The Universal Notebook: UMaine System won't turn around easily

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Former University of Maine System Chancellor Robert Woodbury, a man I liked and admired greatly, died Sept.12 at the age of 71. Bob once told me that running a university is like skippering an ocean liner – it takes a long time to turn it around and head in a new direction.

Current University of Maine System Chancellor Richard Pattenaude, another man I like and admire greatly, is about to chart a new course for the state university system, but I confess that after reading “The University of Maine System and the Future of Maine,” the 16-page “Final Report and Implementation Plan of the New Challenges, New Directions Initiative” released Sept. 14, I wasn’t sure what that course was. The action plan struck me more as a minor course correction than as a bold new direction.

The June 23 “Report of the Task Force: New Challenges, New Directions” upon which Rich Pattenaude is acting was very clear about what has long seemed to me one of the major challenges facing the University of Maine System: academic duplication.

“The State of Maine is not big enough or wealthy enough to offer as many overlapping majors and programs as it currently supports,” the task force, which was headed by former Central Maine Power CEO David Flanagan, concluded. “The principle that you can reside on any campus and get a degree in nearly anything is neither affordable nor does it promote quality. This is the single most significant area in which savings can be realized to fund priorities of public policy and to balance the System budget.”

With the University of Maine System facing a $42.8 million annual shortfall in its $600 million annual operating budget, I guess I had expected a radical change of direction – consolidations, mergers, major program eliminations, perhaps even the closing of one of the seven university campuses or 10 satellite centers. But, when I spoke with him via telephone, Pattenaude pointed out that the Flanagan task force had not recommended structural changes in the system and, further, that he might well be the “former Chancellor” if he ever proposed closing a campus.

“It is bold, but not radical,” Pattenaude said of the new direction he is taking the Good Ship University of Maine System.

“For the first time,” he said, “the chief academic officers are sitting down to look at where some should step back and some should step forward. That has never happened before.”

The Pattenaude proposal calls for expanding majors such as nursing, innovation, world languages, science, technology, engineering and math, while eliminating courses with enrollments of 12 or less and majors with five or fewer graduates. I guess that would have been bad news for me back in 1971, when I was one of five philosophy majors at the University of Southern Maine (then the University of Maine, Portland-Gorham). Of course, since both the president and the dean of UMPG at the time taught in the department, philosophy might have survived such a supply-and-demand approach to economizing.

When I spoke with Pattenaude, he was preparing to speak later in the day at Bob Woodbury’s memorial service. I mentioned Woodbury’s nautical analogy to him and he knew immediately what his predecessor meant.

“I want the University of Maine System to be more agile and more responsive to state needs, and we are putting in place the capacity to do that,” he said. “The ocean liner is turning.”

Bon voyage, UMaine System. As the most important engine of Maine’s future, we all have a stake in the course you take.

Sidebar Elements

beem-edgar-op.jpgThe Universal Notebook is Edgar Allen Beem’s personal look at the world around him.