The University of Maine System has launched a comprehensive review of academic programs on all seven campuses, a huge undertaking that has the potential to significantly reshape Maine’s public higher education system.

Spurred by years of deep cuts and multimillion-dollar budget gaps, the board of trustees ordered the review last spring as part of a five-year strategic plan.

“Many people have said, ‘Why didn’t you do this five years ago, 10 years ago?’ ” said University of Maine at Farmington President Kathryn Foster, who is heading up the review project and was at the University of Southern Maine in Portland on Friday to describe it to the campus community.

“The truth is, we can’t unring that bell of history. We have never done this systematic process.”

The review has three specific goals, Foster said: to increase program quality, expand access to the system’s resources to the largest number of students, and to do it in a way that either cuts costs or increases revenues.

“Speaking as a trustee, I don’t think anything the system is doing is as important as this work,” said Kurt Adams, one of three trustees at Friday’s meeting.

The first academic areas under review are degree programs offered in: business (at the seven campuses), criminal justice/criminology (four campuses), education (six campuses), engineering (two campuses), history (four campuses), languages (three campuses), marine sciences (two campuses), nursing (four campuses) and recreation/tourism (five campuses).

Each one of these areas will have a “subteam” – made up largely of faculty in that discipline – which will come up with a recommendation. Faculty, students and other campus leaders were urged to volunteer for the review teams in areas that interested them.

Additional academic programs will be reviewed in the future, until all programs are eventually examined.

USM associate professor Gary Johnson said Foster and others needed to do a better job of inviting faculty to join the subteams, saying there have been suspicion and rumors about the effort that suggest it is just a way to identify programs for elimination. The trustees have eliminated five academic programs at USM in the last two months, and campus officials eliminated 50 faculty positions.

Adams, a trustee, acknowledged the tensions with faculty, and said he was “deeply conflicted” during the votes to eliminate the five programs.

“One would think that this work should be done first,” he said, referring to the systemwide academic review process. But the immediate budget crisis forced those program eliminations, he said, adding that he hoped the process now underway would “move very quickly.”

“I see this as a way to save and enhance programs, not eliminate them,” Adams said. “What’s exciting to (the trustees) about this process is that there are ways to make the system better.”

Foster agreed, saying the process could bolster a weak academic program at one campus – which by itself might be in danger of being eliminated – by sharing resources and faculty with another campus that has a more robust program.

The idea, Foster said, is “to take advantage of the resources already in the system.”

“What we have now is seven different universities, largely developing curriculum on their own,” she said. By synchronizing academic offerings, more students would have wider access to a higher-quality product.

When asked how the review process might save money, she sounded a cautionary note.

Departments could save payroll costs by sharing faculty or free up teaching time by sharing a department chairman across multiple campuses, Foster suggested. But options would vary by discipline, and reviews of similar collaborations at other state systems showed mixed results. There would also likely be technology startup costs to collaboration in Maine, such as outfitting some classrooms so students at other campuses could participate on a video feed. Identifying the costs, and potential cost savings, was part of the process, Foster said

The subteam members will be identified by Nov. 21, and each group has until May to produce a report with its recommendations.