Reshaping the University of Southern Maine as a “metropolitan university” is a promising way to turn around the financially troubled school, but it would cost about $900,000 a year, according to the head of a steering committee in charge of creating a strategy to make the change.

“I’d say right from the start that this cannot be done on the cheap,” USM professor emeritus Richard Barringer told the University of Maine System trustees Sunday when asked whether there were options that would cost less. “If this is what you want, you’ve got to put your money on the barrelhead.”

Barringer was briefing the trustees at their meeting on the Portland campus in advance of his final report, due in December.

Several of the trustees asked him pointed questions about the costs, noting recent budget cuts. Barringer explained that his group was told to craft a strategy without consideration for the financial crisis facing USM and the entire UMaine System.

This fall, the trustees have voted to eliminate five academic programs at USM, and the administration has cut 50 faculty positions to reduce by $6 million a $16 million budget gap for the 2015-16 fiscal year. The remaining $10 million will come from staff and administration cuts and an academic reorganization to be announced before the end of the year.

The faculty layoffs are still being protested on campus. About 50 demonstrators holding signs reading “Invest in USM” and fake gravestones saying “RIP Applied Medical Sciences” greeted trustees as they arrived Sunday for the meeting. The protesters stood in the back of the room when the meeting began.

Student activists who want the trustees to reverse the program cuts say they plan another demonstration at noon Monday, when the trustees meet at USM for a second day.

The financial crisis prompted the trustees to ask all seven universities to identify a single mission focus, or area of expertise, to overhaul the system’s offerings. USM identified the metropolitan university model as its focus.

Several trustees said the metropolitan university plan – based on the idea of identifying the needs of the community and shaping academic programing around that – sounded promising. Barringer noted that would mean identifying issues in all three communities where USM has campuses – Portland, Gorham and Lewiston.

“There is so much potential,” said Trustee Shawn Moody. “We’ve got to understand the needs of the community.”

Trustee Gregory Johnson agreed: “I think it’s a great opportunity. I really do.”

Since June, Barringer has led a 30-person group in defining what a metropolitan university is, and how USM could adopt the model. He said Sunday his $900,000 estimate of the cost was on the low end of what other universities have spent to become “metropolitan universities.”

“We’ve done surveys on what peer institutions spent,” he said, noting the cost ranged from about $100 per student per year to $1,000 per student per year. At USM, the group calculated the cost at about $150 per student per year.

“Without it, I don’t think we can be successful,” Barringer said.

The proposal would require USM to hire a new senior management official to spearhead the metropolitan university effort.

Barringer said USM already has several areas where it is functioning like a successful metropolitan university, citing the music department, the engineering program, the art department and the community planning department.

“I think the next president has to make this a top priority,” Barringer said. “I don’t see any alternative way forward. … I see this as a salvation project. I really do. This is good news, really. Most people really want to see it happen and they want to see it happen now.”

Also Sunday, the trustees were urged to fast-track an effort to create a new systemwide bachelor of science degree in Cybersecurity, to be implemented by the fall of 2015. The degree would piggyback off the National Security Agency’s recent designation of the University of Maine System as a “National Center of Academic Excellence in Information Assurance/Cybersecurity,” similar to an accreditation in other fields.

It is the first higher education institution in Maine to get that designation, which will help efforts to attract funding and collaborations with business and industry, according to program coordinator Ray Albert, a professor at the University of Maine at Fort Kent.

Albert urged the trustees to move fast on the degree program in order to stay ahead of competitors. A degree program, with options for certification and offering a range of specialties, could attract students for the high-growth job sector. Students in the program could take their general education courses at any campus, he said, and then use online learning for degree requirements.

On Monday, the trustees will be briefed on a proposal to combine business and law graduate programs and house them in a new Portland-based graduate center, get updated financial information and sign off on a new federally required update to the sexual assault/harassment policies at all campuses.