BANGOR, Maine — University of Maine System Chancellor James Page asked the business community for help engaging the state Legislature in conversations about the funding of Maine’s public universities at a Bangor Region Chamber of Commerce meeting on Thursday morning.
“We’re going to have to be going to the Legislature in this new session,” Page told about 70 people at the Hilton Garden Inn. “We’re going to have to have a dialogue that encompasses the entire state about what is the value of public higher education.”
Page explained that when he was a student at the University of Maine at Fort Kent, decades ago, the Legislature underwrote two-thirds of the cost of a four-year degree. Now, it’s only one-third, which has contributed to the multimillion-dollar budget shortfall currently plaguing the university system.
The state appropriation to UMS will account for 35 percent of the system’s revenue, according to the fiscal year 2015 budget.
“We’re going to have to ask the Legislature to make some tough choices around that,” he said. “It’s going to require your help and stepping up and saying, ‘Yes, as long as our public universities are delivering A, B and C, then we need to support them.’”
The university system cut $22.7 million — or about 4 percent — from its budget this year, which amounted to a loss of about 150 jobs across the seven campuses. The cuts came after a five-year financial analysis was released in November that projected that if nothing changed, the system would be $65 million to $95 million in debt in five years.
Page does not have a specific dollar amount that he will ask of the Legislature, he said after the presentation. He emphasized that there are many institutions in Maine that are deserving of taxpayer support, but that the state will not prosper without a vibrant university system.
“If we’re asking for not just the status quo, but additional support, we have to marshal an argument,” he said. “The impacts are real now; they’ll become greater and ultimately more dire.”
He explained that the slow cutting that the system has engaged in over the years is not a successful strategy anymore.
“You can’t survive by just slicing away, because sooner or later you’re going to cut bone and organs,” he told the Chamber.
Page was joined by the University of Maine’s new president, Susan Hunter, whose hiring was approved by the board of trustees Wednesday.
Hunter and Page both said that a smaller, more efficient university system that fosters integration among campuses is imperative.
Hunter reiterated that there is a “structural tension” between the system office and the state’s flagship university.
“This is an impediment to progress,” she said.
She said again that she will visit with the presidents of each campus to figure out how UMaine can better support them.
Hunter is serving as vice chancellor of academic affairs at the system office, a position she took after more than 30 years working as a professor and administrator at UMaine.
She has said she will use her experience working for both institutions to bridge the divide between them, something that pleased attendees of Thursday’s event.
“She’s been in the room and seen how the sausage is made, not just the dining room to see how it’s served,” said William Charland, former manager of facilities at UMaine who runs a consulting business and attended the event.
The chancellor also asked for Chamber members’ votes in November on an $8 million bond package that would go to UMaine to support research of pests that afflict agriculture and wildlife in Maine.
Calling the university system “Maine’s most important asset,” Page tried to make clear that the university would continue to evolve to support the state’s business community.
“University of Maine System must be your most responsive and effective partner,” he told the Chamber. The seven campuses must “create an environment to attract young people to build their careers here.”