ORONO — Imagine that you are walking through the woods in February in Maine with your chain saw. You slip and fall and accidentally cut your femoral artery in your leg. You quickly apply a tourniquet but realize that without significant help, you will die.

Such is the situation facing the University of Maine System. The tourniquet in this case is a series of consolidations (in finance, human resources and information technology) and a “One University”proposal being advanced by the university system that neither solves nor addresses the life-threatening situation.

It is crucial to understand that a university is a high-fixed-cost business – that is, expenses for the maintenance of physical plant and grounds and staffing and faculty salaries do not vary much by enrollment – so the key to holding down costs for students is to have lots of them.

There are three key and interrelated issues that need to be addressed, and solving one or even two of these issues will not save the patient: in this case, higher education in the state of Maine.

n The first issue is simply one of facilities and physical plant. The system has a $600 million-plus deferred maintenance problem. This does not address the costs of any new facilities (e.g., Portland Center or new dorms), nor does it address the ongoing routine operation of the seven different campuses and related facilities.

The problem that the system and the state do not want to address is that because of the substantial fixed costs, we cannot afford to operate seven different universities – and the consolidations in services noted above do not address this in any substantive manner.

n The second problem is that the University of Maine System and the Maine Community College System pursue roughly the same student base. What this means is that an admission to a community college takes an admission away from the university system (and vice versa).

Additionally, individual units within the two systems cannibalize one another: The University of Maine at Machias admitting a student, for example, takes away a potential student from the University of Maine at Presque Isle.

The state of Maine is simply not big enough in terms of population to support two large physical operations such as the community college and the university systems. The fixed costs of operations will continue to burden both systems, and the competition for students will continue to erode the financial performance of both systems.

Neither the consolidation efforts nor the One University approach addresses or resolves these two problems directly or substantively.

n The final issue is one of finances and revenues. The University of Maine System has frozen tuition for the fourth year in a row, despite rising costs in utilities, health care, food, physical plant operations and deferred maintenance.

A second major source of funding for public higher education is state funding. The state of Maine (and most other states over the last 20 years) has failed to maintain financial support of public higher education.

The establishment of a community college system has further exacerbated the financial pressures on the university system, on the community college system and on the state’s budget. There are simply not enough financial resources in the state to support two independent multi-location systems of higher-level public education without major increases in funding and significant consolidations.

So we have severe problems with the ongoing costs of facilities and physical plants, cannibalization of students across and within the two systems and limitations on state-level financing and tuition revenue.

Consolidation of services at the system level addresses none of these issues. The idea of “One University” also does not address any of these issues. These are tactics and do not reflect any level of strategy or strategic thinking.

Without more focused and substantive action to address all three of these issues simultaneously, eventually the tourniquet will fail and the patient will die. The citizens and leaders of Maine must decide not only on the quality of higher education but also on its very existence.

— Special to the Press Herald