University Opportunity

Posted Sept. 18, 2009, at 5:52 p.m.

Faced with a $43 million funding shortfall through 2013, the University of Maine System has taken deliberate, thoughtful and logical steps toward closing the gap. A task force studied the system for six months, an effort that included hosting hearings around the state, and then issued its recommendations. Those recommendations have informed Chancellor Richard Pattenaude’s report, released earlier this week.

The report calls for eliminating classes with low enrollments, cutting employee compensation and benefits, centralizing administrative functions and using “distance learning” more frequently.

Though it may seem like a discussion topic tagged onto the list of money-saving measures, the key point may be the report’s call to create a “public agenda,” or systemwide mission statement aimed at enrolling and graduating more Maine students while boosting the state’s economy.

Chancellor Pattenaude understands the problems that face the system in this fiscally constrained era. He described the plan to bridge the funding gap as “bold,” but a frank self-assessment of the system — with key outside analysis — would be bolder still. It’s become a cliche of our times, but the system’s financial challenge is an opportunity to remake the building blocks that form this far-flung educational system.

The system has evolved in recent years to meet the changing educational needs of Mainers, and for this it is to be commended. There are smoother transitions for students within the system, better defined niches for the campuses and more of a focus linking education to the 21st century economy. The mission statement could drive more movement along these paths. Along with polishing what works, some programs must be jettisoned and some bureaucracies must be streamlined, even if it means making changes to long-standing campus traditions.

The chancellor suggests such changes in the report, noting: “The University of Maine System must play a critical role in providing opportunity for personal success by serving more students more efficiently, strengthening a state economy increasingly based on knowledge, research, and high-level skills, and supporting a society that depends on a well-informed and engaged citizenry. To be successful we must work together as a system rather than as a collection of seven separate universities.”

His report also cites the task force’s call for the system to “act as a union not a confederation,” and “to … provide focus, quality, and consumer-friendliness to the system.”

It won’t be easy.

Although the system relies on state subsidies like Maine’s K-12 schools, it has something local schools do not — the ability to raise tuition. But, tuition hikes cannot be the choice the system makes to avoid making difficult cuts. Each of the seven campuses functions in its host community the same way a hospital or other large nonprofit organization does: as an economic driver. Decisions made at the system level can have devastating effects on the host communities, particularly at the smaller campuses.

But above all, the good of the union, to use the language from the task force report, must prevail. That means difficult and unpopular decisions will have to be made.

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