BANGOR, Maine — In 1968, James Page, an engineer and company executive from Aroostook County, was tapped to serve on a 15-member board of trustees tasked with creating a “super university” that would streamline and strengthen higher education in the state while cutting costs.
That “super university,” as the Bangor Daily News called it at the time, was the University of Maine System.
Among the many challenges facing that original board was the issue of how to allow students to transfer from one campus to another while retaining their credits. At the time, Page said he thought it would take at least three or four years to sort out an important but deceptively complex credit transfer system.
That was 44 years ago. Now, Page’s son, also named James Page, is chancellor of the system his father helped put together, and the system is taking another crack at creating an effective, efficient credit transfer strategy.
The chancellor said during an October meeting with the Bangor Daily News editorial board that he remembers his father talking four decades ago about credit transfers and how difficult it would be to come up with a system by which students could easily jump from major to major or campus to campus with as many credits intact as possible.
It proved to be a tougher challenge than either Page realized, and the kinks were never fully worked out. Now, the University of Maine System has taken a fresh look at things.
University of Maine at Fort Kent President Wilson Hess was selected to helm a Credit Transfer Steering Committee to come up with a systemwide plan that works.
“Maine needs a reliable, robust college transfer system for students navigating through the baccalaureate offerings of the public university system,” the steering committee said in a September progress report.
Hess said in an interview last week that back in the 1960s and 1970s, “all of us in higher education were trying to get our arms around” the credit transfer system. University systems were just getting their start, as were community colleges, and the two were trying to figure out how to deal not only with one another, but also with their own individual campuses.
But in the past 10 or 15 years, things have changed, Hess said. Public universities in the country “have spent a lot of time and energy trying to sort it out,” he said, adding that there now are examples of “best practices” at other universities in the country and at individual University of Maine System campuses.
“We don’t have to reinvent the wheel in doing this,” Hess said.
For example, Hess said the University of Southern Maine and University of Maine at Augusta have “concierge services” geared toward helping transfer students transition to the campuses. The University of Maine at Fort Kent, per capita, sees more transfer business than other campuses and works well with community college transfers, Hess said.
One important feature of this new transfer system would be “communications tools,” such as a statewide transfer portal website and comprehensive electronic inventory of courses, to help make the process more understandable and transparent for students.
Transfer of credits also would be based on outcomes rather than courses. For example, if a University of Maine at Machias student took an English literature course but wanted to transfer to the flagship campus, the English literature course credits might count toward a British literature course at UMaine because of the overlap in knowledge or skills gained in the classes. The system campuses would have to collaborate to figure out what those outcomes would be.
This proposal won’t solve all the problems students face when they transfer, Hess said. For example, if a student switches from a philosophy major to civil engineering, that student will not be able to get through school without taking more than 120 credits because the courses don’t overlap enough.
Meanwhile, the Maine Community College System is working on its own transfer process, Hess said. After the two systems come up with a plan, they will work together to solve the credit transfer problems for students transitioning between the two systems.
UMS committees meet Sunday afternoon and evening at the University of Maine at Presque Isle, where the Credit Transfer Steering Committee will present its recommendations. The full Board of Trustees is expected to vote on those recommendations Monday, with the full details of the plan to be presented at the January 2013 trustees meeting.
In 1995, former Chancellor Michael Orenduff called for a “dramatic restructuring” of the system, which would have included a single course catalog that would streamline the transfer of courses and grades among the seven campuses in the system.
Orenduff’s proposal met resistance from faculty at the campuses, who argued that each campus has an individual mission and blending them each into one course catalog showed a lack of understanding and respect for those varied roles.
A faculty vote of no confidence in Orenduff followed this and several other unpopular initiatives.
But the system still has a dozen more initiatives ahead, Page said. Maine’s universities face some of the same challenges they faced in the late 1960s and early 1970s, including declining state funding and dwindling pools of Maine high school students to draw from.
To address some of these problems, the system board adopted in January a set of 14 goals and directives aimed at making college more accessible and affordable; improving graduation rates; helping graduates meet the needs of Maine’s workforce; and finding savings in administration and infrastructure.
Some of those directives are already in the works, others in planning stages, and still others will need to be taken up after the system crosses a few other items off its list.
The system took one of its first big steps in September by approving a two-year freeze of the tuition rate, as long as the state keeps the system’s funding flat for the next two years. The system voted in January to freeze tuition for the current academic year. It had been a quarter century since the last time tuition held steady from one year to the next.
Because the system can’t expect to tackle 14 projects at once, Page said, it prioritized three to start: credit transfers, a review of performance-based funding models and a review of administrative costs and structures at all levels of the system. The latter two will be addressed in coming months, according to the chancellor.