BANGOR, Maine — The University of Maine System’s “New Challenges, New Directions” task force heard Wednesday at the system office from two national experts in higher education.

Robert Zemsky, chairman of The Learning Alliance for Higher Education, and Thomas Layzell, national president of the State Higher Education Executive Officers, shared their experiences with the task force working to reorganize the system in the face of an estimated $42 million systemwide budget shortfall in the next four years.

Zemsky said UMS faces three critical issues: the structural deficit, an already stressed system, and the problem of tackling the system’s problems as a whole rather than in parts.

The two ways to cut costs, he said, are to either reduce staff or cut salaries — unless the system is prepared to make major changes.

“If you really are worried about affordability and you’re not prepared to put it on the backs of the staff,” Zemsky said, “then the answer has to be, you have to change the production function.”

Zemsky believes the central-office model — similar to the idea of a hub with spokes — used by some systems such as UMS, will be extinct in 20 years. In place of that model, he said, university systems will operate as networks with interchangeable parts, without a central hub. It’s a model that other industries have gone to and, Zemsky suggested, educational institutions should consider.

“What the public wants … is the network,” he said. “The faculty doesn’t like it [but] the public is looking for the networks, they’re looking for the interchangeability, they’re looking to mix and match.”

Layzell said states must improve their education attainment rates. He said Maine, which at 33 percent is below the national average of 39 percent for young-adult degree attainment, could improve through working with secondary-school organizations and community colleges to encourage more students to earn degrees.

“You can’t do it if you don’t get more kids to stay in high school and graduate,” he said. “That’s just basic. It means you’ve got to work with [kindergarten through high schools] to help them achieve their goals.”

The task force also decided Wednesday to contract with the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems, or NCHEMS. The mission of the Colorado-based nonprofit group, according to its Web site, is to improve strategic decision making in higher education for states and institutions in the United States and abroad.

The task force’s next meeting will be Thursday, May 7, at UMaine-Augusta. The meeting will be held 1:30-4 p.m. in Robinson Hall, Room 111.

For more information about the task force, go to www.maine.edu/UMSTaskForce.

jbloch@bangordailynews.net

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