Invest in education, not administration

Posted July 09, 2010, at 6:03 p.m.

As we approach the November elections, it may be useful to remember that investment in higher education is also a direct investment in economic development. And while economic development may require community college and university campuses throughout the state (in many parts of rural Maine, for example, a community college or a university campus is among the only engines for economic growth), this investment should not come at the expense of a strong research university on which future economic development also depends. Can we invest in a community college system and a seven-campus university system while still adequately funding a major research university?

Inadequate funding for public higher education is a national — not a local — problem. This offers Maine an unusual opportunity. If we are among the first states to find a way to make needed investments in higher education, Maine will be in the lead.

What are the possibilities? We know that additional investment in the university system cannot begin by raising taxes or tuition; both are already exorbitant. Other alternatives need to be considered. Here are four (since I know the University of Maine System best, I will focus on it):

1. As a start — and as a way of reversing a cycle of disinvestment — building a substantial endowment for public higher education should become a priority for the state as a whole. It should be a priority for the next governor. A realistic goal would be to raise $1 billion in 10 years as an endowment for student scholarships. The result, in itself, would not solve all funding issues, but it would constitute a substantial beginning.

2. Higher education in Maine is structured in silos and archaic fiefdoms. The silos are expensive to maintain, each having its own, demonstrably redundant administrative structure.

Substantial funds for reinvestment will begin to be found when the University of Maine System changes the way it is structured. A seven-campus system does not require seven universities and a chancellor’s office. When measured against cuts in academic programs throughout the University of Maine System, for example, the cost of the chancellor’s office — over $25 million a year — turns out to be at the expense of the academic mission — cuts in academic programs at the University of Maine average $6 million a year.

Should academic programs be sacrificed to support an added layer of administration? Is a chancellor’s office necessary? The fiscal crisis in the University of Maine System may not be due to inadequate funding but to a misallocation of available resources. In Pennsylvania and Minnesota, excellent multi-campus university systems are administered efficiently out of one campus. Why not in Maine?

3.If a seven-campus system does not need a chancellor’s office, neither does it need seven university presidents, provosts, etc. If the University of Maine’s Hutchinson Center were regarded as a separate campus, it would have the fourth largest enrollment of any campus in the system, but it is efficiently run by a single administrative director. This could be a model for other campuses in the system so long as their regional missions and campus communities were fully protected.

4. Silos now structure each campus as well. Not every discipline needs a department. And do departments need to exist in separate colleges? How much money could be saved in the liberal arts at the University of Maine, for example, if there were not an average of one administrative department at a cost of between $50,000 and $60,000 for every 11 faculty? Funds spent on obsolete silos are not thoughtful investments.

An additional endowment for student scholarships should not be controversial. Dismantling the silos could be wrenching for ingrained campus cultures, but for those who prefer things as they are, it may be worth recognizing that the status quo is a process of sustained decline. This will also lead inevitably to wrenching change, but it will not reflect courageous leadership.

Tony Brinkley is a former chairman of the English department at the University of Maine. He is the senior faculty associate at the university’s Franco-American Centre.

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