In the beginning, it was a loose affiliation between the University of Maine and the state’s independently operated teachers’ colleges in Farmington, Fort Kent, Gorham, Machias and Presque Isle. It wasn’t the University of Maine System we know today — it was the Super-U.

That was more than 45 years ago. Since then — and even before then — the debate over the ideal structure for the University of Maine System hasn’t stopped.

Should there be just a few main campuses with smaller satellite branches or full-fledged institutions in several towns? Should the chancellor’s office be in Bangor or Augusta or Portland, or should it not exist at all? Should the system office take on core administrative services for all campuses, such as budgeting and human resources, or should those functions be farmed out to the campuses?

The university system returned to that debate Monday, when Rebecca Wyke, the system’s vice chancellor for administration and finance, recommended shuttering the central office in downtown Bangor, which oversees the seven-university network, and relocating the more than 100 employees to campuses in the system.

Meanwhile, Wyke also discussed a finance strategy that could move more budgeting control from the individual campuses and their presidents to the system level.

Bold suggestions, limited change

If there’s one thing to note about the University of Maine System’s history, it’s that it’s filled with discussion of big changes with limited follow-through. Change proposals repeatedly have been doomed by efforts among campus personnel and lawmakers to protect their schools’ position and value in the system.

The report that led to the University of Maine System’s formation — the 1967 report of the Coles Commission — suggested changes more significant than what actually occurred.

The commission recommended the five teachers’ colleges — in Farmington, Fort Kent, Gorham, Machias and Presque Isle — become part of the University of Maine. The result would be a consolidated institution that kept the individual campuses from duplicating degree offerings, according to a 2004 BDN article on the university system’s history.

Instead, the University of Maine System — or the Super-U — became a network of six different, autonomous institutions with oversight by a chancellor and trustees. At the time, the university system’s campuses in Augusta, Bangor and Portland were satellite campuses of the flagship University of Maine.

In subsequent years, several structural change did happen — generally in the direction of expansion. In 1969, trustees decided the University of Maine’s Portland campus would break away from Orono’s control and merge with Gorham State College of University of Maine. The combined institution became the University of Southern Maine in 1978.

In 1971, the University of Maine lost its satellite campus in Augusta, which incorporated as the University of Maine at Augusta, the seventh member of the University of Maine System.

Later in the 1970s, the Maine Management and Cost Survey Commission, led by James Longley, who later became Maine’s first independent governor, suggested the state designate Orono, Southern Maine and Farmington as the four-year degree-granting institutions. The smaller campuses, in Fort Kent, Machias and Presque Isle, would grant two-year degrees, essentially joining with the state’s technical colleges. At the time, the University of Maine at Augusta already mostly granted two-year degrees.

In the 1980s, system trustees officially removed “at Orono” from the name of the University of Maine in an effort to set it apart as the state’s research and doctoral institution. But other changes considered by the Visiting Committee to the University of Maine never took effect. Under that group’s report, the university system would have been renamed State University of Maine, and the smaller campuses would have been called state colleges and not universities.

The committee recognized a need for the university system to coordinate activities with the state’s vocational and technical institutes — which later incorporated as the Maine Community College System. But the panel stopped short of recommending all institutions operate under one umbrella. “The faculties, administrative structures, history and statewide constituencies are so different as to make organization under one administrative roof an unwieldy enterprise,” the report concluded.

In the 1990s — on the heels of another commission report that found a “remarkable disconnect between the public, the government and the institutions of higher education” — Chancellor Terrence MacTaggart stressed the need for a sharpened focus at each of the seven universities. He suggested the individual campuses, rather than the central office, take charge of planning, marketing and fundraising as part of a strategy for the university system to “strengthen its ties to Maine people,” MacTaggart wrote in a 1997 BDN OpEd.

“With good leadership throughout the organization, a real commitment to providing high-quality education and research, and sufficient and well-managed resources, the structure in Maine ought to work,” he wrote.

But just seven years later, another chancellor, Joseph Westphal, published a strategic plan that suggested yet another structure: The University of Maine at Augusta would become a part of the University of Southern Maine, and the Fort Kent, Machias and Presque Isle universities loosely would join together as a consortium of liberal arts colleges, each with one signature program. An earlier draft of Westphal’s plan suggested a merger of those three campuses.

A year later, following outrage over the Westphal plan, legislators made the seven-university structure for the University of Maine System part of state law. That same year, the University of Maine System’s central office moved to its current location in downtown Bangor — a location it pledged to use for 20 years.

Four years after that, the draft of another strategic reform plan recommended moving the system chancellor’s office from Bangor to Augusta — a move to which the faculty senate at the University of Maine objected. That plan’s final draft backed away from that change, suggesting simply “a more visible presence in the state capitol” and that the system chancellor spend more time in Augusta.

A resilient structure

The push to close the system office in Bangor comes off as a bold response to serious challenges for the University of Maine System. If the system takes no action, it will face an $87 million deficit by the 2018-19 academic year, according to a financial analysis the system released last fall.

Meanwhile, preliminary enrollment figures for the fall semester show the number of students slipped below 30,000. The total population grew at only one campus: The University of Maine at Fort Kent.

And, the system trustees just agreed to ask the Legislature for an increase in its state subsidy, which has been held relatively flat in recent years.

But if history is a guide, it’s far from certain the university system will follow through with a major change, such as shutting the system office.

“To put it simply, I think the system that we have now, it doesn’t lend itself well to making strategic decisions that might involve consolidation and cost-saving, and that is something that is necessary on occasion,” said Jim Libby, academic dean at Thomas College, who wrote his doctoral dissertation on the history and politics of the university system. “It’s difficult for folks to follow through.”

Matthew Stone is BDN opinion page editor.