Back to school for UMaine System

By Stephen L. Weber

It’s back-to-school time for the University of Maine System. You can tell because there are long lines of system administrators at Reny’s uncomfortably picking up their school supplies. So, in that back-to-school spirit, let’s review the health of our University System.

It is still too early to know the most important fact — how many students will be enrolled, but last fall there were 22,526 full-time-equivalent enrollees; predictions are for a continuing decline. As of fall 2013, total headcount was down 9.4 percent from 2009.

In an effort to keep those remaining students feeling cosseted, our trustees have provided (based on spring 2014 data) one university president for every 2,972 FTE students and approximately one vice president for every 800. Because that is not quite enough administrative talent for the challenges of Maine, they have also provided a system office with one employee for every 168 students.

Because our word “administrator” comes from the Latin administrari, meaning “to minister to,” we can assume Maine students are exceptionally well-ministered — unless, of course, they require faculty and staff, of which there will be approximately 135 fewer.

These system “ministers” faced a $36-million deficit in planning for this year. Their projected budget hopes for balance­­­­­, which they partially achieved by spending $11.4 million of their rapidly-diminishing $15-million “rainy day” fund. Unfortunately, there is little evidence that balance will be achieved. The Bangor Daily News reported that, “If the system’s revenue doesn’t change in the next year, it will need to eliminate another $26.4 million for fiscal year 2016.” And, as noted, there will be only $3.6 million remaining in the “rainy day” fund. In a rare moment of administrative candor, Vice Chancellor Rebecca Wyke confessed, “This level of deficit spending is not sustainable and is stark evidence that the current operating model is broken.”

Budgets for FY2013 (the last year of comparative data I could find) suggest that FTE students in the University of New Hampshire System will each pay about $427 for their system support, while those in Maine will pay over twice that (approximately $870) — presumably because, if Maine administrators are to be believed, like L’Oreal, they are worth it. Looking at this another way: the University of New Hampshire System office represents 6 percent of the system’s total expenditures; for Maine the comparable number is 8.4 percent. On a proposed FY2014 operating budget of $528,470,000, that extra 2.4 percent for Maine’s System Office represents almost $12.7 million.

Meanwhile, deficits to the contrary not withstanding, the system continues to charge a tuition that is approximately half that of other public New England universities. You might think that is good news for the citizens of Maine, but in fact it is a primary reason why faculty and staff are being fired, why classes and programs are being eliminated, and why our university continues to melt away like Oz’s Wicked Witch of the West. Worst of all, this false economy is robbing Maine off its most important tool and best hope for a more prosperous future.

Our Maine system ranks 49th among the states in campus size, 34th in graduation rates, while Maine itself has fallen to 57 percent in its college-going rate. (The national average is 69 percent.)

Let us hope that our system administrators standing in line at Reny’s have found some number 2 pencils and note paper to take notes on “best practices” of other more efficient/effective systems, a pair of blunt-nosed scissors (so their cuts will be less damaging) and perhaps some paste (so they can once-again patch up their budget).

Stephen L. Webber is president Emeritus of San Diego State University and a resident of Hancock.