As a 6-year-old child growing up in Freeport, Kathryn Ruth attended plenty of town meetings with her family. Those experiences stayed with her, Ruth said Thursday, and decades later she is in her eighth year as the town manager of Pittsfield.
Ruth’s career, which includes stints as a town employee in Hermon, Bowdoinham and Topsham, wouldn’t have proceeded without the education she received at the University of Maine’s department of public administration, she said.
That’s one of the reasons Ruth was surprised to learn that the department is being considered for elimination as part of a larger effort to trim the university’s budget.
“If not for this program I would not be a town manager today,” said Ruth, who holds both bachelor’s and master’s degrees in public administration from UM. “I really don’t know where people would go to get the appropriate background, the internships and just the basic skills, without this program.”
The elimination of the department was one of the recommendations that came out of an interim report released Wednesday by a university committee. The recommendations would trim $12.2 million from the academic affairs budget.
The department of public administration, which offers both bachelor’s and master’s degrees, is the only academic department that would be entirely eliminated if the committee’s recommendations hold up when UM President Robert Kennedy releases his final report in April.
The announcement Wednesday didn’t come as a surprise to department chairman G. Thomas Taylor. For the last few years, Taylor said, the university hasn’t filled retirement or other faculty vacancies in the department.
“[The administrators] want our lines,” Taylor said, using a term for faculty positions in a budget. “What they’re actually doing, I’m pretty sure, [is] the priorities here now are basically engineering, science, throw in some math and some new media. They want to take those programs to really high levels, so they want our slots to add on to that.”
In the committee’s recommendations, some science programs would be merged into others, and others would be reconstructed or streamlined. There was no mention of cuts to either mathematics or new media.
The Maine Town and City Management Association also is concerned about the possible elimination of public administration studies at UMaine.
Saco City Manager Rick Michaud, a past MTMCA president and UM graduate, heads a committee formed last October when he said worries about the program’s future first arose.
The committee wrote a report that called for consolidation of public administration programs in Orono, which would include moving to UMaine the University of Southern Maine’s Muskie School of Public Service, which offers a master’s degree in public policy and management.
“[Public management students] are provided with the tools and the training to enable them to work in this profession,” Michaud said. “I think that’s one of the reasons our local government is viewed so well in Maine. These managers have a tremendous influence on how local government functions. They’re prepared when they go out into the work force.”
Although Taylor said his department is among the smaller academic programs at UM, it has a statewide impact. Taylor estimated that in a given year half of the state’s municipal managers hold a UM public administration degree.
The public administration undergraduate major is the oldest of its kind in the country, said Taylor, who has been at UM since 1972. It was officially established in 1945 by professor Edward Dow.
Public administration itself is the study of the concepts, theories and principles of setting public policy in areas that include management, budgeting and finance, personnel, law, state and local government, health care, environmental policy and law enforcement.
Although many UM graduates have used their degrees as an entry point for municipal work, others have gone on to work as nonprofit administrators, in state or federal positions, or as hospital administrators.
That’s what UM graduate and Old Town native Dennis King did after earning his master’s degree in public administration. The former CEO of Acadia Hospital in Bangor, King is now the president and CEO of Spring Harbor Hospital in Westbrook.
Public administration “offers you flexibility through electives to pursue a number of fields, which would give you some degree of specialization,” said King, who was surprised by the UM committee’s recommendation. “I was able to stay in Maine and pursue this degree, and it prepared me for a career in health care administration. It has served a lot of other people in government, law, town management.”
Variations of UM’s offerings are available at other system campuses, said Jim Breece, the University of Maine System vice chancellor for academic and student affairs. He cited the Muskie School’s master’s program, and associate and baccalaureate degree programs in public administration at the University of Maine at Augusta.
Still, UM’s program would be a big loss.
“It’s a concern in that the program really focuses on public service endeavors,” said Bob Farrar, who earned both bachelor’s and master’s degrees in public administration from UM and is now Bangor’s interim city manager. “It would take away an opportunity for folks who are truly interested in pursuing public service as a career in the state.”