LePage urges ‘bigger and bolder’ university system reforms

By Christopher Cousins, BDN Staff
Posted Sept. 26, 2011, at 2:09 p.m.

BANGOR, Maine — Gov. Paul LePage continued his administration’s focus on public education as an economic driver with bold suggestions to the University of Maine System trustees for substantial reforms.

The letter, which was addressed to Board Chairwoman M. Michelle Hood and distributed to the full board at its Sept. 19 meeting, applauded a 2009 university reform effort called “New Challenges, New Directions,” but said the system must think “bigger and bolder.”

“Given the tough economic challenges facing the state, more money — either from the general fund or tuition increases — cannot be the solution,” wrote LePage. “Instead, I suggest reforms related to resource allocation, increased productivity, elimination of duplicative services, specialization, innovation, and perhaps through the selection of a proven agent of change as the next chancellor of the University System.”

University of Maine System Chancellor Richard L. Pattenaude, who has announced his intention to step down when his contract expires in June 2012, reacted favorably to LePage’s letter, according to a transcription from the Sept. 19 meeting provided by a system spokeswoman.

“We appreciate the governor’s interest in and support of the University of Maine System,” said Pattenaude. “He offers us valuable ideas and reinforces the sense of urgency we feel to make the University System more efficient, more affordable and more responsive to the needs of the state. Many of these efforts are under way but we look forward to meeting with the governor and discussing his thoughts as we work together to better serve the people of Maine.”

Hood, who said she has been talking with LePage about reform for several months, said she received his suggestions with gratitude.

“I very much welcomed the letter,” she said. “One of the things I appreciated about the letter is that he’s proposing solutions. I don’t think he was off-base in any of the areas where he made suggestions.”

LePage suggested a series of reforms, sometimes extolling his views of problems in the system in straightforward terms.

“This is time for innovative and dramatic change,” wrote the governor, who urged shifting resources around within the system so that each UMaine campus specializes in a certain area.

“We should strive to have each campus become a true leader in a given area, rather than multiple campuses overextending themselves in a hodgepodge of unfocused endeavors,” wrote LePage, who also called for noninstructional staff positions to be reduced systemwide in favor of hiring more professors and instructors.

LePage also urged the system to require more productivity of employees, such as professors taking on more graduate students and giving cash bonuses for high productivity or securing grant funding.

“Since the system is currently involved in contract negotiations, this may be an ideal time for its leadership to demand more from its employees,” wrote LePage.

LePage also suggested a “top-to-bottom review” of services offered by the university and community college systems and the consolidation of duplicative efforts.

“A comparison of all employees and their functions may reveal significant duplication of efforts,” wrote the governor.

LePage also suggested eliminating the system’s central office in Bangor and wrote that the role of the chancellor’s office should be forging ahead with innovative approaches.

“I believe you should take a hard look at the notion of a central office and consider whether this is an entity which adds value and leadership to the system or whether it adds costs and bureaucracy,” wrote the governor. “Should you decide to proceed with the chancellor’s office in its current format, I urge you to select a chancellor who has a proven track record as an agent of change.”

Lastly, LePage suggested that the university system better tailor its programs to the needs of Maine businesses, echoing comments he made recently about Maine’s lack of a skilled work force in some areas.

“Closing this gap must be a top priority of the system,” he wrote. “If Maine is to succeed in a global economy, it is critical that our public institutions of higher learning strive to produce graduates that are not just educated, but that are relevant.”

Hood said the university system’s trustees are preparing a response for LePage.

“I intend to work with the trustees to craft a response that’s specific about how we expect to fulfill our responsibility of fiduciary oversight for the system,” said Hood. “We’re all on the same page as far as looking for ways to serve the citizens of the state and take every opportunity to drive the economy.”

http://bangordailynews.com/2011/09/26/education/lepage-urges-bigger-and-bolder-university-system-reforms/ printed on October 2, 2014