Just weeks after system trustees approved a new budget, incoming University of Southern Maine President Glenn Cummings said he is facing a $2.5 million shortfall because fall enrollments are unexpectedly down about 11 percent from last year.

“Given that enrollment may continue to decline, we are still going to make some tough choices,” Cummings said in an interview Wednesday with the Portland Press Herald editorial board. “There are still austerity measures ahead.”

Over the past year, 51 faculty positions and five academic programs have been eliminated to cut costs.

But any new cuts will not be to academic programs, said USM Interim Chief Financial Officer Buster Neel. He said the school expects to fill the roughly $2.5 million gap by using some savings, putting off facility upgrades for a year and/or not filling vacancies immediately.

“From a student perspective, they will really see no impact,” Neel said.

USM’s $128 million budget for the year beginning July 1 had assumed enrollment would stay steady. But as of mid-May, USM had 572 first-year students planning to attend in the fall, an 11 percent drop from the 644 planning to enroll at that time last year.

Cummings, the former speaker of the Maine House, said his first priority is to rebuild trust with students and faculty following the deep spending cuts already made.

“First we have to do some healing and some listening. (Outgoing President David) Flanagan was the general responsible for the battle. I have to build a Marshall Plan,” he said, referring to the U.S. effort to rebuild Europe after World War II.

IMPROVING RECRUITMENT, RETENTION

Jackie Jacobson, who graduated in May, questioned how the school could grow if there is a budget shortfall.

“It’s hard to look at a future of growth and austerity at the same time,” said Jacobson, who served as the USM graduate student representative to the University of Maine System board of trustees. “I appreciate that there is realism infused in the vision, but what is the right balance that will serve people who are currently students and invested in the programs and make it a viable future?”

Cummings, who most recently served as interim president of UMaine-Augusta, said he plans three initiatives to improve enrollment numbers: stemming the dropout rate at USM, improving outreach to high school students and strengthening marketing, particularly to out-of-state students.

Cummings said a recent survey found that many students felt “lost” at USM, and he plans to add services so freshmen and sophomores feel more engaged with the school and community.

“It’s a lot easier to keep customers than go out and look for new ones,” he said.

USM’s student retention rate has lagged behind the national average, with a six-year graduation rate of 33.5 percent, compared with a national average of 57 percent. Cummings noted that USM’s student population is about 40 percent non-traditional, older students who tend to take fewer classes while juggling work and family, factors that can affect the school’s overall graduation rate.

Cummings also wants to widen the pipeline into the school, with more aggressive outreach to high schools in the area. Partnerships could allow high school students to take USM courses, or have USM professors go to high schools to teach college-level courses.

Cummings, who once led a charter school in Maine, said he also wanted to explore the idea of opening a charter school or “university lab school” for high school juniors and seniors on USM’s Gorham campus. The state pays about $10,000 for each student in charter schools, which is higher than USM’s annual tuition of about $8,000 a year. The school would also be a resource for USM education students who want to student-teach, he said.

Marketing will also be key, particularly for out-of-state students who pay more in tuition. USM recently hired a new enrollment director and is considering hiring an outside company used by other UMaine campuses to boost enrollment.

In the meantime, Cummings said USM this summer would be actively recruiting non-traditional, older students for the fall semester, noting that those students tend to enroll later.

USM’s financial struggles are reflected in higher education nationwide, with 59 percent of public colleges missing their enrollment targets in 2013-14, according to the Education Advisory Board, a private education consultancy firm based in Washington, D.C.

Enrollment in the UMaine System overall last fall was down 2.5 percent from 2014, and it is down 7.5 percent over five years.

A BATTLE AMID THE HEALING PROCESS

Other ideas that USM is exploring include seeking a private developer to build dorms or facilities on the Gorham campus, embedding a full-time USM recruiter at Southern Maine Community College, and working out new academic partnerships with UMaine in Orono to make more graduate programs available to USM students. Under this proposal, a student could enroll at USM in a five-year program that includes Orono graduate courses and leads to a master’s degree.

An example of that kind of partnership is already underway, with the plan to create a single graduate center to unify the university system business and law schools.

Cummings said the USM community has felt “real pain” in recent years.

“What happened at USM … was very, very difficult, and painful for the community to watch,” said Cummings, who lives a few blocks from the Portland campus. “Letting people tell their stories, by listening, that’s a natural part of the healing process.”

But the enrollment drop and budget gap mean “the battle is not over yet,” he said.

“We have to be organized and move forward. Just having constancy of leadership will help a lot,” Cummings said. “It’s going to take a year or two.”

Chancellor James Page said he hoped the community would rally around Cummings and his plans for USM.

“My impression is that the community is really looking for signals and reasons to rally behind the university,” Page said. “I am hopeful that the community is going to rally in a really big way.”