BANGOR, Maine — The way budgets are created for the seven campuses in the University of Maine System may look very different next year.
A plan that gives the University of Maine System office more power over the individual campus budgets will be voted on by the board of trustees at their meeting in November. The plan is being created by Vice Chancellor for Administration and Finance Rebecca Wyke, who is also the treasurer.
“Today the budget more clearly reflects only the missions of the seven universities,” Wyke said Wednesday, explaining that campus budgets all are created independently. “[Our] mission is not to serve missions of individual institutions; our mission is to serve the state.”
If the university system doesn’t make changes, it will be $69 million in debt by 2019, administrators have said. Over the last few years, there has been an effort to cut costs and centralize certain functions, such as information technology, human resources and procurement.
Trustee Sam Collins said he hoped the plan would give the trustees more scrutiny over the budget.
“The way I understand it is that we would have a better handle on all seven budgets,” he said. “Not that we’re looking to dictate the programs and the priorities of the campuses … What we’re looking to do is to understand each budget on the campuses and to be able to have some influence as to what the priorities are to a small degree.”
A preliminary version of the plan, which Wyke presented to the board of trustees on Monday, makes clear that there is a range of options that the trustees could pursue.
Under the most disruptive interpretation of the plan, budgetary officers who once reported to their presidents would now be reporting to Wyke. The budgets would be developed with input from the presidents, but all finance and administration personnel would work under a chief operating officer at the system level.
As University of Southern Maine President David Flanagan put it, “Building the budget would be done primarily at the system level, with a deeper reach down into the details than is currently the case.”
At the very least, the budget-making process next year will better reflect the fact that the authority and responsibility for the budget rests with the trustees.
Wyke said that the system’s charter “states the board of trustees is the governing and planning body of the University and charges it with the responsibility for preparing and approving the operating and capital budgets,” according to material s for Monday’s meeting.
A change in the process would better align practice with policy, according to Wyke.
“The law doesn’t give the power to the presidents,” she said. “It gives it to the chancellor and the trustees.”
The system office is soliciting feedback through Oct. 10 and the trustees will vote on a refined version of the plan at their meeting on Nov. 16 and 17.
Wyke said that the goal is to create better transparency for the board and for the public around the budget-making process and allow for better collaboration among the campuses.
She said the goal is to “make sure we have proper public controls in place to safeguard resources [and] finally remove obstacles that have been in the way of strategic coordination between universities.”
Chancellor James Page emphasized that no details have been decided upon and university presidents will still play an important role.
“It doesn’t mean that all decisions are going to be taken away from all the campuses,” he said. “A good budget process [is] … both a bottom-up and a top-down process.”
Flanagan, former CEO of Central Maine Power, is supportive of aggressive restructuring.
“If we’re going to rethink the functions performed at the system level, then we have to rethink the role of the presidents,” he said.
Since May, four of the seven university presidents have announced that they would step down.
University of Maine President Sue Hunter, who took that position in July, would not say what level of change she thinks the board should adopt.
“It’s premature for me to do that,” she said. “What we’ve done is set the stage for analysis and discussion.”
She said she embraced the idea that there would be more communication among the campuses and the system throughout the budget-making process, as did University of Maine at Presque Isle President Linda Schott.
Like the other universities, UMPI is already crafting its budget earlier this year “so that there’s more time for [Wyke’s] office to have a more meaningful review of the budget instead of coming in after we’ve finalized things,” Schott said.
She also said that the question of who would prepare the budget was an important one.
“I would find it hard to be a president without having direct involvement in my campus’ budget,” she said.
UMaine professor Suzanne Estler, who developed the university’s higher education doctoral program, said further centralization at UMS would impede their goal of making each campus distinct.
“When you centralize administration … there’s a tendency toward trying to homogenize,” she said. “That destroys the benefit the state gets from the research university.”
She said she was also concerned that giving more power to the central administration could hurt the individual campuses.
When speaking of administrators, she said, “They’re not seeing the adjunct faculty member who’s getting paid peanuts to do the basic work of the institution.”