September 13, 2013

Our View: UMaine System recruiting money missing its target

The system is spending plenty to draw foreign students, but has no clear strategy for doing so.

Colleges and universities across the country are scrambling to attract foreign students, but the University of Maine System doesn't have a systemwide foreign-student recruitment strategy.

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The University of Maine System recently paid $363,028 for a report on international-student recruiting. As well, the system has committed to paying agents about $20,000 for each international student who the agent enrolls in the University of Maine and University of Southern Maine.

It's not for lack of spending on it, however.

The university system has committed to paying agents about $20,000 for each international student an agent enrolls in the University of Maine and University of Southern Maine. At the same time, USM's embattled former president, Selma Botman, was pulling down six figures as she crafted a university system recruitment proposal.

To ease its dearth of cash and students, the university system does need a well-grounded overseas-recruitment plan. Judging from the lack of accountability and consistency we've seen so far, though, we wonder whether it is capable of delivering one.

The number of University of Maine System students is down almost 3 percent from a year ago, and the declining number of Maine high school graduates suggests the picture won't get brighter any time soon.

It's wise, then, to try to bolster enrollment and revenue by encouraging international students to attend our state universities. But the university system's approach to developing a recruitment strategy should raise some eyebrows.

Botman was assigned to craft an overseas-recruitment plan in 2012 after stepping aside with a year on her contract as USM president following a faculty no-confidence vote. Her recruitment report cost $363,028, including $275,908 for her salary and benefits and $70,022 for her assistant's salary and benefits.

The university system was obligated to pay Botman, since she was allowed to take on the new role -- special assistant to the chancellor for global education -- under the same terms and salary she'd had as president. However, the system also was responsible for holding Botman accountable for fulfilling her global education contract. And records show she didn't fully carry out every task set out in the agreement.

The sole concrete result of Botman's year as special assistant was a 39-page, five-year proposal. The University of Maine System needed to see the plan, UMaine System Chancellor James Page said, before committing money to any particular program.

Page's caveat seems disingenuous, given that in March -- while Botman's report was still in the works -- the UMaine System signed a five-year contract for outside recruitment help. If Botman's plan truly was a factor in the decision-making, it's unclear why the university system didn't wait to take action. And that's not even taking into consideration concerns raised about commission-based student recruitment, including the payment structure and lack of oversight.

The university system doesn't now have a strategy for overseas-student recruitment; later this fall, its trustees are scheduled to decide on one. Maintaining enrollment and revenue is important to every campus in the system, but its actions thus far on foreign-student recruitment haven't enhanced its credibility, and the system would do better to go back to the drawing board before moving any further.


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