December 16, 2018
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UMaine trustees OK spending $10M on demolitions in push to downsize

Courtesy of the University of Maine
Courtesy of the University of Maine
An aerial view of the University of Maine campus in Orono.

The University of Maine System is rolling out the bulldozers to rid itself of run-down and underused buildings and reduce its oversized footprint.

During its regular meeting on Monday, the board of trustees approved a plan to use about $10 million in bond proceeds to tear down 300,000 square feet of buildings. That accounts for nearly 3 percent of the system’s overall 9 million-square-foot building footprint.

It marks the seven-campus system’s largest and most concerted effort to downsize since a report found the universities had more space than they needed, and many of those spaces were in dire need of costly maintenance, renovations or destruction.

Sightlines, the higher education facilities analysis firm that released the 2011 report, has been working with university system administrators in the following years, releasing periodic updates of the system’s progress. Since that initial report, UMS has removed about 250,000 square feet of dilapidated or outdated buildings. The slate of demolitions approved Monday will more than double that.

The most prominent buildings slated for destruction are a pair of vacant dormitory towers on the University of Southern Maine’s Gorham campus, Dickey Wood Residence Halls. Trustees will have to give approval for individual demolition projects at future meetings, and campuses are still determining which of their buildings might come under the wrecking ball.

UMS officials said these buildings cost about $7 per square foot to operate and maintain each year, and demolishing the spaces should save about $2.3 million each year.

Sightlines is expected to release another update regarding the state of campus facilities this spring.

Who will be the top Black Bear?

We’re close to learning more about who the system is vetting for the University of Maine presidency, according to trustee Lisa Marchese Eames, a member of the presidential search committee who updated her colleagues on Monday.

The committee is setting up schedules for four unnamed finalists to visit Orono and Machias campuses next month, likely Feb. 19-26. After those visits, which will include open meetings with campus staff and students, the committee will send its feedback to Chancellor James Page, who will make a recommendation to the board of trustees at its March meeting.

The task of running the system’s flagship campus became even more lofty last year, when UMaine took over administrative responsibility for the system’s struggling Machias campus.

The search to replace current UMaine President Susan Hunter drew 105 applicants, according to Eames. Hunter is expected to retire later this year, a step she’s agreed to dlay multiple times after university system officials asked her to stay on to fill vacancies and lead Orono and Machias through their partnership transition.

The search committee is working quickly because it’s likely that several top picks are in the running for jobs at other colleges and universities across the nation.

“We are in a very competitive market for university presidents,” Eames said.

Political points

Controversy over a proposed policy to restrict how staff from universities can lobby or speak about contentious political issues appears to have been quelled.

In an effort to protect the university system’s nonprofit status from challenge, system officials rolled out a policy proposal on “Institutional Authority on Political Matters,” which states that all legislative advocacy must be coordinated through the chancellor’s office, and only by certain high-level employees.

Some faculty members who read through initial drafts of the policy expressed concerns that it would limit their ability to speak freely or share their expertise on topics with legislators, the public or students.

After meeting with faculty groups, UMS general counsel Jim Thelen amended the language of the policy to make it clear that faculty could still share their research with government agencies and others.

Faculty representatives say the changes resolved the bulk of their concerns.

“I think everyone listened to each other and we have a much better policy than what we started with but a bit more work needs to be done,” said faculty union president Jim McClymer.

Thelen plans to bring a revised version of the policy back to trustees in March for a vote.

Nurses needed

Also during the meeting, the University of Maine at Fort Kent announced the launch of an early college introductory nursing program.

That program, offered in 16 Maine high schools, gives students access to an online course meant to start them on a path to a nursing career. As a pilot program, it could be expanded if the system sees results.

Maine’s universities have been scrambling to find ways to educate more nurses since a study revealed a looming shortage of 3,200 nurses in Maine by 2025. So far, the increased attention to the need for nurses and efforts to grow programs on individual campuses has shown some results, bumping up nursing enrollments 11 percent over the past decade.

Follow Nick McCrea on Twitter at @nmccrea213.

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Correction: An earlier version of this report incorrectly stated that 16 students were enrolled in the University of Maine at Fort Kent’s introductory nursing program. The program is offered at 16 high schools.

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