October 22, 2012

Maine universities' role as research arm for state erodes

A LePage order to put the work out for bid to save money causes layoffs and the schools lose millions.

By Tom Bell tbell@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

(Continued from page 1)

click image to enlarge

USM's Wishcamper Center in Portland houses the Muskie School of Public Service.

Jack Milton / Staff Photographer

A lot of the work is done by graduate students, so the universities can provide the services at a lower cost than the private sector, while providing a training ground for students, said Michel Lahti, director of an applied research program at the Muskie School.

EXODUS OF RESEARCHERS FEARED

The financial instability created by the new policy means that many of the state's most talented researchers will leave Maine to work elsewhere, predicted Mark Lapping, former executive director of the Muskie School and now a tenured professor of public policy and management.

"The great shame of it is that the public intellectual infrastructure -- which has served Maine so well over the years -- is in serious jeopardy," he said.

Lapping said the change illustrates LePage's "clear preference for supporting the private sector at the expense of the public sector."

But putting contracts out to bid assures that the state gets the "best thinking and the most for their dollars," said Dora Anne Mills, vice president for clinical affairs at the University of New England.

"These are taxpayers' dollars," Mills said. "The state has a strong interest in assuring that the dollars are being spent in the most effective way as possible and with creative thinking."

In winning a $3.5 million contract for providing nutritional education to food-stamp recipients, UNE offered an alternative to the more centralized system that USM had implemented since the 1990s. Most of the money will go directly to Healthy Maine Partnerships, a statewide network of community health coalitions, which will hire about 40 nutrition educators to conduct classes in healthy cooking and grocery shopping for low-income people.

Most of USM's contracts are with the Department of Health and Human Services. The agency's spokesman, John Martins, said DHHS staff believes it's possible to lower costs without lowering the quality of services.

"We have learned over the years across DHHS programs and contracts that money spent does not always equal quality results," he said.

POLICY LEADS TO LAYOFFS

The policy change has had an impact. Already, 28 employees at the Muskie School have been laid off this year, and 16 people lost their jobs at the University of Maine Cooperative Extension in Orono, which worked with the Muskie School on the food-stamps education program.

There is a potential for more layoffs, depending on the decisions the state makes regarding several agreements that are ending between now and December, Coburn said.

On Jan. 1 of this year, the state had 87 cooperative agreements totaling nearly $33 million. DHHS had more agreements than any other state agency. Thirty-three of its agreements -- with a total value of about $19 million -- were with the Muskie School, according to the agency.

Although the University of Southern Maine has lost several projects, the new changes have not been as "catastrophic" for the university as many had feared earlier this year, Coburn said. The university has emerged as the winning bidder for several contracts, including a project worth more than $1 million for providing epidemiological services for the Maine Center for Disease Control, he said.

One issue with putting the contracts out to bid is that the state by law can't discriminate against out-of-state bidders, so the contracts -- and the jobs that go with them -- could flow to schools outside of Maine, said David Flanagan, who chairs the board of visitors for the Muskie School.

Nevertheless, he said he welcomes competition as long as there's a level playing field and the competition will improve the quality and efficiency of the work the Muskie School provides.

"I don't believe in putting a protective cocoon around any organizations in the state," Flanagan said.

Staff Writer Tom Bell can be contacted at 791-6369 or at:

tbell@pressherald.com

 

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