To James Page, the University of Maine System’s new chancellor, public higher education is one of Maine’s greatest investments.
It is a portfolio driven largely by the state’s students, taxpayers and economy, but that investment has been volatile in recent years. Page says now is the time to take a “top to bottom” look at its direction.
“In the short term, we have some immediate budgetary and financial questions that we have to address immediately. These things can’t wait. We have to start with those right off,” he said during his first extensive interview with The Maine Campus since starting his new role with the system on Tuesday.
In the long term, Page said the system must “work to see how it’s going to organize itself in order to better meet the challenges of the future.”
Those challenges abound, as is the case for much of public higher education across the country. Although Page sidestepped the specifics of some ideas he put forth during the system’s selection process, he referenced many wide-ranging, broad ideas.
Chief among his initial tasks will be to bring the system’s seven universities under a tighter umbrella by getting them to work more closely with one another.
“Our policy functions are our administrative functions. We need to be asking ourselves what it is we need to accomplish in order to achieve a more unified system,” Page said. “Our policies have got to be more widely developed throughout the system; this is not just about the central office in Bangor.
“I look at it like this: We ask the people of this state to invest a great amount of resources in the system,” he continued. “We need to figure out how to best repay that investment.”
But according to Page, figuring out how to make the system more effective will be an enormous challenge. He acknowledged that faculty and administrators statewide have been eager throughout the years to share their ideas for doing so.
Ideas have run the gamut from shrinking the size and scope of the system to rethinking the roles that each campus plays within it and altering the way the system allocates funding and state appropriations.
Among the most contentious of those ideas is shrinking the system, or even doing away with it. At a January visit to the University of Maine during the selection process, Page spoke of re-examining the size of the system during public interviews for the position of chancellor, calling the system a group of “160 people — hard-working, energetic people — who generate zero credit hours.”
But he says reducing the system’s size and reach is not the main problem.
“We have a resource allocation problem. We have to be able to identify mission-critical activities and make sure they are adequately supported,” Page said. “We are going to be taking a look from top to bottom throughout the system. If we identify critical areas that need more resources, we will reallocate if need be.
“We’re not going to shrink our way to success.”
Page said reallocating resources will be especially daunting, considering the budget squeeze the system has experienced in recent years, coupled with declining state appropriations.
He said enrollment management will be just one key to increasing the number of students within the system. He also added that more diligent attention will need to be paid to the uniqueness of each member campus’ research efforts. Both measures, he said, will assist the system and its campuses in buoying revenues that can no longer be sought from the state Legislature.
But here, he stressed that the system alone cannot attract and retain students, something he says will mean influencing each campus to search for new ways to raise their competitive edge and emphasize their own unique qualities and missions.
Much like his predecessor, Richard Pattenaude, who stepped down this month after inheriting the system when it found itself on the verge of crisis in 2007, Page is now charged with guiding the system through the recession’s repercussions.
The system has worked assiduously through a series of strategic initiatives that helped reduce its projected deficit from $43 million to $10 million at 2013’s end.
Such a gain came only after the system cut its workforce and oversaw cuts to academic departments, among other things. This year, for the first time in 25 years, the board of trustees voted to freeze in-state tuition and fees.
Page applauded the move, saying it sends a message to Mainers that the system is working to set a new course toward greater affordability and the preservation of quality education.
In all, public higher education is shifting nationwide. According to a recent report released by the College Board, the national average increase in tuition and fees at public four-year colleges and universities between the 2010-11 and the 2011–12 academic years was 8.3 percent.
What’s more, the College Board also reported earlier this year that national student loan debt has ballooned in the last decade from $41 billion to $103 billion, a mark that now puts it ahead of credit card debt in the United States. According to the Wall Street Journal, student loan debt topped the $1 trillion mark sometime last year.
When asked about the Obama administration’s plans to tie colleges’ eligibility for campus-based aid programs to an institution’s ability to limit costs and improve efficiency, Page said he knew little of the specifics but thought it was a step in the right direction.
“The University of Maine System and its component campuses have an obligation, almost a moral obligation, to make their education and all their programs affordable,” Page said. “Anything that moves toward that direction will receive a knee-jerk reaction, from myself, to take a long and hard look at it.”
Though Page said he has a number of priorities going forward, at this point, nothing specific sits at the top of his list. He was quick to point out that his first day at the office was a busy one, and his schedule is expected to remain hectic for the foreseeable future. The upcoming week has him booked solid.
“I’m working on it,” he said of orienting himself and his goals. “I know that it’s about more than just James Page. There are a lot of parts to this system and a lot of people involved in it.”