It’s good that the University of Maine System budget is coming back toward balance after years of painful cutting, but it’s much too soon to celebrate.

The system’s problems go deeper than its budget, and unless trustees, administrators, faculty, students and the public continue to support the ambitious reform agenda promoted by Chancellor James Page, the system will have more cuts in its future.

Maine’s challenges regarding higher education are well known: The system has too many buildings, too few students and serves the oldest state in the nation – which issues fewer high school diplomas every year. Even with aggressive out-of-state recruitment, revenue generated by tuition can’t be expected to grow significantly in the years ahead. The state government won’t be likely to bail the system out either, because elder services are going to demand an increasing share of the state budget as the baby boomers move into old age.

Fortunately, the system has a plan to do more than cut. The “One University” concept, which treats each of the seven campuses as complementary parts of a whole instead of as independent competitors, is a solid strategy for building a better university system for the future.

We have already seen several promising initiatives. There are now a block of credits that are universally accepted at all university campuses and in the state community college system, making it easier for students to seamlessly transfer among them.

The university system has also standardized the way previous learning is evaluated, so a course accepted for credit in Machias would be acceptable in Portland. These are the kinds of things that lower bureaucratic hurdles and help students keep working toward a degree.

The system has consolidated many of its back-office functions as well, reducing administrative duplication in areas like human resources and finance. Finding efficiencies in these kinds of services will lower costs without interfering with education.

And there have been intriguing efforts in combining resources on different campuses to develop a program that would not otherwise exist.

The system’s cyber-security program has been recognized by the federal Department of Homeland Security as a center of excellence. As a result, Maine students are eligible for scholarships that their peers in other schools are not, researchers can compete for grants and businesses can hire highly qualified graduates in a growing field.

The program represents the combined work of faculty from Fort Kent, the University of Southern Maine, the University of Maine at Augusta and the flagship campus in Orono. This is the model of how faculty can deliver more by cooperating creatively than they can by competing.

The question for the administrators and trustees is how far efforts like this can go. There are other programs that could allow the university to do more and reach more students without straining limited resources. Some of these consolidations will be controversial, especially when a class that used to be offered locally is now based on another campus, but this is the right vision for a system that has to make the most of what it has.

It would be a shame if the system finishes its aggressive budget cutting but does not follow through on the creative restructuring that’s needed. Maine needs to adapt its higher education system to current needs, and the One University concept is the way to do it.

filed under: