ORONO, Maine — Allen Berger said last month he was surprised when he heard the University of Maine was considering some major cuts of its academic programs.
It was the proposed language study cuts — French, German, Latin and Spanish majors would be eliminated, with a lower level of instruction still offered — that were especially surprising to Berger, who is the vice president for academic affairs and provost at the University of Maine campus in Farmington.
In the last year Berger also has been serving as a co-chairman of the University of Maine System’s initiative on world languages. While Berger has been talking about ways to broaden language instruction, the state’s flagship public land-grant university was planning to cut back on its offerings.
“I think the planning heretofore has been relatively Balkanized, and I think we have an opportunity in our discussions about world languages to bring that planning to a new coordinated level,” Berger said, speaking at a UMS-sponsored conference on April 6. “My question is, how do we begin to put decisions on all of the campuses about foreign languages into a broader, system-level context, and ask questions about how we can share resources?”
Berger was referring to foreign languages, but his comments hit on a question many people around the system and the state have been asking during these tough fiscal times:
Were the proposed academic moves announced at UMaine — namely, the suspension of several liberal arts majors, the elimination of a whole department, and the merger of other majors and departments around the campus — made in consultation and coordination with other campuses in the system which are also making academic cuts to meet budget goals?
The short-term, immediate answer, said one UMaine System official, is no.
External economic forces of the last two years and the complexity of each campus’ system of shared governance played into much of what has happened recently across the system. The result was that each campus has made or is working on academic cuts on its own whether or not another campus in the system could serve affected students.
“Right now, we’re trying to get our house in order,” said Jim Breece, the UMaine System’s vice chancellor for academic affairs. “This recession came pretty quick and hard. Different campuses were in different economic climates, if you will. Some had declining enrollment, some didn’t. Some had to move much faster than others.”
Although the rollouts of academic cuts were done “out of necessity,” Breece said, the provosts have been made aware of what’s going on at each others’ campuses. There are also other ongoing systemwide initiatives similar to that of the world languages effort Berger is helping lead.
“There is a conversation that is occurring behind the scenes with the provosts, and we certainly are aware of programs that are being let go,” Breece said. “It’s just in the talking stage and there have been no decisions. But it’s a trying time economically.”
While some have questioned the individual nature of the UMaine System academic decisions, an official at the Association for Public and Land-grant Universities said UMS appears to be following the pattern of the many other university systems that are cutting their budgets and programs.
“Sometimes there’s coordination at the system level, but most often there’s relatively little coordination because systems are reluctant to second-guess what’s best for individual campuses,” said David E. Shulenburger, a former University of Kansas provost who is now the APLU’s vice president of academic affairs.
“I think all the schools are using [cuts] as an opportunity to get things right-sized, get their priorities in order,” he added. “For research universities such as your flagship campus, the cuts have been a little deeper than cuts elsewhere.”
The University of Maine’s academic prioritization plan, revealed for the first time March 24, had been in the works since last fall when President Robert Kennedy assembled the Academic Program Prioritization Working Group.
In light of an estimated $35-$40 million budget gap by Fiscal Year 2014, Kennedy’s charge for the group was to determine which of the university’s programs should be of the highest priority — and which were of lower priority.
Led by UMaine Senior Vice President and Provost Susan Hunter, the group was composed of seven faculty members — including the president and vice president of the Faculty Senate — three other administrators, four ex officio members, and a facilitator.
The group first worked together as a whole to come up with criteria for programs that could be merged, eliminated, downsized or repackaged in another form. Those criteria were released in January.
Following that effort, the deans of UMaine’s five colleges and other administrative members of the working group met to determine how those moves could be made within budget constraints.
The group released in March an interim report, which called for, among other things, the elimination of the language majors, some majors in the music program, the theater major, women’s studies major, and the elimination of the department of public administration. Those moves would mean a budget cut of nearly $12.3 million.
The faculty did not play a role in the second round of talks, but faculty members in the group were aware they would not participate — the working group’s interim report charged the deans and others with taking the next step.
Still, some attendees at a March 29 public forum questioned why there hadn’t been more faculty input. However, Hunter said she was pleased with the level of faculty involvement.
“There were seven faculty members and every college was represented, and two of the biggest colleges had two representatives,” she said. “One of the things that tends to happen is that people tend to not pay attention and read, and express themselves inaccurately.”
The working group’s final version of the report, released April 14, took the French, Spanish and the potentially affected music majors out of the equation. The report’s language was changed to reflect programs such as German, Latin, theater and women’s studies would be suspended rather than eliminated.
Kennedy announced earlier this week he agreed with a recommendation to scale back the breadth of cuts, including those to the languages.
The Gorham-based University of Southern Maine took a different route in its academic reorganization plan, which is expected to be approved later this month by the UMaine System board of trustees.
USM’s plan trimmed down its eight colleges to five, for a projected savings of $1.3 million, spokesman Bob Caswell said. The cuts were made to administration and no academic programs were eliminated.
In addition, USM has cut $3.6 million since Fiscal Year 2008, he added, on the nonacademic side of the university.
USM President Selma Botman said those kinds of changes could not have been made by the system.
“Organizational change is campus-specific,” she said. “Academic changes should be discussed in a systemwide manner. The question is, will students in Maine have access to programs? And that’s an important question to ask.”
Language as example
The prospect of losing the language majors at UMaine sparked a protest in the form of e-mails, calls and petitions. Now that Spanish and French have been saved, most of that outcry has abated.
However, the German and Latin majors will still be suspended, leaving a lower-level of instruction at UMaine. No other campuses will offer those majors. USM lists German and classical language minors for the current academic year.
The challenge is finding a system-wide balance for offering languages, according to Berger. The same could be said for any other program.
“It doesn’t make sense, clearly, for us all to try to support, say, a French major,” Berger said. “No single campus in our public system can cover the Earth. So how do we complement one another, and then how do we provide access? I don’t think we yet know the answer. I think that’s the next stage for discourse and planning in the university system.”
Berger and USM Provost Kate Forhan, who are working together on the system’s world language initiative, issued a report calling for potential collaborative strategies to share curricula throughout the system, increase enrollments and encourage world language study through at least the intermediate level.
The group reported the system should “avoid excessive duplication across the campus and establish centers of excellence.” The example of a center of excellence noted in the report is Berger’s own UM-Farmington, which has a 20-year history of teaching Chinese and participating in an exchange with a university in Beijing.
Other languages could get similar treatment. The report also calls for new approaches to encouraging language instruction from distance education to the use of native speakers.
German is a common target for academic budget-cutters across the country, Shulenburger said, as are programs such as the performing arts and women’s studies.
Whatever happens, Berger said, the system needs a strong language program that can help students after they graduate.
“There is legitimate concern about the place those programs will have in the future of the system,” he said. “If we can get more students language skills, we can send them for experiences abroad, and I think that serves the work force needs in Maine.”
Although Breece said the immediate needs of the system campuses have been pressing enough in the last two years to preclude more collaboration, there are ongoing systemwide initiatives in addition to world languages.
– Innovation engineering: The UMaine System’s goal is to implement the program, which is offered as a minor or graduate certificate in Orono, at the other campuses, other higher-education institutions, and the state’s K-12 schools.
– Nursing: The University of Maine Nursing Collaborative, made up of seven members from four campuses, is meeting to develop common approaches, identify each campus program’s strengths, needs and opportunities, and develop goals and objectives for the coming year.
– STEM: The Science, Technology, Engineering and Math initiative seeks to strengthen STEM programs within the system, which is experiencing declining graduate rates and low enrollments in areas such as physics, chemistry, computer information systems and engineering.
– Tourism and hospitality: UMaine’s Center for Tourism Research & Outreach suggests providing courses, degrees, concentrations and other opportunities to expose graduate and undergraduate students to job opportunities and also more extension services from the UMS campuses to tourism professionals.
Although most of the ideas in these initiatives are still in the discussion stage, Breece said system-wide coordination on a wider scale could grow in the future.
“The real coordination will come when things pick up and grow,” he said. “As the economy hopefully rebounds, we’ll look at how the seven universities work in a collaborative way that makes sense.”