A recent Press Herald editorial stated that the “community’s voice has been missing” from debates over the budget issues at the University of Southern Maine. We, as leaders of the volunteer USM Board of Visitors, intend to make sure the community’s voice is heard.

The traditional, primary base of students at the University of Southern Maine is decreasing at alarming rates. Existing and prospective students are accessing education options in entirely new and different ways, and at times and in places of their choosing. Regional competition for students is becoming increasingly fierce. Revenues are declining while the costs for buildings, faculty and staff continue to climb.

The New England Board of Higher Education reports “A ‘perfect storm’ of financial, political, demographic and technological forces have aligned to make the ‘business model’ unsustainable for the majority of U.S. higher education institutions (HEIs). Those in New England face special challenges due to the large number of institutions and low growth.”

University of Maine System Chancellor James Page has spoken recently about the $36 million budget gap facing the System’s seven campuses in the fiscal year beginning July 1. That gap between revenues and costs will grow, he reported, unless changes are made.

Many have expressed opinions that this is a “manufactured” crisis. It is not. Enrollment at USM is down in excess of 10 percent in five years.

Meanwhile state appropriations and tuition have remained flat. With decreasing enrollments we are now faced with too many faculty positions for too few students in certain disciplines.

To address this university’s challenges, USM President Theo Kalikow announced recently that she will collaborate with the faculty to eliminate the university’s $14 million gap in the upcoming fiscal year. Ultimately there will have to be substantive changes in how USM continues to deliver a quality education at an affordable cost. Beyond any technical skill-building, the plan also must preserve the liberal arts which produces effective communications and critical thinking skills, equally important aspects of a higher education.

In addition, any plan for USM must be responsive to the needs of the students, employers and, ultimately, the taxpayers of Maine. USM must become nimble and relevant. For example, a new bachelor’s of science degree in Information Technology at USM will soon respond to the expressed needs of local employers and will result in filling high-paying jobs with USM graduates.

Nobody wants to see programs cut and good people laid off but there currently are insufficient revenues to ensure that costs at USM will be covered year in and year out. Consequently, the organizational structure must be changed or USM will find itself wrestling persistent budget cuts for years to come. Such ongoing uncertainty is unacceptable for all the stakeholders. It is unreasonable, however, to think personnel cuts are off the table. Approximately 70 percent of the USM budget supports employee compensation.

In the restructuring announcement last month, there was one statement that sums up why we are optimistic about USM’s future.

“All great institutions,” said President Kalikow, “create and maintain a focus. They create services and programs at the intersection of what they can do better than others and what the people that they serve desire.”

By implementing difficult decisions, USM will get to the point where it can reinvest and then, as she said, “create and maintain a focus.”

That focus will allow USM to capitalize on its location in the economic and population center of the state and, as a result, offer students a truly distinctive education. USM’s partnerships with numerous local nonprofits and businesses will continue to grow so that each student has the opportunity for a meaningful internship or similar career-oriented experience.

In the weeks and months ahead, the university with the Board of Visitors will be engaging the community to help define USM as a place where students can learn, flourish and graduate with knowledge and employable skills for a lifetime of work and intellectual enjoyment.

At our own respective firms, we have seen these student placements lead to rewarding careers. Such commitment to well-prepared students is the imperative and promise of a relevant university.