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One month into the job, UMS chancellor says Maine’s universities have catching up to do

Troy R. Bennett | BDN
Troy R. Bennett | BDN
Dr. James H. Page speaks at a press conference at the University of Southern Maine in Portland Thursday, Feb. 16, 2012, during which he was named the next chancellor of the University of Maine System.
By Nick McCrea, BDN Staff

BANGOR, Maine — University of Maine System Chancellor James Page believes the system has been too slow to react to the changing worlds of education and economics, and he plans on pushing it to get caught up.

Just one month into the job, Page spoke at the Bangor Region Chamber of Commerce’s Early Bird Breakfast and gave his early impressions of the system’s standing and what it should aim to accomplish in coming months and years.

Following the financial crisis of 2008, community colleges, private institutions and trade schools responded nimbly, improving job training and online learning options while maintaining low costs for students, Page argued.

“They have done great jobs in understanding needs and filling the niche for those needs,” Page said.

That has meant more competition for a limited pool of potential students.

Coupled with challenges such as declining enrollments in Maine high schools and crumbling infrastructure on some of the system’s campuses, the system has to start repurposing funding and prioritizing, Page said.

“Maine’s economic realities are what they are,” said Page, the first Maine native to serve as chancellor. “We aren’t a wealthy state. We’re an old state. We’re behind the curve on many fronts.”

If Maine is going to overcome these hurdles, the seven universities of the system will need to be the catalyst, the chancellor argued.

“The university system cannot succeed — will not succeed — if Maine doesn’t succeed,” Page said.

To help boost the business and economic infrastructure in the state, he said, the system’s universities will need to build Maine’s “intellectual property” and partner with businesses to develop technology and create jobs.

Page said the system can’t hope or assume it will receive more money from the state in the future, adding that “we’ll be lucky to hold our own.”

“We have to show that that investment really does pay off,” Page said.

Page also stressed the importance of distance learning and online course work to the future of the university system. The growing number of online degrees offered nationwide means UMaine not only competes with state schools such as the University of New Hampshire, but “now it’s going to be competing with Stanford,” Page said.

Page said he doesn’t have all the answers to the complex challenges facing the system.

“I don’t have a comprehensive master plan yet,” Page said, telling those in attendance that they should never trust the master plan of someone who has been on the job for only a month.

Page also said he will be eyeing the system’s administration to see whether it can shrink, freeing up funds to allocate toward other efforts to move the system forward.

The system already has taken a few of the right steps toward making its programs more attractive, Page said.

On Jan. 23, the UMS board of trustees voted to freeze tuition for the next academic year and limited the number of undergraduate credit hours needed to obtain a degree to 121.

Page said one of his overarching challenges is to turn what he called a “federation” of seven campuses into a true “university system.” That means more collaboration, simplified transfer processes, and aligned goals that respect the different mission of each university.

That means a lot of work is ahead.

“If it had been simple, it would have been done by now,” Page said.

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