Educated Cutting

Posted May 07, 2010, at 6:23 p.m.

The University of Maine’s well-debated plan to reduce expenses by $12.5 million to close a revenue gap better positions the university for the changing role our public university system’s flagship campus will play in the 21st century. But it does not achieve the fuller prioritization — and corresponding budget cuts and reallocation — that only an outsider could complete. It also does not include the cross-campus collaboration that is needed if Maine is to continue to justify a university system, which is more of a failing of the chancellor’s office than the Orono campus.

The process that led to the plan was deliberate and based on a necessary review of courses and majors with few students. It identified long-standing academic areas whose importance had not been questioned for many years. Some of these areas ultimately survived the administration’s scalpel, which is not necessarily because of a lack of will, but because strong arguments were made in favor of retaining them. Among them are the French and Spanish majors.

Falling to the downsizing are German and classics majors, and majors in women’s studies and theater. The department of public administration also will be gone from the Orono campus, and degree programs in aquaculture, wood science, forest operations and forest ecosystems science also will change or be eliminated.

University officials stress that students currently enrolled in those major programs will be able to complete them, and that even though some majors have been cut, classes will continue to be available in those subject areas.

University officials maintain that the programs that will be eliminated were and are valuable, but the prioritization process necessitated their being cut. And by examining its offerings with more than an eye for academic value but in terms of priority, the University of Maine has taken an important step. It has shown that it understands the leaner future all institutions relying on public financing face.

While higher education operates in a realm that traditionally has been removed from the rigors of cost-benefit analysis, state-funded colleges and universities now must regularly undertake these sorts of looks in the mirror. Courses that are in demand among students and employers should be expanded. Those that are not must be scrutinized; that is not to say that any course area not tied to a job sector or student demand must go, but someone must make a strong and convincing argument for its retention.

The university’s plans to recombine some programs to create new academic core areas is an exciting byproduct of its self-examination, and it has potential to grow revenue and help boost Maine’s economy. The new division merging programs tied to nursing, food science and human nutrition, social work and biomedical related areas is especially high in such promise.

Cuts in administrative, employee compensation and extracurricular cost centers are usually more popular with those not enamored of higher education and with university boosters alike. That’s why these cuts to the university’s core mission — academics — have been difficult.

But continuing to understand that it cannot be all things to all students, and knowing that tuition hikes are not the budget-balancing default, the University of Maine can flourish in the new economic reality. If it perseveres on the path of self-examination, it can emerge stronger and more self-reliant.

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