The University of Southern Maine, faced with declining enrollment, increasing competition and flat funding from the state, has launched a six-month “reimagining” of its goals and priorities, President Theodora Kalikow said Tuesday.

“The situation is unsustainable,” Kalikow said at one of two open meetings held with the campus community to discuss the project. “The competition is eating our lunch.”

The meetings are the first in a series that will take place on campus and online, she said.

A final report will be completed by December, and presented to the University of Maine System Board of Trustees in January. It will be implemented by August 2014, she said.

But no specifics were given, despite prodding from some audience members, because Kalikow said she wanted to go into the process open to all suggestions instead of just presenting a plan from her administration.

Although her staff began meeting about USM’s strategic direction several months ago, the backdrop for Tuesday’s meeting was the controversial move two weeks ago to propose cutting the physics major. The revelation has prompted a backlash among some faculty and students.

Several speakers brought that up as an example of what they thought the administration should be holding open meetings about, not the school’s mission and vision.

“In the visioning processes, community members all participate and we all feel good about it. But the vision process doesn’t solve the fiscal problems we have, or help us addressing enrollment concerns in physics or women and gender studies,” said Classics Professor Jeannine Diddle Uzzi.

“These are the easy questions,” she said, referring to talking about USM’s mission statement and values. “We see ourselves in that. What we don’t see ourselves in, is in a university without a physics major.

“We’re at the point where we have to do the hard things,” Diddle Uzzi said.

Linguistics Professor Wayne Cowart had a similar criticism of the process, asking Kalikow to make the discussion of actual cuts and outcomes public.

“Our feet are to the fire here,” said Cowart, chairman of the department “We’re being asked to do potentially damaging surgery to this institution . Planning that has consequences: Who is going to do that? When are we going to do that? When are we going to see it?”

Kalikow has said there is a “parallel track” for those budget-cutting decisions, with administration officials meeting with faculty from under-enrolled programs.

USM is trying to find $5 million in cuts to its $139 million budget, after already cutting $5 million last year. Many higher education programs in southern Maine, from community colleges to private organizations, have expanded as the pool of potential students declines as part of a demographic dip in graduating high school students. This fall, enrollment at USM is off more than 8 percent.

“Students don’t have to choose USM and they’re not,” Kalikow told the audience of about 40 people. “Higher education is now a commodity.”

Last week, USM Provost Michael Stevenson said physics and 16 other programs with fewer than five graduates a year are all slated for review.

“We need all of us to stop defending the past,” Kalikow said. Under-enrolled programs could work together, or courses and programs could be run cooperatively with other campuses or online. Those options and more are part of the conversation about the future of USM, she said.

USM has already moved many courses and programs to the more cost-effective online model. After starting online classes a few years ago,

USM now offers 250 online courses per semester and offers entire programs via online courses — six undergraduate and three graduate.

Several faculty members said USM has regularly gone through a “visioning” process, and asked Kalikow whether anything would change this time.

“One of the best reasons I can say something will happen, is we can’t go on like this,” she said.

 

Noel Gallagher can be contacted at 791- or at:

ngallagher@pressherald.com