Policy Wonk: The University of Maine’s Faustian bargain, and other mistakes

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In the fall of 2012, after a self-imposed tuition freeze for the academic year starting that fall, the University of Maine System board of trustees and then-new Chancellor James Page responded to Gov. Paul LePage’s request for belt-tightening by proposing a further two-year tuition freeze in exchange for flat funding from the Legislature.

That took all the pressure off the governor. He kept university funding, scaled down as a result of the recession, to levels below what they were in 2008. It put all the pressure on the system to deal with increasing cost demands (particularly in high tech fields), long-deferred maintenance needs, and the inflationary pressures of the day, without the benefit of reasonable tuition increases that would make up some of the revenue loss.

Bottom line: the board and chancellor painted themselves into a fiscal corner. The whole system is paying the price for this failure to think through the fiscal consequences of the political bargain struck with a governor who simply out-maneuvered them.

As, or perhaps more, important is the continuing failure of the system to realize that we are spread too thin. In the name of outreach, student convenience, or public service we have created and maintained far too many individual universities (seven, some with multiple campuses) and college outreach centers (eight), plus an additional 31 course sites, a Cooperative Extension Service, a law school, and a centralized systems office – all to serve a population of only 1.3 million people.

It’s economically unsustainable.

Many of these units are needed, unique, valuable, and indispensable, but not all. In the same way that organizations in the private sector with multiple outlets periodically re-evaluate and close less-utilized outlets, system leaders (all purporting to be hard-headed business people) need to screw up their courage and close some system facilities.

There will be political push-back, but the obvious response of the chancellor and board must be, if the Legislature wants the current overly broad number of system units, it must pay the freight. Flat funding puts us in a hole in real (inflation-adjusted) dollars. The hole gets bigger when the state insists on tuition freezes. In short, the state’s disinvestment in higher education must end.

This suggestion does not cut programs or faculty; that’s a separate issue we’ll get to. It would cut locations, our over-commitment to physical facilities, some of which are only a few miles apart. It may require some programs and faculty to relocate, but that’s doable once we’ve right-sized the system.

A longer term reality that successive chancellors and boards have ignored is the geographic shift in population and economic activity in the state.

Bangor remains important, and it will be for a long time to come. But it’s not the population center of the state, nor is it the economic hub it was even 50 years ago, when lumber and paper were still king and Portland was struggling in the wake of a post-World War II economic slowdown.

Today, greater Portland (Cumberland and York counties) is the economic center of gravity of Maine’s economy and population growth. It will not go away. These areas are closer to Boston and other Northeast metropolitan areas. The economy is more diverse.

This area needs a University of Southern Maine that reflects these realities, that feeds the growing economic engine and population that greater Portland represents. Recent calls for reinventing USM as a “metropolitan university” (a label no one has yet fully defined) seem simply a way to maintain the historic status quo, or worse, to scale down USM.

Given the population and economic shifts noted, these are both bad choices. Substantively, from the standpoint of undergraduate and graduate programs, faculty size, needed facilities, collaborative research activity, USM needs to become a co-equal with the University of Maine at Orono. There needs to be a significant reallocation of system dollars to USM.

The campus at Orono, by virtue of its history, the sunk cost in buildings, existing programs and faculty, and the continuing vitality of Bangor, may well remain a flagship campus. But going forward, two strong university hubs (Orono and USM) are needed. All other parts of the system should feed into these hubs. Program duplication between these hubs and other parts of the system can be minimized (that’s what a chancellor’s office is for).

As for cutting programs, I’d begin with top-heavy administrative personnel and salaries, and athletic departments. We don’t need to keep up with national norms in either of these areas. We need to keep our eye on what a university is all about: teaching and research; helping people learn how to think, write, and solve problems; turning out graduates in emerging fields.

It’s not about recruiting high-priced campus presidents, deans, provosts, or financial experts (often from away); it’s also not about having a great (Division I or II) football, basketball, or hockey program. Cutting back personnel, salaries and programs in these areas is where this old law professor would begin.

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Orlando Delogu of Portland is emeritus professor of law at the University of Maine School of Law and a longtime public policy consultant to federal, state, and local government agencies and officials. He can be reached at orlando.delogu@maine.edu.