Maine Voices: Don’t let the UMS fury distract you from the task at hand
Unsurprisingly, the University of Maine system board’s decision to extend Chancellor Malloy’s contract has led to further controversy. Unfortunately, the negative comments made at the top turned into inappropriate criticism of the whole system.
As a state, we can be proud of our university. We must also worry about its future.
The UMaine system is a wonderful, dynamic resource for Maine residents, providing affordable, quality undergraduate and graduate education. It has exceptional faculty and staff who create cutting-edge programs. Having participated in several, I can attest to the quality.
More than 30,000 students participate each year. Most are from Maine, but more and more students from other states and countries are also participating. Some will decide to call Maine home. We need them.
The university system is an economic engine that is integral to an informed and skilled workforce as well as innovation, research and entrepreneurship. More than tax incentives and other social benefits, high-paying jobs are located where there are enough skilled workers.
Public universities also have a mission to have an impact on the community. UMS campuses make their facilities available to the public, cater to non-traditional students, offer employee training at affordable corporate prices, and more.
No other single institution in our state plays all of these important roles.
Nonetheless, the campuses continue to be characterized as competing and self-serving fiefdoms. System administrators are seen as controlling and isolated bureaucrats. Administrators are described as disconnected. These stereotypes are unfair and do not reflect the very real issues at the root of the problem, which go beyond who is chancellor.
The university system faces profound changes in economics, demographics, education delivery, competition, and costs. It’s not alone. Colleges and universities across the country are grappling with the same issues. Dozens have closed in recent years.
Did we see these big challenges coming? Yes. Decades ago, we understood the future demographics of northern New England. We accurately predicted which sectors would be in trouble for skilled workers. We knew that a vast infrastructure of seven college campuses, seven community college campuses, plus adult education in Maine would eventually exceed the state’s ability to pay. We assumed that increased competition would emerge, and it has. But it was no easier then to change course.
Today, the pace of change has accelerated even beyond those forecasts. Time is not on our side.
UMS has taken steps to counter the financial difficulties. Campuses are working hard to attract out-of-state students, specialize their offerings, offer statewide online courses, consolidate administrative functions, upgrade infrastructure, partner with businesses and relentlessly pursue donations.
Despite these efforts, the system remains a financial house of cards. The problem is existential.
Certainly, the solution requires a chancellor with expansive leadership qualities. But this is not enough. It also requires the courage and cooperation of governors, legislators, administrators, faculty, and communities to come together and work toward a common vision for higher education—all assets—that benefits the whole world. ‘State. It includes coordinated public and private investments and takes full advantage of the unique characteristics of campuses – both physical and virtual.
The alternative is a public higher education system that cannibalizes and competes for dwindling numbers of students and resources. On this trajectory, we can see the end of the game. Avoiding this downward spiral will require leadership, clear goals, collaboration, high-level execution, patience, and increased and sustained investment in a longer-term plan.
In some ways, perhaps, the controversy surrounding the Chancellor has been beneficial in refocusing our attention on issues that have been growing insidiously for many years. Undoubtedly, the university of the future, in Maine and everywhere else, will be very different from the university of the past. What we do today will determine that future. We are at an inflection point.
The University of Maine system is a valuable asset that can play a central and catalytic role in the future of our state. Being critical and expressing disagreement is both important and necessary. Nor should it distract or deter us from supporting this system in any way possible.
Maine Millennial: I’m going to miss you, Greg Kesich. But I’m not going anywhere.