UMS trustees fall short as advocates

By Stephen L. Weber

The Board of Trustees of the University of Maine System is made up of 16 members, 15 of whom are appointed by the Governor and approved by the Maine Legislature. They serve five-year terms.

The system’s policy manual describes the board as “the governing and planning body of the university.” Its first listed duty is to “support and enhance the system and the mission of the system.”  Among other specified duties we find: “Visibly advocate higher education as a means to strengthen the economy and communities of the state.”

There is wisdom in this. Most of us do not have the time or perhaps the inclination to become informed about our university and its needs. We just want to be sure it is there to provide opportunity for our children and grandchildren, to produce the teachers, nurses and business people upon who we rely; to do the research and development work needed to move Maine forward. So, instead of each of us making sure our university is healthy and will prosper into the future, fellow citizens assume that responsibility for us. Or do they?

To be a “trustee” means to be a custodian, keeper, steward and fiduciary (the latter from Latin “fidere” meaning “to trust”). In short, trustees are those in whom we place a trust. In the case of the University of Maine System, we have entrusted the board with the welfare and future prosperity of our university. Not with pleasing the Governor or the Legislature, but with seeing that our university (yours and mine) is strong and healthy so it can continue to serve the citizens of Maine for years to come.  It is not the trustees’ job to dismantle the university but to be its advocate — to plead in its behalf — and thereby to advocate for Mainers who depend on our university now and into the future. Does this bear any relation to shameful retreat from trust in which the system board is currently engaged? Have you detected a hint of “advocacy”? Any effort to “enhance” rather than diminish? Me neither.

The trust we place in our system trustees is not just for the welfare of current students, faculty, and staff (who collectively make up our university far more than its buildings), but for there being a public university available in Maine for our children and grandchildren, a place where they can develop the skills and knowledge needed if Maine is to be competitive, if our citizens are to have a decent standard of living, if we are to have the capacity to address the research and development needs of our state.

Let’s look at how our university has fared in recent years under the guidance of these “trustees.”

The number of faculty system-wide is down almost 12 percent, from 2,332 in 2005 to 2,055 today; full-time equivalent (FTE) faculty have declined from 1,720 to 1,517. The total number of employees is down from 6,183 to 5,366.

BUT (the good news!) even with almost 4,000 fewer students, the number of campus presidents and vice-presidents is holding steady and the size of the system office is growing nicely, thank you (from 220 employees in 2005 to 275 this year).

Speaking of fewer students, head count enrollment is down 11.35 percent, from 34,245 in 2010 to 30,365 in the fall of 2013 (the latest report posted). In that same period, full-time equivalent enrollment dropped over 7 percent from 24,247, to 22,526. In the past five years, in-state first time freshmen enrollment (headcount) is down 15.3 percent; in-state graduate enrollment is down 24.2 percent. It’s our sons and daughters these trustees are driving out of state — perhaps not to return. Consequently, it is our collective future these “trustees” are selling out.

Far from fighting for the future of our university, this board of trustees seems to be saying that diminished is good enough for the citizens of Maine. That our students, unlike those elsewhere, do not need (deserve?) economics, foreign languages, etc. After all, this is a public university; it ought not be better than those who are desperate enough to use it. Why do they need an education anyway?

One would almost think these “trustees” have betrayed our trust, have failed in their charge to “support and enhance the system and the mission of the system,” have shirked their responsibility to

“visibly advocate higher education as a means to strengthen the economy and communities of the state.”

Who cares? You should care the next time you visit the emergency room and face a shortage of nurses, or the next time you contemplate the closure of another paper mill, or the closure of another fishery, or wonder why we rank 49th among the states as a place to do business.

Simply put: with a healthy university Maine has a chance. Without it, we have none.

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