For any who doubt the severity of the budget problems facing the University of Maine System, a recent Wall Street Journal headline should be eye-opening: “Maine’s Colleges Hit the Skids.”
As well documented by university system leaders, the paper simply laid out the problem: declining enrollment, greater reliance on tuition that has been frozen and inefficient operations. These are problems in higher education nationwide, but they are especially pronounced in Maine, where the number of high school graduates is projected to continue dropping through 2020.
Without significant changes, the system is projected to have a $90 million deficit by the 2019-20 academic year.
This isn’t the first time the alarm for a needed shakeup has been sounded. Throughout the University of Maine System’s 46-year history, there has been recommendation after recommendation made to reshape the seven-university network. None has been heeded.
Today, to close the budget gap projected for 2020 without major structural changes, tuition would have to rise 5.5 percent each year, state funding would have to increase 7.4 percent a year, enrollment would have to grow 4.2 percent annually or the university system’s workforce would have to be slashed by 14.5 percent.
None of these is going to happen. (Gov. Paul LePage’s budget proposal released Friday would boost state funding for the university system by 1.7 percent.) That’s why the university system must continue to be aggressive in remaking itself to better fit the state’s demographic reality. It is also why continuing to debate whether the University of Maine System has a problem is counterproductive.
This past fall, after the announcement of the elimination of 51 faculty positions and five programs at the University of Southern Maine, the campus with the biggest budget hole, the American Association of University Professors said it would launch an investigation with a threat to censure the campus.
The Journal article includes a map of Maine with this euphemistic title: “A state with a small population is home to a large number of colleges.” The map includes 31 dots, designating University of Maine System branches, community colleges and private colleges and universities. The Journal may have undercounted — the Department of Education website lists 37 degree-granting institutions in the state. If university centers and sites are included, the number is much larger. That’s far too much education infrastructure for 1.3 million people.
Having seven University of Maine System campuses and seven community college campuses — each with its own administration and budget — is duplicative and expensive. It also encourages competition rather than cooperation.
Kathryn Foster, president of the University of Maine at Farmington, likened the system to a “baseball team with seven catchers.” “You’re certainly going to lose that game,” she told the Wall Street Journal.
For this reason, the system’s chief financial officer proposed — and trustees approved — development of a plan to better coordinate budgeting through the system office. Campus financial officers who reported to their presidents instead would report to a chief operating officer at the system level. This will involve the trustees much earlier in the budget-making process and force them to take a systemwide look at financial resources and spending.
It’s a start, but much more consolidation and differentiation will be needed. The system will employ fewer people. This is not to devalue education, but bold changes are a necessity for a system that must spend less money.
Simply put, the university system must start acting like a system, not a loosely affiliated group of seven campuses. Rather than competing for scarce students and resources, the campuses must work together to ensure they are collectively serving students and the state.