September 22, 2013

Negative trends provoke 'painful' cuts in UMaine System

Education officials believe eliminating degree programs may be the key to adapting. For others, the implications are 'shocking.'

By Noel K. Gallagher ngallagher@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

A proposal to cut the physics major at the University of Southern Maine surprised many, but it's just the latest piece of a three-year-old systemwide effort to closely scrutinize any degree program with fewer than five graduates a year.

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Bob Coakley teaches a physics class at the University of Southern Maine in Portland.

John Patriquin/Staff Photographer

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Bob Coakley teaches a physics class at the University of Southern Maine campus in Portland last week. The move to cut physics has rankled faculty, students and members of the community, who have written letters in support of keeping the program.

John Patriquin/Staff Photographer

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A dozen majors have already been suspended or eliminated systemwide, and USM's top academic officer said Friday that another 16 programs there -- aside from physics -- are still up for future review.

The same kind of cuts are happening at other state university systems around the country. In Maine, system officials say cutting programs that are no longer relevant or well attended increases faculty efficiency and frees up resources to add programs and courses that address workforce needs, such as new programs in tourism and sports management, and attract nontraditional students.

That doesn't mean changing the University of Maine System's traditional liberal arts education mission, according to board of trustees Chairman Sam Collins.

"Our focus has changed. Our mission has stayed the same," Collins said. "We need to find savings anywhere that we can so we can keep the education affordable and still be delivering a quality product."

The system is facing an array of negative factors: a stubbornly depressed economy, flat funding from the state, increasing competition from both public and private education providers, and declining enrollments. All that, Collins said, means the university system must adapt to these changing circumstances, and quickly.

"There needs to be a sense of urgency in the entire system," Collins said. "We cannot continue to deliver education in the same fashion that we have in the last 100 years."

That was the thinking behind the trustees' decision three years ago to tell each campus to closely examine underenrolled programs -- with an eye to either grow or eliminate them -- in addition to applying the same scrutiny to any class with fewer than 12 students.

"It's a common scenario that's playing out all over the country," said Susan Hunter, who oversaw the 5-12 process at University of Maine in Orono as vice president for academic affairs and provost. Currently, she is vice chancellor for academic affairs for all seven universities in the University of Maine System. "The scale and scope and magnitude, painful though it was, was less painful and less draconian than in many states."

Headlines around the nation paint a bleak picture of sweeping cuts to degree programs at state-run universities, almost all of them failing to meet target enrollments of at least five or six graduates per year. In the past four years, Pennsylvania's state university system cut 160 programs; Louisiana cut 50 degrees.

The recession triggered many of the cuts, according to a report earlier this year from the Washington D.C.-based Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. Among the cuts cited in that report: The University of California system consolidated or eliminated more than 180 programs; Arizona consolidated or eliminated 182 colleges, schools, programs and departments; the University System of Louisiana cut 217 academic programs and the University of Nevada-Las Vegas cut 31 degree programs.

The cuts have sparked a nationwide discussion over the fate of the traditional liberal arts education in college, because many cuts have been to language and arts programs, while demand has increased for programs narrowly focused on quickly attaining a specific post-graduation career. Collins and other University of Maine System officials insist they are committed to continuing to offer a broad-based education that serves students in an array of fields and careers. Balancing that goal, while addressing the financial realities, is the challenge facing everyone, Collins said.

"The 5-12 plan is a trigger, and when (a program or class) drops below what is economically feasible to deliver, then we have to look at that program and look at how critical it is to the mission of the university and how relevant it is," Collins said. "For each campus, it's different because each mission is different."

(Continued on page 2)

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