Recently Rebecca Wyke, the University of Maine System’s vice chancellor for finance and administration, received a $40,000 raise. UMS Chancellor James Page says the system can’t get along without her. The fact that Wyke received her “retention bonus” while dozens of other UMS employees were receiving notices of layoff, termination or schedule reduction caused some negative comment.
Nevertheless, under Wyke’s guidance, UMS trustees took a bad hand and played it adroitly. The governor seems, at best, a skeptic on public education at any level. The Legislature, having cut taxes, must be frugal in its funding choices. The economy is struggling. Taxpayers feel tapped out.
In response, the trustees have frozen tuition, requested only flat funding from the Legislature, required campuses to fully fund costs of depreciation, and responsibly amassed ample system-level reserves.
Together, these steps — each prudent in itself — have given the system leverage to require each component university to make long-term cuts to programs or staff. The pain from cuts that have taken place on all 10 campuses of the system’s seven universities, at the University of Maine School of Law, and at University College centers and Cooperative Extension offices across the state is real.
At the University of Maine at Augusta’s Bangor campus, for example, live classes will not be offered for most summer sessions, and student support services will be closed. The veterinary technology program is slated for elimination, though it offers Maine’s only accredited degree of its kind and always has full enrollment and a long waiting list.
These decisions illustrate basic flaws in the trustees’ model. On the one hand, the veterinary technology program requires expenditures for lab facilities, equipment and small, hands-on classes. On the other, graduates get good jobs providing services for growing sectors such as agriculture, medical research and pet medicine. The calculation is penny-wise-pound-foolish.
UMA-Bangor dedicates itself to working with “nontraditional” students who juggle work, family and community responsibilities in addition to classes. The Bangor campus is no country club — there are no dorms, no food service, no student union. It does, however, provide a full range of services students need: mentoring, tutoring and counseling; a computer lab, math lab, writing center and library.
Many are low-income; often they are single parents. Many grew up in households ravaged by substance abuse or domestic violence. Most are the first in their family to attend college. They’ve been out of school sometimes for 10, 20 or even 30 years. College requires them to master sophisticated organizational, technological, critical-thinking and communication skills — and to do so in a hurry.
Many succeed magnificently but not without support — which requires funding.
Maine will get its real retention bonus when these students graduate, get better jobs and pay higher taxes. Investing in staff and services needed to stay in school is a sensible choice.
The University of Maine System has already computerized most back-of-the-house functions, from payroll to interlibrary loan, with concomitant staff reductions. What’s left is necessarily labor-intensive.
Announcing that staff can accomplish as much in 10 months as they previously did in 12, or that one person can easily do the work normally done by two, will not make these things true.
Students who want live classes and in-person assistance but are trapped in online courses with a handful of helpline numbers will vote with their feet. They might transfer or drop out, taking their tuition dollars with them. Frustrated faculty and staff will follow. Poor morale and turnover will reduce productivity. Increased stress will raise insurance costs. If fundamentals remain unchanged, the University of Maine System cannot cut its way to financial stability.
One cause of the fiscal crisis has so far been ignored by system administrators and protesters alike. While Mainers have been debating how quickly we ought to reach 55 percent state funding for K-12 education, the state share of UMS funding has slipped to 29 percent.
The 55 percent goal for public school funding was decided by referendum vote. We drifted toward the 29 percent figure with almost no public debate. With legislative and gubernatorial elections coming up, perhaps it’s time for that discussion to begin.
Meanwhile, the Board of Trustees is scheduled to approve the next fiscal year’s budget on May 18. Trustees’ recognition of Wyke’s contributions to the system is commendable. They should extend the same level of comprehension and support to all university system employees and the students they assist.
Lisa Feldman of Orono works in the Nottage Library at the University of Maine at Augusta’s Bangor campus.