The University of Maine System is running out of time, and Chancellor James Page knows it.
The system needs to cut 165 jobs from a workforce of about 5,000 in order to make the budget balance next year. Five hundred jobs have already been cut since 2007.
Now, if lawmakers go ahead with a plan to require across-the-board cuts for all state departments, a revenue shortfall could force the university system to cut another 95 jobs. Page knows that the system can’t succeed by doing less and less, but declining revenues and demographic trends mean that’s what lies ahead if the system doesn’t do something soon.
“We really do have to change the basic model so we can make sure that in the years to come, we’re not constantly making these changes,” he said.
The system should be given a chance to make the changes, and an across-the-board cut could set that process back. Even though there are no easy choices for legislators to make, sparing the university system from any more cuts than it is already instituting should be a priority.
Some higher education is becoming essential for anyone looking for a job, even those that used to be open to people with a high school diploma and some initiative. It is a cruel twist to find that just as a college education is more important than ever, paying for it is getting more difficult.
This has been true around the nation as states step away from their responsibility to fund public higher education. In Maine, the state used to pay two-thirds of the cost of a university system education. Today, students and their families pay more than half.
If this trend continues, a college education, which had been a great vehicle of economic mobility, will just reinforce the already deep divide between rich and poor.
The price of an education in a public institution has increased steadily, but runaway spending can’t be blamed. Over the past decade, the university system has fewer employees, both faculty and administrators, but students have had to pay more.
University of Maine System trustees have tried to reduce the burden on students by voting to freeze tuition for the third straight year. As costs increase, that decision has built a structural gap into the system’s budget.
Page is right to say that the system will not simply ride out this bad period. It will have to respond to an information technology revolution and a population that needs to access education in ways other than the four-year, full-time residential experience.
Lawmakers should not wait forever, but they should not disrupt the organizational redesign process now, when this work is so critical.