With the announcement this week that Cynthia Huggins is stepping down as the president of the University of Maine at Machias, the top people at four of the University of Maine System’s seven campuses have moved on in the course of four months.
Earlier this month, Allyson Handley announced she was leaving the University of Maine at Augusta. Former University of Maine President Paul Ferguson announced in May that he was taking a job as president of Ball State University in Indiana. In July, University of Maine System Chancellor James Page announced University of Southern Maine President Theodora Kalikow would leave her post to take a position at the system office.
There also have been significant changes in that time at the second tier of campus leadership — campus vice presidents and provosts — particularly at the University of Maine and the University of Southern Maine.
Couple that with the reality of a trying budgetary year across the University of Maine System and a year of tumult at the University of Southern Maine, and the leadership turnover comes off as characteristic of a major public institution in trouble. It also offers an opportunity to remake and streamline campus leadership.
These are destabilizing times, not only for the University of Maine System but across higher education. Some have argued the higher education bubble has started to pop, after decades in which public universities — and other types of institutions — continued to expand, but not in a strategic fashion that would have involved making choices to shrink in other areas.
State funding for higher education across the country has plateaued in recent years. Student enrollment is starting to as well: 2011 was the first year since 1995 when total post-secondary enrollment in the U.S. didn’t grow over the previous year, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. In Maine, total college enrollment — at public and private institutions — essentially was flat between 2010 and 2011 after several years of slow but steady growth.
That translates into difficult finances. Some 44 percent of public universities last fall didn’t expect to see tuition revenues grow faster than the pace of inflation, and 28 percent expected actual declines, according to Moody’s Investor Service, prompting the ratings agency to declare “[r]egional public universities and smaller private colleges without a well-defined niche” — a description apt for some University of Maine System campuses — would “continue to face the strongest challenges.”
For Maine’s public university system, those numerical pressures are magnified. Enrollment is declining, revenues are stagnant and competition has grown significantly in recent years as private colleges and universities within Maine have expanded, and online offerings have made everyone less dependent on the traditional post-secondary structures.
That picture calls for a structural shake-up. A decade-old state law requires the University of Maine System comprise seven distinct universities in their current locations, and on-campus culture naturally defends the structure. Fortunately, Page is engaged in discussions with campus, community and business leaders about aligning campuses with local and state needs while being mindful of the necessity of cutting university spending.
The presidents’ departures offer a rare opportunity to move to a new leadership model in which campuses maintain their specialties without duplicative bureaucracy.
Page is asking the right question: “Do we have the right administrative setup?”
“There is going to be less of something somewhere,” he said Friday. “As much as possible, that needs to be administration.”
System trustees and the chancellor need to build leadership teams that can sustain change — even in the face of loud dissent.
The University of Maine System’s future will depend on deliberate and competent leadership — leaders, wherever they are based, who can guide campuses through uncomfortable and turbulent times.