In appointing me the new president of the University of Southern Maine, the University of Maine System board of trustees has charged me with the task of reshaping the university to balance its budget and better serve the people of southern Maine.
USM has extraordinary assets: talented faculty, dedicated staff, serious students and a desirable location in the two largest population centers of the state – Portland and Lewiston-Auburn. And yet the university is losing out – in enrollment, in revenue and in public support.
I have seen this phenomenon before – a competent, well-meaning organization built up over decades in a cocoon of near-monopoly conditions suddenly has to confront competition and changing conditions. In USM’s case, the demographics have changed, competition has increased and state support has precipitously declined.
USM should have come to grips with the changing world a decade ago – and certainly when the University of Maine System issued its report on the university’s finances and structure five years ago. Instead, USM kicked the can down the road for far too long, ignoring the outside forces that have made its business model unsustainable.
But with all its strengths and with the good will of its faculty, staff and students and a supportive community, USM can transform itself to ensure its future value to the people of Maine.
I know this first hand. I was CEO of the largest public service company in Maine during difficult times, with challenges similar to those USM is now confronting. Reform, restructuring and repurposing are hard, wrenching, personally painful tasks. But it is possible for even large, unwieldy organizations to transform and come out stronger and more service-oriented than ever. I know it can be done, because I have seen Mainers do it before.
What will the new model for USM look like? It will be leaner, smaller both in employment and footprint, more agile, less bureaucratic, more competitively priced and offering greater flexibility for students.
It will include more interdisciplinary majors, combined undergraduate and graduate programs, state-of-the-art technology with blended and online learning and academic programs that retain our liberal arts values but also prepare students to pursue careers upon graduation.
In short, the new USM must be market-driven, student-centered and community-supportive.
To achieve this vision, we must recognize there is no pot of gold at the end of any rainbow for us to deplete. Survival will require a general consensus within the university and the wider community that it is we who must help ourselves out of this financial crisis.
We are facing an unsustainable structural deficit of at least $12 million for the next academic year, which could actually grow significantly deeper depending on the latest enrollment projections. Addressing this budget gap will require curricular reform and letting go of some cherished programs and treasured traditions.
We will have to reimagine our academic programs and work cooperatively with our sister campuses to avoid duplicating specialties that other Maine campuses can better support.
Our future will depend on two things: responsiveness to the market to achieve enrollment growth, and efficiency in our operations to keep the university affordable for Maine families.
The best way to eliminate the deficit and start rebuilding will be through a combination of cost savings and revenue growth.
There is an overwhelming amount to do here, but we will not dawdle or equivocate. We need to submit a budget template to the Board of Trustees by their Sept. 22 meeting and a final budget by Jan. 1, 2015. We will meet those deadlines.
Further, we will join the effort to advocate for a restoration of some of the significant appropriation cuts the state has made to the university in recent years.
The board of trustees and Chancellor James Page have given me and the university a clear mandate:
• Balance the budget.
• Reshape USM to become a university devoted to this community.
• Manage the change process as constructively as possible.
• Win back the confidence and support of Maine students, their families and their communities, for this great public asset.
It is a daunting challenge and will require civil, courteous dialogue that will facilitate reaching common and constructive understandings as we work our way forward.
I take on this task as a form of public service – and my administration will adhere to the values of “servant leadership” by putting the interests of students and the community above any personal interest, respecting diverse points of view, being driven by data and adopting best practices for this university to succeed in a competitive world.
— Special to the Press Herald