One of the candidates for chancellor — the one now in charge of the University of Maine System’s finances — would push to increase system-wide efficiency if selected for leadership.
Rebecca Wyke, a two-time graduate of the University of Maine and current vice chancellor for finance and administration for the University of Maine System, is one of three finalists for the chancellor position.
Wyke worked in state government until 2008, when she came to the system. She served as commissioner of the Department of Administrative and Financial Services from 2003 to 2008 and was the chief financial advisor to former Gov. John Baldacci, overseeing development of the state budget. She was chief deputy secretary of state from 1995 to 2002 and also held financial duties there.
She believes her years of experience with budgets and the fiscal health of broad organizations have prepared her for managing the system of seven universities. She is pursuing a doctorate in higher education management from the University of Pennsylvania, which she said is “directly on point” for getting a handle on problems the system is facing.
In a Tuesday interview, the thread of the need for efficiency in the system was woven through many of her answers.
“We essentially operate seven universities separately, and there are things that absolutely should be managed at that level,” Wyke said. “We’d like to have everything everywhere,” she added, mentioning the proliferation of majors and programs at the seven locations.
That wide-reaching ambition of the system has led to duplication of services and programs, some of which Wyke suggests consolidating in order to save money. However, she advocates the continued presence of all seven universities.
“I honestly think we would lose students” through consolidation, she said. “Not everybody is ready for the experience of the University of Maine and not everybody is ready for the experience of the University of Maine at Machias.”
She would like to see the offices of human resources, information technologies and finance consolidated but does not think managing them at the system level is necessary.
She spoke of a recent decision to consolidate accounts payable services, such as orchestrating former students’ loan payments, at UMaine for all seven campuses, using a structure that was already in place and expanding its scope. Offices already in place at other campuses could be expanded in the same way in order to rein in the approach to providing services.
“It doesn’t need to be at the system,” she said. “It needs to be where there is a concentration of expertise.”
She sees affordability of education as one of the largest issues facing the system. Wyke also serves as treasurer for the system and balances those duties with her past experience in state finances to describe the hurdles to education that students face.
“We really have not been able to lift up people’s individual incomes” as a state, she said. “We need an educated workforce if we just want to preserve the jobs we have today, let alone grow them.”
She spoke about “dramatic increases in tuition” seen when she first joined Baldacci’s office and corresponding decreases in income throughout the state. She remembered a desire to see the system streamline some services during that time but was disappointed.
“I think there was a hope that the economy would recover in a way … to subsidize tuition,” she said. “There has been a shift from state support to students and families.”
One way to combat declining enrollment is to focus on the changing demographic of the state, she said. The traditional age for college students is 18 to 24, a group that is shrinking in size as the adult population of the state is expanding. Wyke said more options for online study and more programs tailored to job opportunities in Maine are needed to reach adult students.
“For the adults, if we don’t serve them, someone else will,” she said. “It’s a global competition and that would only worsen.”
She said the trend of increasing tuition and decreasing income, though slowed in recent years, has continued, which has sustained that roadblock to graduation.
“I look at [tuition] as a moral obligation,” she said. “I think it’s our duty as a public entity to make sure we use those dollars most efficiently.”
When asked about Gov. Paul LePage’s stated vision for a statewide five-year high school program, through which students can graduate with an associate’s degree, as a model for combating declining enrollment, Wyke described the program as a “formalization” of early college programs already seen in Maine.
“I think that holds a lot of opportunity,” she said. “That achievement step of getting an associate’s degree clearly shows that the student is capable of doing the work. … We need more associate’s degrees. We need a lot more baccalaureate degrees.”
If a K-12 pilot program currently being tested in Fort Kent between the local high school and the University of Maine at Fort Kent, is rolled out across the state, Wyke would like to see it funded through K-12 education rather than at the university level, though UMFK is currently covering some of the pilot’s costs.
Wyke works closely with financial administrators at each of the seven campuses. Reached Wednesday, three spoke highly of her capacity to lead.
“She’s worked to get us organized,” said Charles Bonin, vice president for administration and finance at the University of Maine at Presque Isle. “We haven’t seen that happen in the past couple years.”
Dick Campbell, chief financial officer for the University of Southern Maine, said he would have a “positive” reaction if Wyke were selected as chancellor.
“I have found her to be very inclusive, very insightful, has a great understanding of the relationship between the university and state government,” Campbell said. “I think she’s somebody who is very thoughtful.”
Ellen Schneiter, vice president for finance and administration at the University of Maine at Augusta, also used the word “thoughtful” to describe Wyke.
“She listens to all the voices and can sift through a lot of information and come up with a strategy,” Schneiter said. “She can be outspoken. I’ve seen that firsthand, and she’s not afraid to do that, but she’s very judicious of when to employ that tactic.”
She worked with Wyke in Augusta during Baldacci’s administration and said the commitment to employees and colleagues she saw during that time is evident now in the system.
“She stood behind you,” Schneiter said.
The board of trustees is expected to appoint the new chancellor at its March meeting. Meredith Hay, a University of Arizona system-level adviser, and James Page, CEO of Old Town-based James W. Sewall Co. and adjunct associate philosophy professor at UMaine, are also candidates.