Right Sizing Universities

Posted March 26, 2010, at 6:44 p.m.

The University of Maine System, like state government, has, over several decades, grown beyond its financial means. With a mandate from Chancellor Richard Pattenaude, the system’s seven campuses are in the midst of downsizing to get their expenditures in line with revenues.

This work involved difficult choices, and some will disagree with what is cut, but the “right sizing” is necessary. For more than a decade, university officials acted as if reduced state support for higher education was a temporary phenomenon and that if they made a few cuts around the edges, their campuses would muddle through until things got better.

The current recession has added pressure, but even before the downturn it was clear that universities and colleges across the country would face declining revenue. Those in Maine are not unique in cutting programs, merging colleges and seeking other ways to reduce costs.

The University of Maine, because it is the state’s flagship campus, has received the most attention for its work. Earlier this week, the Academic Program Prioritization Working Group released its recommendations after a seven-month review of academic departments to determine the school’s priorities to meet President Robert Kennedy’s charge that more than $12 million be cut from the academic budget by 2014. Other UM units are undergoing similar reviews to cut $25 million campuswide and will share their recommendations. After Faculty Senate review, President Kennedy will decide how the recommendations are implemented at UM, although program eliminations must be approved by the system’s board of trustees.

Because these savings must be found, those who object to the cuts proposed by the working group must propose alternatives that will result in the same spending reductions.

The working group recommends a reduction in undergraduate majors from 86 to 70. This will keep UM in line with its peer institutions nationally, which are also reducing majors.

Some of the majors that will be eliminated include foreign languages, theater and women’s studies, although courses will still be offered in these areas.

These programs and others that are recommended for elimination have value, but since the university can’t be everything to everyone, some offerings have to be cut. This is something the Legislature must keep in mind, as it has mandated the system’s structure and meddled in academic decisions — without backing up its actions with state funding. Using the number of students enrolled in courses and departments, along with the amount of revenue they generate, is a good yardstick for these decisions.

In addition, the university — mirroring the work world — is becoming more interdisciplinary. Majoring in finance, political science or education, while taking foreign language classes, may be a better approach for most students.

The working group also recommended the elimination of the campus’s department of public administration. This fits with the system’s move to consolidate these offerings at the University of Maine at Augusta, which is within miles of the State House.

Making funding and other decisions based on priorities, rather than which department lobbied the loudest or which programs influential alumni like, is long overdue at the state’s universities. It took a financial crisis to spur this work, but the decisions will set the Orono campus and others on a more sustainable path for the future.

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