AUGUSTA, Maine — The chancellor of the University of Maine System announced Wednesday a new partnership with Maine businesses designed to double the number of graduates in computer and information sciences over the next four years.
Richard Pattenaude announced the formation of the University-Business Information Technology and Computer Science Partnership in his State of the University address to the Legislature.
“Maine business leaders are concerned about the number of computer science, information science and information management graduates coming out of our universities,” he told lawmakers. “These graduates are particularly critical because in this information age and in our changing economy, these skills are essential to all businesses — small and large, north and south, current and emerging.”
The chancellor said that some of the state’s large employers — including Wright Express, Hannaford, TD Bank, Unum, Idexx and Maine Medical Center — expect to see a significant shortfall of Maine graduates with degrees in computer science, information science and information management as their organizations grow and as employees retire.
“A rough estimate is that we will have to double the number of graduates from the current 50 to 60 per year to meet the long-term needs,” Pattenaude said. “If we don’t, it will stifle business expansion and will negatively impact business location decisions. And it will constrain business activity statewide.”
Pattenaude said the concern was raised by Mike Dubyak, president and CEO of Wright Express, a technology-intensive company with more than 500 Maine employees. Dubyak will co-chair the effort to implement a plan this fall to double the number of graduates in the field.
“UMS has computer science or information technology programs on five of our seven campuses,” the chancellor continued. “Much good work is being done. We are told that our graduates are of high quality, but there just aren’t enough of them.”
Pattenaude said the system would be working with high schools to recruit students interested in computer technology into programs on campuses in Orono, Fort Kent, Augusta, Farmington and Portland. Campuses at Machias and Presque Isle do not have IT programs, the chancellor said after his speech.
“We’re going to be looking at creating some specialized scholarships to attract more students into the programs, evaluating reallocating funds internally and asking for support from business,” he said in a telephone interview.
Pattenaude also told lawmakers that the system has made great strides in cutting back expenses to help offset a $43 million deficit brought on by the now-recovering economy. Although it has become more efficient, the seven-campus system still lacks sufficient funding, the chancellor said.
More than two years ago, in the midst of the recession, the university system came out with a financial projection showing that unless it changed how it did business, it would face a $43 million shortfall over four years, Pattenaude said. In response, the university trustees approved a strategy called New Challenges, New Directions.
“Like many businesses, we have trimmed our work force and now have 7 percent fewer employees. We finished last year with expenditures $5 million below the prior year,” Pattenaude told lawmakers. In addition, the system halved the unfunded liability for its retiree health care.
University employees have gone two to three years without raises, and administration has been cut back. Even while becoming more efficient, the university system still lacks sufficient funding, Pattenaude said.
“That, however, will not stop us from making progress, and that’s a promise,” the chancellor said. Pattenaude said the university system has tempered tuition increases, posting its smallest increase — 4.8 percent for resident undergraduates — in eight years. He said low tuition encourages student retention, leading to more graduations and economic development.
John Fitzsimmons, president of the Maine Community College System, and William Brennan, Maine Maritime Academy president, also addressed lawmakers. Like Pattenaude, Fitzsimmons expressed gratitude for Gov. Paul LePage’s budget proposal, which would continue current funding levels despite the state’s difficult fiscal challenges.
Fitzsimmons also told lawmakers that the community college system is making progress accommodating the thousands of Maine students who have been turned away even though they were qualified to enroll. For example, it is securing space for a campus at the former Brunswick Naval Air Station and negotiating for use of buildings at the Goodwill-Hinckley School in Hinckley, whose core operations as a residential school for at-risk youths ended last year.
Maine Maritime’s Brennan said the Castine school is “in a strong and vibrant position” with enrollment at maximum capacity, a record, and 90 percent of its graduates finding jobs — some in the six-figure range — within a half-year of getting their diplomas.
It was the first time a president of MMA has addressed the Legislature. The heads of the university and community college systems are required by statute to address the Legislature every two years.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.