University of Maine preparing for the future

Posted May 05, 2010, at 5:38 p.m.

Rahm Emanuel, if he truly was the source, did us no favors when he came up with the now-hackneyed phrase “never waste a crisis.” That advice has been used to describe all manner of public discourse over the past many months, with varying degrees of applicability.

While I’ve never thought the University of Maine was in a crisis, we certainly face our share of challenges. Like every other public university, we are adjusting course based on new realities. The 1990s, when the state funded nearly 70 percent of our budget, are gone. The value of our endowments is climbing again, but there’s no certainty relative to financial markets, as we learned through hard experience.

While public higher education continues to be a great value, we must always be mindful of our fundamental commitment to providing access to those who are prepared and willing to work their way to a brighter future through a university education and a university experience.

Against that backdrop, the University of Maine has continued to thrive in many ways. Two undergraduate students were accepted to Tufts Medical School recently — after completing their sophomore years at UMaine. Two earth sciences majors spent last August collecting ice core samples on the Greenland ice sheet, contributing to critical climate change research. An alumna recently won a Pulitzer Prize, and a UMaine professor is pioneering the development of deep offshore wind power technology that could revolutionize Maine’s economy. Examples like these surround us every day.

At the same time, we have endured a long, difficult but transparent and inclusive process leading to my Tuesday announcements relative to UMaine’s academic program. The news that we are suspending and discontinuing certain programs is made no less painful by the knowledge that universities all over the U.S. are doing the same thing.

Our faculty has shown tremendous leadership during this process, providing the wisdom, insight and commitment that serve as the foundation for all decisions related to managing these issues. Student and public feedback have also been instrumental, demonstrating the deep compassion so many have for the University of Maine.

While it has been difficult and I regret the toll on the individuals affected, we had no choice but to pursue a series of changes that will create the opportunity for measured, appropriate reinvestment in areas of greatest strength and relevance over time. We owe it to our students — now and in the future — and to all the residents of Maine to create a sustainable budget structure.

That is really the point. UMaine is not going away, and it is not shrinking from its vital and unique statewide mission. It remains Maine’s largest university, and its most comprehensive educational institution. It offers a combination of quality and value that is unmatched in Maine and only rivaled by the best of this country’s public universities.

Our adjustments go far beyond program suspension and elimination. They include streamlining programs, deliberately creating collaborations that will enhance opportunities while saving money. We are also committed to mitigating budget reductions by maximizing every resource at our disposal.

We’re calling this series of initiatives UMaine 150. By the time they are fully implemented, the university will be on the doorstep of its sesquicentennial. That milestone event will cause people all over Maine and beyond to reflect on UMaine and its impact on their lives.

We want those reflections to be proud ones, and we aim to make sure they include the confident belief that the university continues to be on the right track, optimally serving its students and its state while maintaining the capacity to adjust to emerging needs and opportunities. The people of Maine expect and deserve that from their flagship university.

Thanks to the introspective process we have completed, UMaine is ready to accept that challenge and it is poised to begin its second 150 years strong, resolute and prepared for a future that will most certainly be as bright as its storied past.

Robert A. Kennedy is president of the University of Maine. More information about UMaine’s academic reorganization and its UMaine 150 plan is online at www.umaine.edu/umaine150.

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