On Wednesday, University of Maine President Paul Ferguson, University of Maine System Chancellor James Page and UMaine board of trustee member Greg Johnson met in Minsky Hall to talk to 200 students, faculty and administrators about the overall cooperation between UMaine and its place in the University of Maine System.
“We have begun the process of fully implementing the new partnership with the University of Maine and the University of Maine System,” Ferguson said as he opened the meeting. “This is the first of many [meetings]. The fact that the three of us are here on the same stage at the same moment is to affirm to you that there’s an active partnership being built, to affirm the Blue Sky Project and to help us understand the challenges from a systemwide perspective.”
After a brief introduction, Page paced back and forth across the stage for 45 minutes, describing actions already implemented by the University of Maine System and ones that are in the pipeline.
Page continually referenced the board of trustees’ Goals and Actions Plan, which was compiled in January, two months prior to his being hired as chancellor.
“[The Goals and Action Plan is] moderate; it’s just 14 projects,” Page said. “If you did most of it, let alone all of it, you would actually be far down the road in building a new model of how to most effectively do business. If you’re looking for a starting place, it’s a great starting place.”
Page talked about the use of a guidepost to maintain a focus in the coming years when the University of Maine System tries to enact these plans. Describing it as “Mission Excellence,” it would be a “financially stable and responsible way [to] meet our goals in education, research, economic development and community service.
“In terms of education we have a responsibility not to just provide vocational or professional training, which is a key part of what we do,” Page said. “But there is a wider mission as well, and that is to become an engaged and full citizen of the state of Maine.”
This is to be achieved through the apparent dialogue the University of Maine System opened with investors and businesses thinking of building or expanding its capacity in Maine.
“One of the major drawbacks is the training of professional partners, not just of engineers, but of accountants, project managers and [information technology] specialists — all the things you need to make a business go,” Page said. “That’s part of economical development.”
After describing where the University of Maine System needs to go, Page brought up a number of problems that are prohibiting the necessary expansion into some of these projects.
“The challenge is it’s a moving target. Each of those is achieved in a context that is always evolving,” Page said.
Page went into detail about the lack of funding expansion expected to come to the University of Maine System from both the state capitol and because of Maine’s demographic challenges.
“Augusta is faced with enormous choices,” Page said. “Appropriations of which we received 36 to 38 percent of our funding — it is unrealistic to expect those to increase. It’s not going to happen.
“The second problem we have is demographic. The state of Maine graduated approximately 14,000 students from public high schools last year,” Page continued. “The output of the city of New York was almost 20 times higher than that. We happen to be a demographically challenged state. We have to address our demographic challenge not only by the diminishing of the high school graduates but a rurally distributed population that needs our attention.”
Page brought up the obvious nationwide problem of the price of secondary education for the average family. The chancellor noted that making college affordable for the common person in the state was the main reason for the board of trustee’s to freeze in-state undergraduate tuition in May, which was the first directive on the Goals and Actions Plan.
“The idea that tuition increases can compensate our economic challenges is not realistic,” Page said. “Our two main resources for funding are at best flat with little variation.”
It’s with that explanation that Page announced a number of upcoming administration changes that will hopefully reallocate funds and provide funding for programs based on performance.
“We are moving in each of these cases of becoming less a federation of autonomous campuses and more a workforce of a system that respects and maintains the critical differences between the various campuses,” Page said. “Easy to say, not always easy to do.”
Page described the performance-based funding: “[Take] a percentage of appropriations and allocate them according to candidate’s level of success on a small number of critical metrics.” What those critical metrics were, Page couldn’t say, although he used the example of student retention as a possible metric. The first draft is slated to be released in late October. “You’ll know soon after that,” Page said.
In addition to the performance-based funding, Page described an overarching review of administration.
“We’re looking to see how we reorganize and gain efficiency,” Page said. “The key is to not cut resources but to reinvest them. We have enormous challenges in our [academic] programs on how we’re going to identify our critical programs, support those and make sure they’re adequately resourced. That requires reallocating and reinvesting.”
Two areas the chancellor specified include the IT department and the human resources department. He expects reports to begin in December at the earliest.
Another objective mentioned by Page was enhancing community college students’ and undergraduates’ ability to transfer credits.
After Page concluded, trustee member and UMaine alumnus Johnson addressed the audience and expressed his content in the relationship going forward.
“The fact of the matter is, we all know the current system we have, the current structures we have and the current way we do business is unsustainable,” Johnson said. “It’s very important for us to emphasize that these changes are not going to be from the top down. It’s not going to be system driven; it’s going to come from the entire community. We’re going to achieve it collectively.”
About 45 minutes were left open for Q-and-A, with Page fielding questions from faculty and students alike. When asked how he would satisfy business needs in the state while also keeping college graduates in Maine, Page mentioned the dialogue opened with these businesses.
“The business community has identified very clearly and defined very formally its needs for scientists and information technologists in the coming years,” Page said. “If we as a system cannot satisfy those needs then those investments and those expansions will leave the state.”
Another issue raised by an audience member was the overall health of the faculty, as performance-based funding for programs depends heavily on the well-being of the professors who work with students — particularly the positions in departments left unfilled, resulting in more stress and strain on current faculty members.
“We have to make these changes to free up resources to make investments,” Page said. “The faculty ratios need to be a vocal point going forward.”