MAINE REVIEW

From strategic plan to strategic plan: Why does the University of Maine System keep fighting the same battles?

Posted March 28, 2014, at 9 a.m.
Last modified March 28, 2014, at 12:50 p.m.
In Portland on Monday, a crowd protests proposed deep cuts at the University of Southern Maine. The cuts would eliminate four full programs and between 20-30 faculty positions.
In Portland on Monday, a crowd protests proposed deep cuts at the University of Southern Maine. The cuts would eliminate four full programs and between 20-30 faculty positions. Buy Photo

As the University of Maine System’s seven campuses attempt to shore up a $36 million structural budget gap with, most notably, program and position cuts, the 46-year-old university system is covering familiar ground.

The university system has been in perpetual shrinking mode for much of the last decade.

Between 2003 and 2013, total student enrollment fell to 30,365 this past fall from 34,375 a decade earlier — nearly 12 percent. At the University of Southern Maine, which is absorbing the bulk of this round of cuts, enrollment slipped to 8,923 this past fall from 11,007 a decade earlier — an 18.9 percent slide.

Staffing has fallen nearly 10 percent since 2005; the system had some 5,590 employees as of October 2013. The system lost 8.4 percent of its faculty members in that period and 39.5 percent of its administrators, while the ranks of salaried staff inched up about 2 percent.

The portion of the university system’s budget funded by Maine state government has also slipped. State appropriations represented 44 percent of universities’ funds in 1991, while tuition and student fees accounted for 18.4 percent. In 2013, the state share had dropped to 29 percent, while student charges accounted for 36 percent.

The likelihood of an easy turnaround is small as Maine high schools graduate fewer students, and more state funding in the short term appears unlikely. The University of Maine System chancellor, James Page, said that means more significant changes are needed to set Maine’s universities on a sustainable path.

“What we’ve been looking for and we’re getting is, each campus needs to define its role and its differentiated role in a way that is unique to it and builds upon its strengths,” he said. “Rather than have every campus be everything to everybody, which we can’t afford and is unrealistic, [the campuses should] fit together to meet a statewide mission.”

Strategic imperative — then and now

More than two decades ago, in 1992, the University of Maine System was at work on two strategic initiatives: an analysis of how it could provide the same administrative services at a lower cost and a study of how the university system should prepare for the 21st century.

“We can’t do business the way we’ve always done business,” Patricia Collins, then chair of the system’s board of trustees, told lawmakers in January 1992, the BDN reported at the time. “We’ve got to have a new approach. Within a university, change is usually very slow, but we can’t have that.”

More than a decade later, in 2004, university officials released a strategic plan that attempted to chart a course for closing a $102 million, five-year structural budget gap.

“Maine’s public universities must confront the challenges of rising costs, evolving educational methodologies and a changing economy,” the plan’s introduction read.

The recommendations included calls to collaborate more closely with Maine’s community college system, expand offerings for remote learning, increase student financial aid, articulate a niche for each of the system’s seven universities and achieve system-wide, administrative efficiencies.

Five years later, an initiative known as New Challenges, New Directions resulted in a plan that called for “transformational change.” It pushed each university to determine an ideal size and budget accordingly, and it ordered a comprehensive review of all academic programs with an eye toward reducing unnecessary duplication of courses and programs across the system, eliminating under-enrolled courses and programs, and encouraging inter-campus collaboration to deliver academic programs. Administratively, the document pushed university officials to centralize a number of functions — such as information technology, purchasing, human resources and finance.

The objective was to close a $43 million structural budget gap the university system expected between 2009 and 2013. “It is fully recognized that the traditional incremental cost-cutting approach at the universities and system office will not do enough to attain financial sustainability,” the document read.

Planning, incremental cuts

But that’s just what the university system is doing today.

“I do have a vision of a system that is, first of all, financially sound, so that we’re not doing this year after year, and people are not looking over their shoulders,” said Page, who became chancellor in March 2012.

Major changes take time, however, and the university system hasn’t always heeded the advice in its strategic plans, he said.

“When I came on as chancellor, I got all the strategic plans out. There’s a through line that gets more urgent,” Page said. “It’s that change is coming, we need to allocate our resources differently and better.”

In 2014, the university system is still working to implement some recommendations from the New Challenges, New Directions plan. It has made progress, for example, on developing a centralized IT infrastructure that the university system expects will save money. It has held tuition flat in recent years. It’s experimenting with a new model for disbursing its funds to each campus.

In addition, a specially appointed committee is at work on a facilities analysis to determine which of the universities’ more than 9 million square feet can be eliminated as a way to cut maintenance and renovation costs. Last summer, the system completed a plan to recruit more adult students who have completed some college but not earned a degree.

Each university is at a different stage of undertaking a strategic review and developing a plan of its own. The University of Southern Maine had just completed an early step in the process — a review of each academic program — before the most recent round of cuts was announced. So far, 12 faculty members have received layoff notices as part of those cuts, and USM President Theodora Kalikow has proposed eliminating four academic programs. One of them, recreation and leisure studies, will be spared in the interim through an arrangement that will make it part of USM’s School of Nursing.

Perpetual challenges

“Most of those major changes that might have gotten us off in a different place so we might not be here today with these challenges didn’t happen,” Page said.

At the root of it are ambitions for the University of Maine System that have outpaced the resources available, said David Flanagan, a former university system trustee and retired CEO of Central Maine Power Co., who led the New Challenges, New Directions initiative.

“It’s hard for any institution to change. The university has an especially hard job,” he said. “There are so many institutional protections against change. It seems to only happen when there’s a really difficult financial crisis.”

Even since 2009, when the New Challenges, New Directions plan came out, pressures on the University of Maine System have been amplified, Flanagan said. Competition has intensified within the state, especially in the Portland area, from Maine’s community colleges and private colleges such as Husson University, the University of New England, the for-profit Kaplan University and others.

To add to the pressure, he said, past university administrations didn’t do enough to address fundamental challenges. Much of the New Challenges, New Directions plan went unheeded, Flanagan said.

“The administration at that time [and] the chancellor at the time paid lip service to the recommendations, adopted some, but went whistling by the graveyard hoping that things would turn out differently,” he said.

Key to the future?

The university system needs to find the right balance between centralizing services at the system level to save money and encouraging autonomy on each campus so it can hone its specialty, Flanagan said.

“Deans and professors should understand that how well they do, how well they teach their courses and attract students is important to the well-being of the whole university, and they can’t just live in a bubble isolated from the financial reality,” he said.

More fundamentally, Maine — policymakers and those at the universities — should examine whether it can support seven campuses, especially if state funding is falling short, said Dianne Hoff, dean of the College of Education at the University of West Georgia and a former professor of educational leadership and faculty senate president at the University of Maine.

On top of that, she said, the university system should examine whether certain system-wide services can be assigned to particular campuses and whether a system office of its current size is needed.

“It doesn’t seem to me that all these campuses can be sustained,” said Hoff, whose husband, Peter Hoff, is a former University of Maine president. “I’ve just been worried about how Maine has been structured and has been doing incremental cuts for years.”

Matthew Stone is BDN opinion page editor.

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