The University of Maine System’s board of trustees has agreed to a preliminary plan to knock down up to 300,000 square feet of vacant, underused or deteriorating building space on university campuses across the state.
It might seem a strange development to celebrate, but it’s worth acknowledging. It’s a sign the University of Maine System is taking steps to prepare for a future that won’t be as reliant on brick-and-mortar spaces and residential students straight out of high school.
Maine’s universities currently occupy nearly 600 facilities that take up more 9 million square feet and are spread across more than 3,800 acres. As a result, knocking down 300,000 square feet would work out to the universities losing only about 3 percent of their building space.
It might not be large in the scheme of things, but it’s an adjustment to a reality that the universities’ physical infrastructure has become too large for the student body it’s supporting, and that the cost of maintaining lightly used space is too high for the state’s universities, which should be investing as much of their operating budgets as possible in improving academic quality and holding the line on tuition.
While the University of Maine System has managed to stem some major enrollment declines in recent years, in part with the help of growth among out-of-state students, the long-term trend is still heading in the direction of a smaller student body. Over the past five years, enrollment across the system has fallen 4.5 percent, according to the system’s fall 2017 enrollment report, with the decline particularly pronounced at the University of Southern Maine, the University of Maine at Machias and the University of Maine at Augusta.
As enrollment has dropped, the universities have been contending with a growing facility maintenance backlog in the hundreds of millions of dollars, along with the reality that more than a third of university facilities haven’t undergone any significant renovation in 50 or more years.
The University of Maine System isn’t alone in grappling with the reality of too much space as student bodies change and universities offer more classes online.
There’s a general consensus in the world of higher education that college campuses will likely have to grow smaller as more student learning moves online and adults who have no need for residence halls come to represent a greater percentage of students.
That trend, however, doesn’t mean the physical college campus diminishes in importance. Its role simply changes. If traditional classroom lectures are replaced by online learning, the learning that takes place on campus will be interactive, hands-on and technology-intensive. Classroom spaces will have to be set up for that type of learning — which is also the type of learning that develops the communication, collaboration and technology skills employers generally seek in new hires.
As Maine’s universities plan what they will look like in the future physically and programmatically, they should recognize that, even when the future involves growth, it won’t always require the expansion of their footprint and the construction of new buildings.
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