EDITORIALS

University’s perception problem is at heart of Page’s challenge

James Page, one of three finalists for the UMaine chancellor position, listens to questions at an open forum in Wells Commons, Orono, Wednesday, Jan. 18, 2012.
Michael C. York | BDN
James Page, one of three finalists for the UMaine chancellor position, listens to questions at an open forum in Wells Commons, Orono, Wednesday, Jan. 18, 2012. Buy Photo
Posted April 05, 2012, at 4:12 p.m.

One of the most critical players in the state’s effort to build long-term, sustainable economic growth is the University of Maine System. It must be supported by our tax dollars, valued by our civic leaders and understood by all for the role it plays.

But the university system also has a responsibility to manage itself efficiently, and it must continually adapt so that it effectively integrates its programming with the state and its economic needs. It also must earn and retain the trust of Maine residents by assuring them that it is operating under those principles.

The recent news of hefty raises for staff is a perception problem for the system. Such perceptions quickly become reality, especially when many Mainers already believe university faculty and staff have cushy jobs with lots of time off and better-than-average compensation.

In the last six years, the system doled out $7 million in raises at a time when campuses were facing state subsidy cuts and most private and public sector employees in Maine were seeing flat wages.

The headlines give the system a black eye, but the broader context of the story is less shocking. Most of the pay hikes went to staff who took on additional tasks, part of a reorganization that came with recession-inspired belt-tightening. Other raises came when employees were transferred to other posts or promoted within the system.

The system notes that there are about 325 fewer full-time positions since October 2005, which undoubtedly shifted tasks to remaining staff.

And here is further context: the University of Maine System pays $275.4 million in wages annually for its 5,750 employees. That works out to an average annual salary of about $48,000; not outrageous, given the qualifications required.

But the status quo is not acceptable.

The system’s new chancellor, James Page, is well-poised to take on the system’s challenges of perception and mission. Mr. Page’s career has been in the private, nonacademic sector, yet with an engineering background, he clearly respects and understands the importance of higher education. And he understands the perception problem.

“We’re asking people to take the two things they most value and give them to us — their tax dollars and their family members,” he said Thursday, putting what he believes is the system’s accountability challenge in perspective.

Mr. Page also understands what others in the system have not, that it cannot continue to exist in a bubble, protected from the new economic realities. In a telling observation, he describes UMS as a federation, not a system. The individual campuses should remain independent in many respects, but Mr. Page sees great potential for streamlining their management.

He plans a “systemwide, comprehensive review of administrative services with a goal of freeing up resources to use for mission-critical functions,” he said. Changes that follow such a review should mean that every program, every staff position and every dollar spent should be clearly linked to the system’s core goals.

He also wants to tackle some perennial problems with the way the system functions for consumers, such as allowing easier transfer of credits from campus to campus, ensuring that coursework leads to degrees in a timely fashion and keeping tuition affordable.

And action should come sooner than later. “It can’t happen overnight,” Mr. Page said, “but it can’t take a decade, either.”

The result of such a push toward efficiency and effectiveness is more accountability with state government and consumers, and broader support among the general public.

By most accounts, the University of Maine System provides first-rate public postsecondary education at reasonable price. But now is the time to undertake bold moves to ensure it remains true to its mission and role. That UMS trustees chose Mr. Page, with his nontraditional background, as chancellor suggests he has their support. Together they can achieve change.

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