Maine’s public university system has been facing a financial crisis that began before and has lasted longer than the national recession.

The university system has seen a steady decline in state contribution as a percentage of its budget, pressure to keep tuition low and rising labor and employee benefit costs.

Combined with an aging population that is expected to produce a declining number of traditional college-age students, the University of Maine System has had a hard reality to face, and so far it has faced it.

The campuses are cutting costs, reconfiguring departments and eliminating programs that have low student interest. It is not a popular process, but a necessary one.

But the university system cannot just cut. It plays too big a role in the state’s economy to just respond with less in the face of a greater-than-ever demand for its services.

ROLE FOR INDUSTRY

A healthy university system is a jobs creator. That is the role that UMaine has traditionally filled, turning out, with private sector support, engineers needed to fill roles in the forest products industry.

Those kind of partnerships are needed to qualify Maine students for the good-paying jobs in other businesses as well. An effort to kick that off is under way, headed by the UMS Chancellor Richard Pattenaude.

The event, called “Advancing Maine” is open to the public, both in the live audience at the University of Maine Orono campus, and through a streaming audio on the Internet and video conferences at all university campuses.

In a visit with the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram editorial board, Pattenaude said that a focus on work force development does not mean giving up the traditional mission of a university, which is nurturing the pursuit of knowledge, sometimes without an obvious end in sight. All the system’s campuses still offer a core curriculum of basic college-level courses in the classic disciplines. But the state’s economy requires that the university system be nimble enough to respond to needs in economy.

There are several areas where the system is already receiving outside funding for programs that will prepare students for high-paying jobs.

The offshore wind lab at Orono is funded mostly with federal money and is staffed largely by UMaine undergraduates. Other programs involving biofuel technology and professional degree programs in the financial services sector are also receiving industry support.

Business leaders in other areas should also step up and help fund higher ed programs that will help them grow. The Advancing Maine session would be a good forum to get such partnerships off the ground.

The system has other areas in which it should tighten up in order to respond to the financial reality it faces.

The task force led last year by former Central Maine Power CEO David Flanagan recommended that the seven universities should end unnecessary duplication of programs and each specialize its offerings around already established strengths.

That would not only save money, but developing a niche for each campus would help market the schools nationally. Out-of-state and international students pay higher tuition and help fill the demographic holes created by our aging population. Established specialties would help the schools stand out and give people from away a reason to come to Maine.

START NOW

These are challenging times for the university system and the state. Our economic health requires an institution that can develop new programs and prepare Mainers for jobs in developing industries without asking for more taxpayer support.

This won’t be achieved by cutting positions alone. It will also take a commitment from Maine businesses to support new programs from which they will benefit.

The Advancing Maine summit is a good way to start.