Function, not place.
That’s how the head of the University of Maine System wants to organize the state’s network of seven public universities as they face financial pressure from declining enrollment, an oversized administrative structure and an expensive-to-maintain physical footprint built for a different age.
University of Maine System Chancellor James Page on Monday presented his vision for an academically strong, cooperative university system — operated on the lean. “We believe we are way too administratively top-heavy,” Page said. “We cannot afford the overhead of seven campuses plus the system office.”
Page is calling the initiative “one university for all of Maine.”
To be sure, there won’t actually be one university for all of Maine. Students will continue to receive their diplomas from individual universities — the University of Maine, for instance, or the University of Maine at Augusta or the University of Maine at Farmington. The universities will continue to charge different tuition rates. The individual universities will continue — in the short term — to market themselves separately to prospective students and admit them based on different standards.
And while Page intends to bring about real changes in how the University of Maine System operates, there’s little about the plan that’s new. After all, restructuring the University of Maine System has been the topic of numerous strategic plans throughout the university system’s 47-year history. University officials, faculty and lawmakers at different times have resisted virtually any significant change those plans recommended. After former Chancellor Joseph Westphal proposed a number of campus mergers in 2004, state lawmakers reacted by passing a law establishing the University of Maine System as a system of seven universities located in their current towns and cities.
But Page recognizes that significant change is needed to craft a university network that matches Maine’s needs in the 21st century — when competition for a limited pool of traditional, college-age students is intense; when the student’s need for physical classrooms is fundamentally different than it was 15 years ago; and when the university system’s ability to grow will depend in large part on an ability to appeal to and serve adult students.
What he has in mind is a politically tenable version of bold. He hasn’t yet attached a specific savings figure to the plan, and that’s wise at this stage. It can keep the focus on change for the sake of improvement rather than change to meet a budget target.
The administrative reorganizations that Page is discussing are largely initiatives that have been underway for the past few years — the work of specially appointed committees focused on human resources, procurement, IT and management of university facilities.
In the end, under Page’s plan, administrative functions would become more centralized, but the central human resources operation could be based on one campus while purchasing could be based on another. (The university system’s central office in Bangor is expected to close.) Each campus will — in theory — have the minimum number of front-line staff needed to serve students and employees and avoid duplicating services.
The most meaningful administrative change would be the proposed move to a central, system-wide budget rather than seven individual university budgets that lack coordination. Trustees will decide whether to approve that change in March. That’s another change that’s been under discussion for months.
The academic disciplines could also be in for some change. Each campus would decide on a distinct, strategic focus based on its current academic strengths — again, not a new idea — and the needs of the region in which it’s located. And individual campuses would take the lead in particular academic areas. Education classes, for example, might be available at multiple campuses, but the University of Maine at Farmington could take leadership of the education discipline. Teams of faculty members are starting to meet to plot out those changes.
Although the name of the plan — one university for all of Maine — sounds bold, the plan is not. Rather, it includes the politically acceptable, yet common-sense, steps the system must make to adapt to a different age in education.