PORTLAND — Major changes are in store for the University of Southern Maine and the entire University of Maine System, which will spend the next six months developing a new organizational model in order to cut $42.8 million in costs over four years.
More than 40 percent of that cut, $18 million, will be made in the first year.
The creation of a task force to recommend savings and restructuring to achieve financial sustainability was announced Sunday by system Chancellor Richard Pattenaude and unanimously approved by its board of trustees.
The announcement comes after $34.2 million in cuts – including 140 full-time positions – from the system office and seven state universities’ 2009 budgets in order to offset reductions in revenue and investment income as well as a state subsidy curtailment of $8.3 million. Gov. John Baldacci’s recommended biennial budget for 2010-2011 includes an additional $5 million cut to the University of Maine System.
“There is no flexibility left in this system,” Pattenaude told trustees. Rather than continue making incremental cost cuts, his recommendation calls for a broad examination of all seven universities, their shared administrative body, and the ways in which they interact, looking for opportunities for consolidation of services – administrative and otherwise.
“Beginning to think like and beginning to act like a system is going to be a key part in this,” Pattenaude said.
The only idea being left off the table, according to the external affairs director, John Diamond, is the consolidation of campuses. At the end of the day, he said, there will still be seven universities and seven presidents – they’ll just interact differently.
The task force, which Diamond said will be appointed within a week, will consist of representatives from all affected groups, including trustees, presidents, the Department of Education, students, faculty, union leaders, and members of the public with expertise in higher education, business and economic development, and large private sector organizations.
The group has been charged with brainstorming and recommending changes, though Pattenaude has already outlined some ideas.
Those suggestions include:
• A centralized information technology function, better utilizing the existing software.
• Consolidation and centralization of back-office services, including finance, human resources, facilities, and legal services.
• Better utilizing internet-based services to support students and academics, including help desks, bursars, billing offices.
• Alternative employment arrangements.
• Changes to collective bargaining and benefits design.
• Centralize purchasing and re-bid all major contracts using a system-wide contract where possible.
• Pursue partnerships with other state entities, especially in areas like IT and health care.
• Establish student-faculty ratio goals and enrollment and graduation targets for each campus.
• Expand use of ITV, internet, and outreach centers.
• Examine the size and role of the chancellor’s office.
• Look at levels and sources of funding for universities, including appropriations.
• Outline optimum levels of academic offerings by geographic area.
Rather than outright demand a set of changes, as has been done before to much criticism in the system, Pattenaude hopes that the inclusiveness of the task force and transparency that will come from it will result in better input and a better, more palatable outcome.
The group will meet over the next few months and present a report to Pattenaude in June. The board of trustees will first see it at its meeting in July.
The $42.8 million goal, Pattenaude said, “is a daunting number. It creates a sense of urgency.” But, he added, quoting a recent quip from the incoming Obama administration, “never waste a crisis.”
Though each university in the system will no doubt be asked to sacrifice and stretch in ways that seemed unthinkable before these economic times, the University of Southern Maine, with campuses in Portland, Gorham and Lewiston/Auburn, may feel the hit even harder.
Just last year, under interim leadership, USM had to overcome an $8.2 million deficit. By the time classes ended mid-May, 91 positions had been eliminated, including 18 layoffs.
Even more jobs have been threatened this year, as the university and new president, Selma Botman, try to balance USM’s budget with its $2.7 million share in the state curtailment.
Cuts so far have included “the usual things,” according to public affairs director Bob Caswell. Travel and equipment are high on that list of low-hanging fruit. Further cuts will be outlined in February, he said, before the university system outlines further changes.
Despite the difficulty USM has faced in settling its recent budget woes, Caswell embraced the opportunity to look at significant, transformational change, which he said hasn’t been done since the university system was established in 1968.
“Setting aside the economic conditions, any organization needs to take a look at itself critically and in an unbiased way,” he said. And considering the economy, he added, “we have no choice” but to do that now.
The university will have to “disinvest in some things,” he said, which may mean re-examining 26 academic programs which last year were threatened by suspension pending plans to achieve their own sustainability. Other programs may be added to that list, he said.
“We’re going to come out of this a different institution,” Caswell said, “a more focused and better institution.”