The 21st century economy taking the place of Maine’s shuttered paper mills and factories poses job requirements for Maine workers that too many are unprepared to meet. Today, there are nearly as many job openings in Maine that require a graduate or professional degree as there are openings that require a two-year community college degree, and the demand for employees with advanced degrees will grow six times faster in Maine during the next decade than for employees with two-year degrees.

Advanced educational attainment is the fuel for economic growth in the 21st century, and by this measure Maine is increasingly uncompetitive. That’s a big reason why Maine’s economy has been shrinking relative to the rest of America for more than a decade.

The qualifications of Maine workers for jobs in the new economy is the state’s most pressing challenge. Levels of educational attainment in Maine remain substantially below the national median, leaving Maine’s workforce comparatively undereducated and limiting business development and growth.

Maine’s public universities have been achingly slow to respond to this challenge – largely because the University of Maine System (UMS) is bound up in restrictive and outdated tenure and governance practices that give faculties much more job security and control over the System than is good for their students or Maine’s economy. In the Wall Street Journal’s most recent rankings of America’s colleges and universities, not one UMS campus appears in the top 600 institutions!

Rebuilding the Maine economy, restoring opportunity for Maine people and moving Maine out of the regional economic cellar will take a generation or two. It will require commitment and creativity, patience and persistence, and the willingness of public and private stakeholders to work together, to sacrifice and to make investments in Maine’s future. Mostly – more than anything else – it will require a public university system that is more responsive to Maine’s needs and helps produce a better educated workforce.

In August, I finished my job as the founding CEO of the new Maine Center for Graduate Professional Studies. The Maine Center will bring the Maine Law School, the Muskie School of Public Service and the system’s merged MBA programs together under one roof in a true consortium, featuring vast increases in cross-curricular courses, experiential learning and executive education and putting our public university system in a stronger and more competitive position in the marketplace.

One of the most compelling reasons behind the creation of the Maine Center was the moribund condition of these graduate programs, where enrollments actually had declined by more than 17% during the 2006 to 2016 decade, just as the Maine economy needed them to grow. Students likely had figured out something that many UMS faculty members still haven’t: the prevalent models of graduate professional education, with siloed faculties and often remotely relevant course content, don’t adequately prepare students for the 21st century workplace. The buyers weren’t buying what the sellers were selling.

The Maine Center can break down the walls and silos in graduate programs that already are vanishing from the real world of work, breed the collaboration that is increasingly valued in the economy, and attract more young people to come to Maine for the kind of graduate education they say that they want – and then to stay, to work and to raise their families here.

The Maine Center is only one of the first steps in reforming a system of public higher education that isn’t doing its job as well as Maine needs it to do. Here’s a case in point:

In 2007, the late Nobel Prize economist Robert Fogel forecast the way the world economy would look in 2040:

What is most notable about Fogel’s projection is China’s dominance and the relative insignificance of the original 15 members of the European Union. In 2016, France accounted for roughly 16% of the EU15 total GDP, so Fogel’s forecast suggests that in 2040 France will account for less than 1% of total GDP in the world in which today’s students will live and work. China will account for 40%.

Whether or not Fogel’s projections turn out to be precisely correct, there’s no question that the world economy is moving rapidly in these directions, and it would be reasonable to expect course offerings in Maine’s public universities to reflect that.

When I first raised this issue in 2009, the only course that appeared in a catalog search for “Chinese” at the flagship campus in Orono was one on “Complementary Nutrition Practices,” yet there were pages and pages of courses on the French language and French history and culture. Sure, Maine has an important Franco heritage, but it was hard to fathom the complete absence of Chinese in the curriculum.

Eight years later, little has changed. Although Chinese I and II are offered now at the University of Maine, at the University of Maine at Farmington, and at the University of Southern Maine, courses in French and other European languages, culture and history far outnumber China-related courses System-wide.

These kinds of curricula imbalances are interestingly coincident with enormous variations in how the sellers and the buyers assess students’ preparation for employment. For example, in a 2012 national McKinsey survey, only 42% of employers and 45% of recent graduates thought that they had been adequately prepared for the workplace, but fully 72% of faculty members believed that they had.

Why do such imbalances and disparities persist? Two reasons: underinvestment in our public universities, especially the graduate programs, coupled with a system of protected public employment and institutional governance just about unique to public university systems.

The State of Maine’s underinvestment in its public university system has been chronic. To their credit, Governor Paul LePage and the Maine legislature recently have begun to increase investment in the UMS, but for decades before the University of Maine System was a public funding stepchild.

An ever-widening gulf between funding for Maine’s community colleges versus UMS graduate programs reflected the mistaken notion that the factories and the mills would return – and ignored the fact that Maine’s workforce was becoming increasingly undereducated.

At the same time, while Maine was failing to invest in critically important graduate education, the System itself was becoming more and more bound up in a failing supply-driven business model.

University faculties live and work in silos. Professors mostly teach what each knows best, which too often is what they studied 30 to 50 years ago; they don’t necessarily teach what the marketplace wants – that is, the knowledge and competencies that their students need and their students’ future employers want them to have. Hence, the curricula in the University of Maine System remains heavily weighted in the direction of Europe with scant attention to Asia.

This supply-driven business model has been institutionalized by tenure, the practice that makes university faculties resemble nothing so much as medieval craft guilds, with all the guilds’ worst features: permanent job security without basis in continuing merit, little accountability, low productivity, last-in first-out employment and a waning connection with the real world.

Tenure appears out of control in the University of Maine System. Among all U.S. colleges and universities about 22% of faculty members enjoy tenure, but 58% of the faculty at the University of Maine flagship campus are tenured, while at the University of Southern Maine the percentage is an almost unbelievable 66%. Meanwhile, the average age of UMS tenured faculty is nearing 60.

Tenure is a vestigial remnant of a time when teaching and research faculties in universities needed protection from attacks on their political or religious beliefs or when age or gender could be used as criteria in hiring. There are now statutory protections against most kinds of discrimination, but tenure has survived nonetheless as a sinecure matched only by the lifetime appointments for federal judges.

Tenure and other supply-driven practices are enshrined in something called the “Shared Governance Agreement,” the labor-management agreement between the unionized faculty and the System. In practice, though, the System’s governance is not shared appropriately nor can it fairly be called governance; indeed, the University of Maine System is an infinitely horizontal organization with little hierarchy and even less accountability.

The tenured faculty teach what they want to teach, organize the universities and academic departments according to their predilections, and maintain people, courses and departments often without regard to merit or marketplace demand.

This failed business model is no financial bargain, either. Kudos to the University of Maine System administration and trustees for avoiding increases in in-state tuition for several years before this one, but the cost of college tuition and fees has risen nationally by more than 1,122% since 1978, nearly twice as much as health care. Why? In part because the supply-driven business model – along with tenure and “shared governance” – has Americans and Mainers paying more and more for less and less productivity.

A supply-driven business model didn’t work in the Soviet Union, Cuba or Venezuela, and it isn’t working for Maine citizens and taxpayers in the University of Maine System. If we don’t reform silos, tenure and the shared governance agreement, I submit that there is little chance that the UMS will develop the workforce we need to grow the Maine economy.

What should we do? How do we make it right? What will maximize Maine’s chances of growing a competitive, 21st century workforce? How can our public universities help make Maine once again both a great place to live and a great place to make a living?

We should begin with three reforms:

First, the Chancellor and the Board of Trustees should insist on a new labor-management agreement that creates a more responsive, strategic, hierarchical and accountable academic organization. Second, the new agreement should replace tenure with long-term employment agreements that incentivize faculty productivity, invention and collaboration. And third, once these reforms are achieved, Maine should increase public investment in the University System in ways that optimize its chances of producing the workforce that Maine needs.

Recently, new groups like Focus Maine and Educate ME have emerged in an effort to revive economic growth, but the shelves of libraries and offices throughout the state already sag under the weight of study after study examining the Maine economy and the Maine workforce. There isn’t a dime’s worth of disagreement among them: all agree that Maine’s paramount challenge is to develop an educated workforce for the new economy. Otherwise, our decade-long economic decline will become irretrievable.

It will be a fool’s errand – one naïve nearly beyond description – to try to do that without first reforming Maine’s system of public higher education.

Jim Page is the best and most reform-minded chancellor the University of Maine System has had in many, many years, and he and the System’s Board of Trustees deserve great credit for rebuilding the System’s fiscal integrity. But there is much, much more to do, and Mainers who are concerned about the future of our workforce and our economy need to be aggressive in pursuing UMS reforms.

Maine households fork over several hundred dollars apiece each year in taxes to support the university system, and they should insist on getting more value for those dollars. The sooner we bend our wills to make these reforms, the better the chances are that Maine once again will grow.