The effort to find the last $2.5 million to fill a $14 million deficit in the University of Southern Maine fiscal year 2015 budget is over – just two weeks before the fiscal year begins. But the measures taken to close the gap won’t solve the fundamental funding problems that afflict the university system.
USM President Theodora Kalikow set off a furor in March when she announced that, in order to balance its budget, the university would be laying off 12 faculty members and cutting American and New England studies, geosciences and Lewiston-Auburn College’s arts and humanities program. Faced with massive protests, Kalikow rescinded the layoffs in April and said she’d work with the Faculty Senate to come up with alternatives.
Last Friday, the other shoe dropped. Kalikow announced that effective July 1, USM would be laying off the director of Portland student life and accepting the retirements of 11 professors and the voluntary departures of five more. And the three programs spared in April are still on track for elimination, to help close the $12.5 million gap looming in the budget for the fiscal year starting July 2015.
Nobody – neither administrators nor students nor faculty – expects the state to be a part of the solution. And state officials will be quick to note several reasons for this. The University of Maine System is in need of restructuring, they say, and the pace of Maine’s recovery from the Great Recession is slow.
The UMaine System does need to end duplicative programs and centralize systemwide services. And no one will argue that the state economy is lagging. But that’s not the whole story. Maine has a history of underfunding higher education, in both good economic times and bad.
In a 2008 report on the history of Maine’s economic development efforts, former state economist Laurie Lachance said that “state funding of higher education … as a percentage of overall government investment has plummeted from nearly 18 percent to 8 percent since the late 1960s” – a trend that has only continued. Factors such as high tuition and fees relative to the average Maine family income, low faculty salaries and falling state appropriations “call into question the state’s commitment to higher education and its perceived importance to Maine’s growth and development,” Lachance wrote.
“Disproportionate fluctuations” in state support for higher education, as compared to other programs, is common nationwide, University of Maine economist Phil Trostel recently told Mainebiz.
Legislators are more likely to cut the university system budget than “K-12 funding, which directly affects their own districts,” said Trostel, author of a recent study that concluded that investment in public education offers substantial returns to both Maine taxpayers and Maine college graduates.
And the UMaine System hasn’t demonstrated recently that it is a careful steward of what it’s allocated. The announcement this spring of a $40,000-a-year raise for the system’s top financial officer, bringing her salary to $205,000, was followed by the news that the system was hiring a new spokesman, at an annual salary of $125,000 – sending a message that the system values administration over education.
USM administrators, students, faculty and staff won’t have a lot of time to relax before they start considering how to balance the next fiscal year’s budget. But they can’t cut their way to a healthy university – state policymakers and university system administrators should step up, take their responsibility seriously and make an investment in Maine’s future.