BANGOR, Maine — The University of Maine System won’t do anything as dramatic as shutting down a campus to make itself fiscally sound, but it will change the focus of those institutions and force cooperation.
System Chancellor James Page laid out a “rather complex set of high-level directives” aimed at breaking down barriers between the system’s seven universities and reducing its vast administrative overhead during a UMS board meeting Monday at the system office in Bangor.
Without substantial systemic change, UMS projects a $90 million deficit by 2020.
“We believe that we are way too administratively top-heavy,” Page said during a recent interview at the Bangor Daily News. “We cannot afford the overhead of seven campuses plus the system office.”
First, the system, trumpeting the tagline “One university for all of Maine,” will strive for “mission-differentiated campuses,” with each institution focusing on the programs that make it stand out.
For example, the flagship campus in Orono will continue its land-grant, research-based focus. Because of the millions of dollars it has invested in various engineering facilities and disciplines, Orono will be the hub for engineering in the state.
The University of Maine at Machias likely will be focused on marine sciences. The University of Maine at Farmington likely will have a heavy focus on grooming future educators.
“It doesn’t mean that each [university] is going to be uniquely only that,” Page said. “But it does mean that that’s going to be the place that’s in charge of developing the statewide mission for that particular discipline.”
Second, “we are going to dramatically reduce and restructure all of our administrative functions into a single administrative structure,” Page said.
In other words, the system will take an administrative unit, such as human resources, and “centralize” it at one campus, such as in Orono or in Augusta, moving most of the personnel to that campus. Individual universities will maintain enough staff in that department to serve the “frontline needs” of their students and staff.
The goal is to break down divisions among the campuses, similar to the way the system handled the recent restructuring of its information technologies departments.
“To be sure, an enormous amount of what happens administratively will take place in Orono,” Page said.
Third, the system will take a fresh look at how it offers academic programs across the system. The goal is to ensure programs have adequate resources but aren’t duplicated in multiple universities, effectively causing universities within the system to compete with one another for students.
While engineering offerings likely are to be focused at UMaine, programs such as nursing and computer science could be reorganized and offered at multiple locations but with a significant amount of collaboration and crossover, Page said.
Courses such as mathematics and English likely would continue to be offered across all institutions.
The university started exploring potential changes in the summer of 2014 through its Academic Portfolio Review and Integration Process, or APRIP.
UMS is bringing in a part-time, North Dakota-based consultant named Ellen Chaffee to help sort this all out. She’ll work with a 30-member team that will oversee about 160 faculty members who will form subteams to determine where course offerings in areas from nursing to computer science would be best suited, as well as what institutions should collaborate to improve opportunities for students.
Chaffee is a senior consultant with the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges and former president of two universities, as well as president in residence at Harvard. She also guided the merger of two $1 billion health care systems.
“This is not only something that’s going to take quite a while to go through, but it’s going to have to be continuously revisited as new academic opportunities arise,” Page said of the APRIP process.
Trustees, university presidents and a faculty union president said they were pleased to hear about the push for reform and felt it would work if done in an efficient, timely manner.
Ron Mosley of the University of Maine at Machias, president of the Associated Faculties of the Universities of Maine, said during the public comment session that he had been prepared to “take [the trustees] to task” for lack of leadership at a system level. Instead, after hearing Page’s plan, he said he was pleased. He said he was glad to hear about the plans to shrink and consolidate the administration.
“I would encourage a parallel reduction of the number of levels of administration and management across the system as well,” he added.
The way the system handled budget issues in the past, such as cutting a percentage from each campus, “has lowered the level of faculty involvement and level of faculty trust in the system a bit,” Mosley said.
System trustees said they hoped the new effort will lead to strong engagement and suggestions from faculty members and staff across the system.
“I think we’ve laid out a good plan that maintains the integrity of each of our campuses,” Trustee Greg Johnson said. “At the end of the day, we aren’t going to solve our structural financial gap with cost cutting only.”
Susan Hunter, president of the system’s flagship campus in Orono, said she sees the system’s recent reorganization of its human resources and information technologies departments as pilot projects for this much larger departmentwide, systemwide effort.
She said she believes these changes could create a more efficient system and improve the quality of programs, helping drive enrollment growth and retention in a state that has struggled to find both.
“Being worse at things and being smaller is not what we’re after,” Hunter said.
Trustees stressed that keeping to a timeline and maintaining transparency throughout this process would be key.
The majority of these changes are conceptual at this point, and it’s unclear which programs will be focused at which institutions. It’s also unclear how many jobs might be lost in the shuffle.
UMS projects a $37 million shortfall in fiscal year 2016 without major changes. About two-thirds of that deficit has been accounted for in the proposed budgets of the University of Southern Maine and the flagship campus.
The system already has been bleeding in terms of headcount in recent years, with position numbers dropping 6 percent during the past two years and 13 percent since the recession.
UMS hopes to shutter and sell its downtown Bangor office space later this calendar year, moving most of the 100 staff members to university campuses, while “governing” employees will move to other yet-to-be-determined locations, according to Page.
The next major restructuring phase will change the system’s financial management model.
Currently, the University of Maine at Augusta and University of Maine at Fort Kent partner to offer a four-year nursing program. However, this presents a problem. Because campuses receive tuition revenue based on credit hours, when UMFK provides credit hours to UMA students, UMA needs to hand its tuition revenue over to UMFK, causing a disincentive to cooperate and partner with other institutions.
Page said the system is working on a financial management plan to eliminate that drawback and prompt more collaboration and less competition among campuses.
“We’re reducing barriers that have really stifled innovation and cooperation,” Page said.
Follow Nick McCrea on Twitter at @nmccrea213.