April 8, 2012

Our View: University pay raises just part of the real story

Important questions about how resources are used should be asked throughout the system.

There is no doubt that reports of administrative pay raises in the University of Maine System don't look good.

According to data supplied to The Portland Press Herald, 809 people received a total of $7 million in salary increases over the last seven years. This occurred at a time when budgets were being cut, faculty members were going without raises and students were asked to pay more while getting less.

Quite often, the raw numbers don't tell the whole story. Most people would consider a raise that results from a promotion to be appropriate even in tough economic times. Sometimes, in the shuffling that comes with restructuring, an individual can get a raise at the same time the organization sheds jobs and cuts its costs.

The real questions the public should be asking is how these compensation decisions fit with the university system's overall mission to serve the state as a pathway to opportunity for Maine's students and as an engine of economic development for the state. If the system is doing its job, individual's pay rates don't matter as much.

Unfortunately, there is evidence that the system is not doing its job as well as it should: Maine lags behind all the other New England states in higher education attainment; potential job creators say that they can't find the skilled workers they would need to expand here; national ranking services like U.S. News and World Report don't give UMS schools the kind of reviews they need to attract out-of-state students; and enrollments are down, especially at the University of Southern Maine.

This last sign of trouble comes as college enrollment is booming nationally, fueled in part by an increase in international students who pay full tuition and support other programs. Why should Maine, already a tourist destination, not be a desirable place for people from outside the state to come for an education?

This is a much more complicated story than the pay rates for administrators, although those rates do play a role.

We are encouraged to hear that new University of Maine System Chancellor James Page, who put a temporary hold on discretionary raises, is conducting a thorough review of the organization he has been hired to lead. Page is not only new to the job, but new to the public sector. He comes to UMS from industry with a mandate to introduce change throughout the organization. To do that, he will need the public's confidence that its money is being spent wisely.

The salary data released last week don't look good, but Page's assessment should provide a much fuller picture of how well the university system is doing in meeting its goals and what changes still need to be made.


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