Maine residents should be concerned about the University of Maine System’s self-study process. Final discussions on the chancellor’s implementation plan are under way and important issues are not being openly addressed. The people of Maine should insist that the board of trustees address several questions, including these:
• Does it make educational or economic sense for a public university system of only 24,000 full-time equivalent students to maintain a chancellor’s office and systemwide services of approximately 160 employees at an annual cost of more than $20 million?
• Have other states similar to Maine developed more effective, less costly structures that we can consider and model?
• Shouldn’t the trustees assess whether the University of Maine and the University of Southern Maine, with more than 70 percent of the system’s enrollment, can assume greater, if not total, responsibility for certain systemwide services? UMaine provided many of those services in the 1980s and 1990s, when enrollment was at levels similar to today. This could seriously reduce the cost of systemwide services.
Throughout the system’s self-study report, including associated workgroup reports, statements suggest major restructuring should be considered but the implementation plan does not include any such recommendations. For example, consider the following conclusion statement presented by the work group studying student service delivery: “It is very difficult to make substantial change without solving the fundamental issue of the expense and composition of the system.” The revenue enhancement work group reached this conclusion: “We find it unlikely that the Maine population base can sustain the yearly enrollment growth provided in the model necessary to sustain future revenue needs under the current organization of the University of Maine System.” These fundamental concerns must be addressed more fully.
The revenue enhancement work group also raised what its members determined to be the key question regarding the future of the University of Maine System: “Is the University of Maine System overbuilt in terms of spread of programs, provision of services, number of locations and competition for a necessary share of the Maine population?” This issue should be at the forefront of the trustees’ review.
The task force report released on July 7 addresses two critical issues: the composition and structure of the UM system. Ultimately, it recommends that neither the composition nor the structure should be changed. As it relates to composition, no one should quarrel with the conclusion that none of the campuses be closed. That is a given. However, the matter of structure should not have been dismissed so quickly, because it is the key issue that will ultimately determine the conditions under which all seven campuses will or will not succeed. As noted above, the two study groups addressed this issue, but their observations and conclusions are not reflected in the final report.
The current self-study is too far along to bring it to a halt and start over. However, it is not too late for the board of trustees to initiate a new study focused solely on the UM system structure and to put that study on a fast track. Priority should be given to carefully reviewing the structure of higher education public systems in states with populations and enrollments similar to Maine. I suggest creating a small group of three persons (perhaps two trustees and an experienced consultant with no preconceived notions about the UM system). None of the consultants involved in the current study should be used and, of course, no one associated with the university system, current or past, except those two trustees, should be involved. If the trustees begin immediately, a report could be presented to them no later than January 2010.
This course correction will require that the trustees step back, take a hard look at the realities of what is happening to the state budget and what other state agencies have already had to do by way of consolidation. However, the good news for UMS is that consolidation of the seven campuses into some new configuration will actually create stronger institutions that are better prepared to serve Maine people with higher-quality educational opportunity. Join me in urging that the board of trustees give serious consideration to moving in this direction.
Thomas D. Aceto is a former University of Maine faculty member and vice president who now serves on the University of Maine at Machias board of visitors.