The University of Maine System has made significant changes in recent years. Campuses now coordinate on some of the programs and degrees they offer. In a few programs, they share faculty. Students can better transition from one campus to another. The system office in Bangor has been eliminated, and its spending on administration has been reduced.
None of these things, of course, are particularly remarkable reforms, which highlights the challenges — a few resolved, many ongoing — that face the seven-university system.
Change is slow in academics. Yet, Maine has problems — a shortage of trained workers is top among them — that need to be addressed now, not when politicians and academics are comfortable with, or have minimized, any changes.
Here’s how the BDN put it in 2014: “If there’s one thing to note about the University of Maine System’s history, it’s that it’s filled with discussion of big changes with limited follow-through. Change proposals repeatedly have been doomed by efforts among campus personnel and lawmakers to protect their schools’ position and value in the system.”
Against this backdrop, Chancellor James Page, who announced on Wednesday that he will leave the system next year, has made important progress on reforming the system. Perhaps more importantly, Page has quieted critics of change. However, as Page readily admits, there is much more work to do.
In announcing Page’s departure, the system’s board of trustees committed to what it calls “strategic priorities.” They are a continuation of what Page, a nonacademic and the first Maine native to lead the university system, started. These priorities — a commitment to workforce development and reducing student debt — remain appropriate. What should change is the timetable. Progress toward a coordinated, proactive system that serves the needs of Maine students, businesses and residents must be sped up.
Fortunately, trustees appear to be in agreement. “It shouldn’t be rare or noteworthy that two campuses collaborate on a course,” UMS board chairman Jim Erwin said Tuesday.
A major part of Page’s effort to change the system’s trajectory was the One University initiative launched in January 2015 to reduce administrative costs, reduce duplication and assign unique missions.
Page said Tuesday that UMS has “moved from a federation to a unified system.” This required a cultural shift within a system where individual campuses have traditionally acted in their own interests and were annually allocated funding based on a formula derived decades before.
This work could not have happened without first fixing the system’s finances. Page faced an impending $90 million budget deficit when he took the chancellorship in 2012. The university system cut more than 900 positions from its budget between 2007 and 2015, saving $82 million in salary and benefit costs each year. In 2016, the system closed its central administrative office in downtown Bangor and transferred system office staff to different campuses. And in 2017, the University of Maine at Machias, the system’s smallest university, became a satellite campus of the flagship University of Maine in Orono. The two campuses now share a president and other administration.
In the next three to five years, the system’s trustees have committed to continuing workforce development and training. This includes important changes such as offering microcredentials, instead of degrees, to ensure that student skills match employer needs, and being more flexible and affordable for adults who have some university education but want to complete a degree. The system also pledged to expand early college opportunities and keep higher education affordable to reduce student debt.
These are the right priorities. The difficulty will be in moving more quickly to achieve them.