Administrators in the University of Maine System make a strong case for the necessity for structural change if the state is going to be able to better meet the educational needs of its people.

That was the message behind the elimination of 50 University of Southern Maine faculty positions — along with USM’s French major and master’s program in applied medical sciences — to fill $6 million of a $16 million shortfall in the $134 million budget.

“For many years, we have been cutting budgets without changing our academic programs or the culture of the university,” wrote USM Provost Joseph McDonnell in a memo to the community. “Our crisis is too deep to merely trim the sails.”

Unfortunately, that appears to be exactly what they’re doing. The university would have done a better job at signaling the cultural change the administrators say is necessary by doing the process in reverse. Buildings should have been closed before faculty members were laid off. The administration should have been streamlined before programs were cut.

USM is physically too big

When the university system trustees meet this month, they should address the question of whether USM can become a smaller and more vital and responsive urban university while retaining three campuses sprawling over a 40-mile triangle. The time has come for an in-depth and public discussion about selling off or repurposing the Gorham campus and leaving the university in Portland and Lewiston-Auburn, the state’s two biggest urban areas. That kind of physical consolidation would be a better way than layoffs to start the program restructuring that the administration says is necessary.

The announcement of the cuts last week did not go smoothly. The size of the reduction in personnel was surprising, and the rollout was hurt by some incorrect numbers produced by the administration. Interim President David Flanagan repeatedly said that USM’s enrollment had declined by 30 percent over the last five years. The real number is closer to 15 percent.

That’s still evidence of an enrollment problem, but the mistake doesn’t create confidence about the administrators’ grasp of the problem and feeds conspiracy theories among faculty and students.

The cuts are consistent with Chancellor James Page’s vision for the university system, in which the campuses are run as a system and not a confederation of seven competing institutions. That strategy was first articulated by Flanagan, who chaired a study commission that called for changes to the system in 2009.

The report envisions a system with one flagship campus — the University of Maine in Orono — and other specialized programs in the other campuses. This vision calls for USM to become a “metropolitan university” that partners with the community, focusing on internships and in-service learning. This is not a popular vision with many members of the USM community, who would like to see their school on an equal footing with Orono, but it could be a workable model for an underresourced system that has to make choices.

UNIVERSITY SYSTEM IS INEFFICIENT

The problems at USM are the same ones faced by the university system as a whole. They are both inefficient organizations that are spread too thin to be effective. They both face a demographic trend promising fewer college-age Mainers every year. They both are forced to make up for declining support from state government, which, over the last three decades, has gone from paying two-thirds of the cost of a student’s education to paying one-third.

And neither USM nor the university system will be able to make a case for more students or more state money until they can prove to the public that they are not mismanaged institutions in decline. Cutting faculty and programs year after year is not a way to prove that point, but taking bold steps by consolidating facilities would send the message.

There is a reason that Flanagan has started with personnel cuts. The faculty contracts require notice if these changes are to be made in time for next year’s budget, and the majority of the budget is tied up in salaries.

But while that makes practical sense, it does not tell the broader community that USM is doing more than “trimming the sails” and making structural changes.

Just as USM can’t keep offering every program it offers now to a declining pool of students, it can’t continue to occupy the space that it does now. Stating clearly where the university should be and who it should serve should come at the start of the process, not the end. The trustees should shed buildings before getting rid of programs.


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