Trustees of UMaine System accept plan to save $42.8M

Posted Nov. 16, 2009, at 9:41 p.m.

BANGOR, Maine — The University of Maine System board of trustees is hoping the introduction of a three-year baccalaureate program, an increase in online students, and other measures meant to raise revenues and cut costs can help overcome a projected $42.8 million shortfall in the next four years.

Those were some of the ideas included in the long-term report assembled by UMaine System Chancellor Richard L. Pattenaude which the trustees who oversee the seven-campus system unanimously voted Monday morning to accept and implement.

Without taking action, a $42.8 million gap between expenses and available revenues would have developed by 2013, with a likelihood that it would grow in later years, Pattenaude said. To avoid the shortfall, tuition increases totaling $3 million to $5 million were built into the plan, Pattenaude said.

“The tuition [increase] is not to exceed 6 percent per year, and hopefully it would be less,” Pattenaude said.

Pattenaude’s report, “New Challenges, New Directions Initiative — The University of Maine System and the Future of Maine,” includes 37 actions designed to fill the gap which system officials have said is the result of declining enrollment and state appropriations and the global economic meltdown.

“It’s not a document that’s going to be static or going to be stale. It’s going to change with time,” said board Chairman Lyndel “Joe” Wishcamper, who participated in the bimonthly board of trustees meeting by teleconference from his home in Freeport, where he is recuperating from a medical procedure.

“I’m also confident that this is not a report that’s going to be placed on the shelf, the way that a lot of reports find their fate,” he added. “The next phase now is the implementation phase and as you can imagine, the success of dealing with these issues depends upon the implementation.”

The “New Challenges, New Directions” report is the result of a process Pattenaude initiated in January. It highlights several new initiatives that will be implemented as soon as next fall.

One of those is the three-year baccalaureate program, which the report claims will save students time and costs. The program will include regular courses, an expanded summer course schedule and online classes. The target date for implementation is next fall.

The report also calls for doubling to more than 1,000 the number of students enrolled in online programs, with a target start date of next fall.

“New Challenges, New Directions” also seeks to increase by 20 percent the number of graduates from nursing and health programs to fill a statewide shortage in those jobs. An implementation plan is expected by the end of March 2010.

Campus enrollment officers and chief financial officers also will conduct a study of markets, strategic pricing and financial aid, with recommendations expected by March 1, 2010.

“I think we’re going to lift up revenue generation a little more aggressively than we have in the original thinking,” Pattenaude said. “We’ll be moving more quickly into cost-saving methodology such as centralizing purchase functions so it will add some urgency. We’ll have to do, perhaps, things a little more aggressively than we intended.”

Long-term goals include a plan to define the role and scope of each campus, which has a target end date of June 2011.

The report also calls for containing the cost of compensation and benefits to save $13.8 million in four years; examining academic programs and courses with low enrollment — an effort already under way around the system — to save an estimated $2 million over the next four years; and fine-tuning student-faculty ratios to save a projected $6 million to $8 million.

Pattenaude presented to the board in September a draft version of the report. The final version has a number of changes, including some that came as a result of feedback that Pattenaude and the trustees heard from eight public sessions at system campuses.

The most significant change may be in the implementation of a strategic investment fund, which will set aside $1 million in stimulus funds this year and $1.7 million next year from the state appropriation for campus projects such as increasing degree production, improving student retention and increasing competitive grants.

“We can’t cut our way to health,” Pattenaude told the trustees. “We have to be very cost-efficient, but we also have to grow.”

The draft version of “New Challenges, New Directions” called for a $5.4 million investment. Pattenaude said the reduction was a result of public comments recommending the fund be phased in slowly.

Norman Fournier, vice chairman of the board of trustees, said he was pleased the fund remains in the final plan.

“I’m glad to see we’re sticking to our guns to some extent,” he said. “It’s not [$5.4 million] but at least it’s a little bit to move the system forward, to look at things differently, to look at new things. It’s going to be challenging, but I think we need to move forward.”

The University of Maine faculty senate, however, issued a resolution last week that called such a fund and other expenses in Pattenaude’s plan “unconscionable.”

Robert Rice, UMaine professor of wood science, told the trustees Monday they should postpone expenditures until revenues are stable.

“It makes little sense to take the taxpayers’ money and redirect it to one-time research-type projects with limited accountability or to use it to purchase additional software to replace existing functions, with little immediate tangible benefit,” said Rice, who served on a “New Challenges, New Directions” task force earlier this year which submitted a round of recommendations to Pattenaude.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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