MACHIAS, Maine — In the fall of 2003, the University of Maine at Machias was a bustling, but still comfortably small, liberal arts campus boasting a student headcount over 1,300.

That was the high-water mark, and today’s system officials and community leaders hope they’ve seen the low.

Entering the fall of 2016, the University of Maine System’s smallest campus saw its student headcount hit a troubling 745. With fewer students in the seats, and fewer local high school graduates to recruit, the school was forced to cut and downsize in an effort to balance budgets.

In just the past five years, enrollment has plunged 20 percent. The 745 students are served by just 94 employees, but about one-third of them are part-time faculty who might only teach one course. In the mid-1990s, before years of cuts and administrative consolidations, about 175 people worked for the campus.

“Sixty-seven people are running this university today,” UMM interim President Sue Huesman said during a recent interview. “They have worked so hard for so long with so little.”

The persistent struggles sparked an intervention by University of Maine System officials last year. They launched a push to find a way to stop the bleeding, bring in new students, and turn the university around.

Shuttering the campus was never considered as a viable option, according to UMS spokesman Dan Demeritt, but the continuing decline of the campus could put its mission, accreditation and federal financial aid at risk.

“Downeast Maine absolutely needs access to a responsive and vibrant public university focused on regional needs and opportunities,” Demeritt said.

The proposed solution: An intensified, experimental partnership between Machias and the University of Maine in Orono — the system’s largest, with an enrollment of 9,600 students. The UMS board of trustees will decide whether to make that plan happen during a meeting in March.

Shared struggles

The university hasn’t been alone in its challenges. Its ailments are symptoms of much larger issues felt not just in Downeast Maine, but across rural regions of the state, argues Washington County Commissioner Chris Gardner.

“We’re dying,” Gardner said of Washington County.

As a state, Maine is getting older. Deaths continue to outpace births, and in places that are growing, it’s largely because people from outside the state have decided to move here. The problem is magnified in rural areas, notably across Washington County, which has become a “poster boy” for struggling rural regions, Gardner said.

The decline in enrollment at UMM has been driven in part by a lack of young people in Washington County. Between 2007 and 2015, the number of students graduating from high schools in the county dropped from about 375 per year to just over 250, according to Maine Department of Education data.

“We have to start prioritizing our young people in this county,” Gardner said. “Because the reality is, if we don’t repopulate our schools and our communities, then we’re done.”

Machias hasn’t been as big a draw for students from other parts of or outside of Maine as some of its larger peers in the state.

Gardner, who serves as executive director of the Eastport Port Authority, graduated from UMM in 1996 with a bachelor’s degree in business administration. He attended when the campus was on its upswing.

“I saw a lot of people leaving [Washington County], and maybe I’m nostalgic, maybe I don’t want to give up the fight, but I just thought, ‘Why would I have to leave my community to go to college?’” Gardner said. “UMM will equip anybody for anything they want to do if they want to apply themselves. A Harvard degree doesn’t necessarily make you successful — it’s what you do with it.”

Gardner called the system’s plan for UMM “as good a response as we can possibly hope for,” but said more needs to be done at all levels of county and community government not only to draw young families to the area but also to convince more young locals to stay. He’s convinced the partnership will spark a turnaround.

Gardner said he has met with UMS Chancellor Jim Page on several occasions to talk about the changes coming to the university, as well as the regional challenges that likely played a part in the campus’ struggles. Those meetings have made it clear to him that the system wants to ensure UMM’s survival long into the future.

If Washington County were to lose UMM, it would mean a devastating blow to an already challenged regional economy. While the region doesn’t depend entirely on the university, the campus serves an incredibly important component that will be needed to “keep the machine running,” Gardner added.

“If this [partnership] is going to be successful, we can’t sit here and say, ‘We hope it works,’” he said. “We have to make it work.”

A path forward

UMM, perched on a hill overlooking downtown Machias, dates back to 1909, when it was founded as a Washington Normal School — an institution to teach teachers. It had about the same number of students then as it does today, but the costs of running a higher education institution are astronomical compared to what they were a century ago.

During the campus’ decline since 2003, the system repeatedly has dipped into reserves to help the campus cover swelling budget deficits, which surpassed $1 million last year. With an annual budget of about $9 million, UMM was forced by those shortfalls to make repeated cuts to faculty, staff and programs, and the campus reached a point where it couldn’t sustain much more bleeding.

Huseman came out of retirement last May, charged with leading the institution through the transition that would bring it under the wing of the Orono campus. She served as UMM’s president in the early 2000s, and also has worked as the system’s vice chancellor of academic affairs, and as acting president of the University of Maine at Farmington.

“I want people to understand this and not be fearful of this,” Huseman said. If approved by the board, the partnership will take effect July 1.

Under the proposed partnership with the flagship campus in Orono, Machias would eliminate the president’s position, replacing it with an executive dean. That dean would work under the president of the Orono campus, while serving as UMM’s top administrator.

As campus officials laid out their plan during last month’s board meeting, some members of the system’s board of trustees aired concerns about losing the president, saying the campus should have a president to serve as the public face and advocate for the institution.

Board Chairman Sam Collins said that the title should be of little concern, and that the right choice of executive dean could represent the campus as well as a president.

Students and faculty shouldn’t notice much of a change. They’ll still get degrees and transcripts that read “The University of Maine at Machias,” and there will still be administrative staff based on campus to help them with problems, though most behind-the-scenes administrative functions that aren’t already handled at the system level will be handed off to the Orono campus.

Getting the word out

Since the universities first rolled out the partnership plan, they’ve been trying to ensure people have an accurate understanding of what changes are coming, and what those shifts will mean for students. Still, university officials have had to contend with rumors and misinformation, including some speculation among students that the school would close or that it will no longer grant degrees, neither of which is the case.

Clair Aldrich is a fourth-year marine biology student who serves as her classmates’ representative to the system’s board of trustees. She said the university has tried to ensure students are getting accurate information.

Late last month, the university held an informational session during the a student senate meeting, but no one outside student government and campus leadership showed up. The campus has even considered asking professors to offer a few points of extra credit as incentive to show up to learn more about the partnership, Aldrich added.

The campus presidents held another community forum on Wednesday, which drew a much better crowd of a few dozen faculty, students and community members.

Aldrich, a Michigan native, said she decided to come to Machias because of its close ties to the sea. Because it’s so small, she was able to get out in the field for hands-on experience in her first year.

Under the partnership, the system wants to solidify UMM’s role as “Maine’s Coastal University,” building a reputation as a leader in in marine industry education. The partnership with UMaine is an intensified version of changes seen under Page’s One University initiative — a systemwide push to consolidate administration, reduce duplication, and focus each campus on its strongest, most specialized programs.

To bolster that effort, the system announced last month that it plans to pump $5 million into the Downeast Institute, an applied marine research facility 25 miles away in the island town of Beals. The growth of that center could make UMM a more attractive option for people looking to enter that field.

Aldrich is studying coral propagation, or the growth of coral, and wants to make a career of selling coral and developing reef habitats. She has a pair of fish tanks in the basement of the campus’ science building where she takes care of her coral, occasionally plucking off bits for sale.

She said she does not share the concern of some students who are worried that UMM will become more like UMaine and lose its small campus feel.

“It won’t,” Aldrich said, adding that it will open up more options and opportunities for students. “I think students should be really excited, especially if they’re a freshman or sophomore.”

The UMaine-UMM partnership also has opened up new ways of earning a degree. The “2+2 program” allows students to spend their first two years at the Machias campus before deciding whether they want to transfer to the Orono campus or finish out in Machias.

The “4+1 program” allows a UMM student graduating with a bachelor’s degree to spend one extra year studying at UMaine in order to earn a master’s degree. System officials hope the new options will drive up enrollment.

Follow Nick McCrea on Twitter at @nmccrea213.