UMaine System freezes tuition; board urged to fix aging campus buildings

Posted Jan. 23, 2012, at 8:13 p.m.
Last modified Jan. 23, 2012, at 9:34 p.m.

BANGOR, Maine — The University of Maine System’s campuses are getting old and most of the buildings on those campuses will start showing their age soon if they haven’t already, according to a company that reviewed statistics on each UMS building.

Despite the deteriorating infrastructure, the system’s board of trustees approved a freeze on tuition for the next academic year and outlined a series of goals to control costs and improve educational opportunities — while still fixing up the aging buildings — during its meeting Monday.

It has been 25 years since tuition held steady from one year to the next, according to the board.

Jim Kadamus of Sightlines LLC, a Connecticut-based company that reviews finances at universities and colleges nationwide and analyzes where school facilities are losing money, presented the business’s findings before the board on Monday.

Despite recent renovations and the construction of new buildings, especially at the University of Maine in Orono, 69 percent of the university system’s square footage is more than 25 years old — about the age when buildings require more frequent, more expensive repairs — the review found.

“At some point in the next five years, there’s going to be a breakdown in the system,” Kadamus said.

More roofs will start leaking in the middle of winter under inches of ice and snow; more lights will start flickering or burning out; and general disrepair will start taking a bite out of the system’s and state’s pockets within the next few years if the system doesn’t invest in preventative care for its infrastructure in coming months, according to Kadamus.

Just 31 percent of the system’s buildings are under a quarter-century old, while 35 percent have been around for more than half a century.

Among the hundreds of public colleges and universities Sightlines has reviewed nationally, 50-year-old buildings make up just 21 percent of the average campus’s infrastructure.

“There’s a window of opportunity right now for the system and the state,” Kadamus told the board.

Chip Gavin, director of facilities management and general services for the system, said UMS could and should take advantage of that one- to five-year window to repair and improve buildings before they fail.

Emergency repairs often are more costly than maintenance and upgrade work, Kadamus noted.

With repairs and upgrades on the horizon, the board approved a set of goals in an effort to improve the financial standing, as well as the educational efficiency, of the university system in coming years.

The loftiest of the goals is to keep tuition at the same level this year as it was last year. The board endorsed the zero percent increase, with the caveat that Rebecca Wyke, vice chancellor for finance and administration, work out a draft budget for the system’s campuses to make sure that keeping tuition levels the same next year won’t force them to make too many cuts.

The board also approved a new policy that limits the number of undergraduate credit hours needed to obtain a degree to 121.

Another goal includes a directive to form more partnerships between the system and businesses around the campuses to assure that academic programs will meld with the state’s work force needs.

Michelle Hood, chairwoman of the UMS board, called the directives a “nice road map for the future of the University of Maine System.”

Chancellor Richard L. Pattenaude said the system would push hard to be sure these goals are pursued by campus leaders.

“We cannot stop; times don’t allow it,” Pattenaude said. “I’m enthusiastic about what we’re considering here today.”

The board also approved:

• The demolition of 10 of the 36 apartment buildings at University Park apartments in Orono. The buildings were built in the 1960s and some have degraded to the point where repairs would have cost $85,000 annually, according to Janet Waldron, UMaine’s vice president for administration and finance. The savings, as well as $1 million in auxiliary university funds and the remainder of state bond funds to replace sprinkler systems on campus, will go toward repairs at the remaining 26 apartment buildings. Demolition is slated for this summer, Waldron said.

• The expansion of the Wise Lab of Environmental and Genetic Toxicology at the University of Southern Maine’s Portland campus. The project will include two new lab spaces funded by $900,000 from the Maine Economic Improvement Fund.

• A new Master of Laws one-year professional degree program at the University of Maine School of Law in Portland aimed at teaching foreign lawyers and law school graduates.

The next meeting of the UMS board of trustees is scheduled for March 19 at the University of Maine in Orono.

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