Editorial: University system needs practical vision 

It has been a tumultuous couple of months for University of Maine System leadership, and for the faculty and students who look to them to lead. Trustees in May approved a $616.7 million systemwide budget for the coming fiscal year, up $30.8 million from the current budget. To get there, they used campus reserves and stabilization funds to close an $18.8 million gap. 

Of the seven universities in the system, only the University of Maine at Augusta (UMA) and University of Southern Maine (USM) have balanced FY23 budgets. The University of Maine at Orono will use $11.9 million in reserves to balance its books. The system will give the University of Maine at Farmington (UMF), University of Maine at Fort Kent (UMFK), University of Maine at Presque Isle (UMPI) and Maine Law a combined $6.5 million to balance their budgets. UMF and UMPI also will receive $1.45 million and $1.83 million, respectively, to offset operating losses this year. Nine faculty positions were cut at UMF to much uproar. 

Just before the budget was finalized, trustees announced that Michael Laliberte had withdrawn as the next president of UMA after news broke that he was the subject of no-confidence votes at his previous university. That information, pertinent in the hiring process, was not shared with all the trustees. And while Laliberte had yet to report for his first day of work at UMA, he will still get paid $205,000 for at least the first year. He may receive additional compensation in the second and third years of his contract if he is unable to find comparable employment. A new national search will begin in the fall and trustees have pledged more inclusivity and transparency. 

UMS Chancellor Dannel Malloy has received no-confidence votes of his own from faculty at University of Maine at Machias, UMA, USM and UMFK.  

As new UMaine System board chairwoman Trish Riley points out in a May 28 commentary in the Portland Press Herald, Maine’s public university system is facing mounting pressures. The population is aging, and fewer students are enrolling. Workforce needs are changing fast. Some programs have proved unsustainable, so too will be relying on reserves long-term. Cuts can have ripple effects. In a recent article about local municipalities struggling to hire, some officials pointed to the elimination of master’s programs in public administration and planning as contributing factors.  

The university system serves more than 30,000 students each year and cannot possibly meet every individual student and employer need perfectly. However, it is vital that the institution remain accessible, affordable and relevant. To that end, UMS is creating a five-year strategic plan with the help of a consulting group. Let’s hope that effort is more functional than feel-good. Forward-thinking is critical. But too often, strategic plans are completed at much time and expense only to be shelved. Then the whole process is repeated all over again 5-10 years down the road. 

Tuition for Maine residents at UMaine is $11,940 a year. Add in fees, room and board, supplies and travel costs, and the total comes to about $27,412. Any student contemplating that cost should demand the best bang for their buck. Any strategic plan should be grounded in giving it to them.  

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