The state’s public universities in Fort Kent and Presque Isle share four administrative positions and run academic programs on each other’s campuses. They collaborate so much that the regional body that issues their accreditation — essentially the stamp of approval that shows the universities meet a basic benchmark of quality — has questioned whether they’re even separate universities any longer.
The University of Maine System doesn’t mind. In fact, its new leader wants to see more of that collaboration.
He’s proposing that the university system abandon separate accreditation for its seven universities, given that accreditation for the University of Maine at Fort Kent and the University of Maine at Presque Isle “may not be sustainable,” as he wrote in a recent report.
Chancellor Dannel Malloy will make the proposal for a single, statewide accreditation for the University of Maine System — rather than having each of the state’s seven universities pursue accreditation on their own — at a university system trustees meeting Monday.
Already, the University of Maine at Machias, which became a regional campus of the flagship University of Maine in 2017, has fallen under UMaine’s accreditation since last year.
A university’s accreditation is meant to signify that its academic programs meet a basic benchmark of quality, that its facilities are sufficient for a college education and that the university has a particular organizational structure.
Under the unified accreditation Malloy is proposing, smaller campuses such as those in Presque Isle and Fort Kent could lean on the system as a whole to satisfy those requirements, which are set by the New England Commission of Higher Education.
“Under our current model of all of the campuses having to separately do all of this by themselves, if they find themselves having a big drop in enrollment, loss of revenue, then they may be challenged to come up with the resources on their own to still meet all of the standards on their own,” said Jim Thelen, Malloy’s chief of staff and the university system’s general counsel.
The Fort Kent and Presque Isle campuses, for example, work so closely together that regional accreditors have questioned whether they can maintain separate accreditation. The two campuses share four administrative positions, including the dean of students and the registrar. Fort Kent offers a nursing program at Presque Isle, and Presque Isle runs the education program on the Fort Kent Campus.
“In some ways, this is NECHE saying, you’re working together so closely, are you really two separate institutions or should we consider you as one?” Thelen said. “That principle is what we’re talking about doing statewide. We want all seven to work together so closely that NECHE will recognize them as actually being one university.”
Though the universities on their own might not meet accreditation requirements, Malloy said, they will continue to exist in their current locations as independently managed institutions.
“One of the obligations of accreditation is to spell out who’s responsible for what. That primary obligation will be to the system in the future,” Malloy said. “That allows for there to be much more work across multiple campuses than is currently permitted.”
This is not the first time the University of Maine System has considered a statewide accreditation. It was first proposed in 1986, but did not happen. In 2015, former Chancellor James Page asked the accrediting commission for an advisory opinion on what a system-wide accreditation would look like.
“It is time to become One University in more than name,” Malloy wrote in his report recommending unified accreditation to the board, referring to an initiative started under Page to reduce administrative costs, assign unique missions to each campus and decrease duplication.
Another advantage to the single accreditation — albeit a small one in the context of the university system’s budget — would be financial, according to Malloy’s report to the trustees. The unified accreditation would save the system $800,000 over 10 years because only the system, not individual universities, would have to pay annual New England Commission of Higher Education dues and review fees.
The exact details of how unified accreditation will impact faculty positions, tuition and services on each campus are unknown at this point, Malloy said.
“We’re going to be meeting the needs of students to a higher degree than we are currently,” Malloy.
Ray Rice, President of the University of Maine at Presque Isle, said it is important to keep the autonomy of the individual universities intact even if the system pursues a single accreditation.
“We’re going to want to make sure that faculty, staff and students are being heard,” he said. “I think as long as it goes through an inclusive process, this will lead to a stronger system and stronger individual institutions as well.”
Watch: Dannel Malloy makes first public remarks after being named next chancellor for University of Maine System