BANGOR, Maine — The University of Maine System projects a $16 million operating loss for the fiscal year that just ended stemming largely from retirements and severance payments, a system official told trustees Monday.
Until the close of fiscal year 2015 on June 30, the UMaine System didn’t know how many employees would plan on retiring, according to Rebecca Wyke, vice chancellor for finance and administration. Those retirement and severance benefits from the past year of staff reductions at campuses are expected to cost the system about $11 million. Those expenses, combined with the spending of budget stabilization funds and other reserves, and accounting for savings that resulted from severance deals, result in the $16 million operating loss figure, Wyke said.
The system expected to use about $11.6 million in emergency funds and other reserves and cut more than 150 positions in order to balance last year’s budget. Five of the system’s seven campuses ended the 2015 school year with a deficit. The University of Maine at Augusta had a surplus, and the flagship campus in Orono broke even.
The $518 million budget for the current fiscal year, which started July 1, uses about $7.2 million in reserve funds.
System officials have said that budgeting in this way is not sustainable, and the system needs to adapt and refocus. They project a $90 million deficit by 2020 if major, substantive changes aren’t made.
During Monday’s meeting, trustees received their first major update on one of these initiatives: a systemwide academic restructuring push. The goal is to focus each campus on its specialty programs and increase collaboration between campuses in order to reduce competition for students in programs shared by universities. The system also plans to cut down repetitive administrative functions across the campuses and system office.
Ellen Chaffee, the North-Dakota-based consultant the system hired to oversee its Academic Portfolio Review and Integration Process, delivered her first of several quarterly updates during a conference call during the meeting.
Details of what exactly this restructuring will look like are sparse. Faculty and administrators representing each of the campuses have been meeting since the start of the year.
Nine teams made up of faculty and staff from each campus met to discuss quality, access and financial sustainability of business, criminal justice, education, engineering, history, languages, marine science, nursing and recreation, and tourism programs across the system. Their reports have been completed and passed on to the campuses’ chief academic officers and the system office.
To this point, most of the recommendations are vague and will require further fleshing out by university officials. Many suggestions call for the formation of advisory boards or committees to determine how programs will change at individual campuses or cooperate across campuses.
A few recommendations include building a common education master’s degree program between UMaine, the University of Southern Maine and the University of Maine at Farmington; developing a uniform curriculum for students in their first two years of mechanical and electrical engineering programs; and developing a plan for the full alignment of nursing curriculum within the system.
Much more detail, including a draft plan, is expected in the fall. Trustees are scheduled to meet in September and in November to discuss progress.
“Maine has the opportunity to really leapfrog into the future” by pursuing inventive distance education opportunities, Chaffee said. For major changes to occur, the state will need to invest in its technology infrastructure, bringing widespread broadband access to rural universities allowing them to connect with the other universities in the state. Without those investments, this effort may fall flat.
“You can only dream so far when you know some things are impossible,” Chaffee said.
In the next phase of the process, teams will be assembled to work on disciplines including English, creative writing, studio arts, performing arts, math, chemistry, biology, physics psychology and social work. UMaine System officials have said the changes that result from the Academic Portfolio Review and Integration Process will take several years to fully implement.
Also stemming from UMaine System Chancellor James Page’s One University push is the system’s pursuit of a single accreditation for all of its seven campuses. Other systems have a single, systemwide accreditation, but few, if any, have gone from having multiple accreditations to one. One often cited example is Penn State’s 24-campus system.
Page says that single accreditation will ease the process of building collaborations between the campuses and consolidating system functions such as finance and information technology.
Page said he and several university and system officials visited the New England Association of Schools and Colleges to answer questions and address any early concerns the accreditation agency had. Page said New England Association of Schools and Colleges officials “reiterated their strong interest in working with us toward a suitable outcome” during the 1½-hour meeting.
During Monday’s meeting, the board also voted to allow the chancellor to ratify several labor deals. The system has reached tentative agreements with the Universities of Maine Professional Staff Association, representing professional employees; the Associated C.O.L.T. Staff of the Universities of Maine, representing clerical, office, laboratory and technical employees; and the Associated Faculties of the University of Maine System representing the faculty. Those agreements have yet to be ratified by union membership.
Also Monday, the board recognized outgoing University of Maine at Fort Kent President Wilson Hess, who retires Sept. 4.
Board Chairman Samuel Collins, reading a resolution recognizing Hess’ efforts for the university, credited him for bringing in $6 million in fundraising, improving credit transfers between UMFK and the community colleges, and building engagement with the community.
Collins said trustees would miss Hess’ “boyish grin” and “puckish sense of humor.”
Follow Nick McCrea on Twitter at @nmccrea213.