LTTLE DEER ISLE — The current University of Maine System financial crisis is not rooted as much in an economic problem with the system as it is in a chronic lack of leadership and vision.

As we all know, Maine is a large state geographically with a low population and low gross domestic product. It does not take a doctorate in economics to figure out that we have too many University of Maine campuses: Augusta, Farmington, Fort Kent, Machias, Orono and Presque Isle, as well as the University of Southern Maine, with campuses in Portland, Gorham and Lewiston-Auburn.

Moreover, the Lewiston-Auburn campus is 15 miles from the Augusta campus. Recently I compared five states with similar populations and GDPs. Four have only one state university campus; the fifth has two. Maine has seven campuses.

Additionally, as I understand it, the average amount of money a state spends on higher education is 11 percent of its annual budget. Maine spends 3.5 percent.

Several months ago, on the Maine Public Broadcasting Network’s “Maine Calling” call-in program, Chancellor James Page admitted that the university system used to get 70 percent of its operating budget from the state. Now it gets 41 percent. A caller suggested that rather than strip the university system of its programs and faculty, they might consider asking the Legislature for more money.

There are three essential management problems:

 The administration throughout the system does not have the leadership capacity or political will to cut redundant or insolvent campuses and/or get more money from the state.

 They regard the faculty as a lesser species of human being, thereby needing to be bossed around.

 The level of bureaucracy in the University of Maine System must have been dreamed up by Soviet planners. Each campus has a president, vice presidents and provosts, and then there is the chancellor’s office.

Now that times are tough, administrators are quite prepared to pursue the path of self-preservation – sacrifice the faculty rather than make the seemingly more difficult political choices of closing campuses, fighting out a budget increase with the Legislature or, God forbid, cutting administration.

It’s a funny thing, but I always thought the two indispensable players in education are faculty and students. Both are expendable in this game because nobody has the guts to do the right thing.

This is particularly true at USM, and it goes back a long way. The worst example was the hiring of Selma Botman as president four years ago.

No sooner had she taken office than she hired more administrators (despite dropping enrollment); gave out millions of dollars in raises to the administration (the faculty had not had a cost-of-living increase in five years, much less salary raises); and then, when the faculty objected, she compiled files on the worst offenders, whom she tried to have fired.

She fired three provosts within a year because they disagreed with her modus operandi; the university then had to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars paying them because they were under contract.

Eventually, the faculty could not take it anymore and rose up against her, delivering a vote of “no confidence.” The chancellor weakly ushered her into running a foreign studies program so she could save face and USM could avoid a legal fracas with her husband’s Boston law firm. They should have fired her and taken the consequences.

Between insufficient funds from the state and top-heavy administrative infrastructure, the system is feeling a pinch that has been increasingly exacerbated by dropping enrollment as a result of Maine’s aging demographics.

But USM’s metropolitan university solution strikes me as not only totally backward, but also catastrophic if it succeeds. A metropolitan university is not a university because it has much more limited offerings.

The plan is already backfiring mightily. We have just watched the so-called “centerpiece” of the metropolitan university, USM’s business program, virtually disintegrate as 12 professors have fled to other universities. The program, once listed in the top 100 business programs in America, is now struggling to be accredited.

Since Portland is a vibrant small city and the largest population center in Maine, I would like to know: How can the state of Maine pillage a perfectly good university in its biggest city (which, by the way, actually graduates more students than the Orono campus)? Weak leadership and the politics of self-preservation is the answer.

— Special to the Press Herald