A unique solution to budget woes: System seeks to merge all campuses

'We do believe that really dramatic, transformative change is required here'

In an unprecedented move, the University of Maine System (UMaine) is looking to unite its seven distinct universities into a single university with seven campuses, Kellie Woodhouse reports for Inside Higher Ed.

UMaine administrators say the change will give the system the flexibility it needs to become financially stable. In eight years, the system axed 700 positions and saw full-time enrollment drop by 2,000 students. The board of trustees froze tuition for four straight years—even though the system faces an $8 million deficit.

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"When there isn't any money, you really need to think of maintaining quality services in different ways, and that's what this whole effort for single accreditation is all about," says Aims McGuinness, a senior associate with the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems (NCHEMS).

The university's accreditor, New England Association of Schools and Colleges' (NEASC) Commission on Institutions of Higher Learning, is not currently organized to handle systemwide accreditations, but that may change.

The change in accreditation status would permit UMaine to centralize administrative functions and move, cut, or add academic programs. Additionally, programs could draw on resources across multiple campuses. A pilot cybersecurity program already requires students to take classes offered by different campuses—some courses are offered online.

"There can be much more synergy across the campuses, much more sharing—particularly in general education courses—of academic programs, much more sharing of faculty," says McGuinness.

'A real threat' to autonomy, academic freedom

But some worry the transition would come at a quality cost.

 "Centralization of the university poses a real threat to each campus’s autonomy and to the academic freedom of faculty at each campus," says Susan Feiner, a professor at University of Southern Maine (USM).

Faculty members say they worry they will have less say in curriculum development, hiring, and promotion and tenure reviews.

Administrators, in turn, say the move toward "one university" will encourage faculty collaboration—the current structure with separate budgets pits campuses against each other for funding.

Still others say earning accreditation could be difficult. The institutions vary significantly in size; the flagship has 11,000 students while USM has just 800.

"I would think for quality assurance and assurance to the public that you would not want to lump those campuses together," says Peter Ewell, NCHEMS VP. "The trend, more and more, is to have individual accreditation, and the accreditors like that better because [campuses] sometimes have different missions," he says.

The NEASC commission and UMaine leaders are scheduled to meet in June, when the university will submit a detailed proposal.

"We have very substantial economic and demographic challenges," says James Page, chancellor of the UMaine System. "We do believe that really dramatic, transformative change is required here" (Woodhouse, Inside Higher Ed, 5/6).

The takeaway: The University of Maine System plans to transition its seven universities to one university with seven campuses in an effort to reduce costs.

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