as our current system’s, cost more than others. Before academic programs are eliminated, threatening the educational opportunities for all Maine residents, we need a serious study of how the system might be run much more efficiently. When programs are eliminated, student opportunities are limited and the scholarship and research associated with those programs disappear, closing the doors to a better future for Maine residents.
Maine can no longer afford a university system mired in a failed model of stand-alone, central services and resource-starved programs. We need to explore other, more efficient structures before hampering the quality of instruction.
The faculty senate of the University of Maine appreciates the work the task force has done thus far, but we assert that it has fallen far short of the goal to create recommendations that will truly improve the structure and governance of the system.
Judy Kuhns-Hastings, an associate professor of nursing, is president of the faculty senate at the University of Maine. Michael Grillo, an associate professor of history of art, is the president-elect.