After years of financial turmoil and declining enrollment, the University of Southern Maine is finally enjoying a stretch of good news.

The campus’ latest budget is balanced without emergency funds from the system office, and there’s a 19 percent spike in the number of students putting down deposits to attend in the fall, officials said Friday.

“This is tremendous news for USM,” said President Glenn Cummings, who had promised a “fast rebuild” of the campus when he took office a year ago.

The turnaround has happened faster than anticipated, he said.

“We didn’t know how many years it would take to get to this point,” he said Friday.

The $127 million budget for the fiscal year beginning July 1 that was approved by the trustees on Monday shows that USM closed its budget gap, which had been projected to be $6 million, without any emergency funds from the system for the first time in years. The trustees, who had approved $15 million in system funds for USM over the last two years, broke out in applause when they heard the news.

Cummings tempered his enthusiasm by noting that USM still has a lot of ground to make up, but said he would “celebrate” a flat budget: “That’s our platform for growth over the next few years.”

USM closed the budget gap without layoffs or program cuts by leaving vacant positions open, filling some slots with lower-cost temporary hires, cutting administrative budgets and draining almost all of its $3 million in reserves. Enrollment was boosted by an overhaul of the recruitment and admissions process, said Nancy Griffin, who arrived at the school about a year ago as vice president for enrollment management.

Chief Financial Officer Buster Neel said the turnaround “was a very intimidating assignment.”

Cummings and his team came in after years of multimillion-dollar deficits that led to deep staffing and program cuts. In protest, students took over administrative buildings, staged walkouts, held rallies and marches on campus and downtown, and took over a trustees meeting to object to USM eliminating 51 faculty members and five academic programs.

Over the last five years, USM has cut almost 25 percent of its employees, as enrollment fell about 16 percent. Each 1 percent of enrollment represents about $600,000 in revenue.

The upheaval coincided with rapid turnover at the top. Cummings is the fourth president since 2011. He succeeded two interim presidents: David Flanagan, who made the deepest cuts to close a $16 million gap in 2010, and Theodora Kalikow, who served for two years. Kalikow had come out of retirement to fill the position after Selma Botman stepped down amid faculty unrest and a looming budget shortfall.

USM’s news comes as the larger financial picture for the entire system is improving. This week, new five-year financial projections for the UMaine system show a budget surplus in 2021, after years of multimillion-dollar deficits. Officials credit the turnaround in part to the ongoing One University, a long-term transformation that will streamline costs by cutting overhead, and sharply focusing on what academic programs will be offered at each campus.

Economics professor Susan Feiner, a sharp critic of cuts and budget decisions in past years, said Cummings and Provost Jeannine Uzzi, a former classics professor who had been laid off under Flanagan, worked closely with the faculty this year.

“We have been partners with the administration on this,” Feiner said. “It’s wonderful to have a leadership team that is so committed to USM and that understands the strengths of the institution.”

The administrators, she said, “were really respectful of everybody because they know how hard everyone at USM works.”

Cummings said he intends to rebuild the faculty, since the budget deficits have left many faculty positions open or filled with less costly part-time instructors.

“It’s a very important priority,” he said. “We need to grow our full-time tenure-track faculty. But we have to be extremely careful.”

A growing student body is the key to increasing revenue at USM, which had an enrollment of 5,681 students last fall. The rise in fall 2016 deposits is in sharp contrast to the same time in 2015, when fall deposit numbers were down 11 percent from the year before.

Griffin revamped and redirected the admissions officers to take proactive roles in reaching out to prospective students and created a new one-on-one 90-minute “onboarding” advisory session for each student. She ended far-flung recruitment campaigns in the Midwest and focused on re-establishing ties to area high school guidance counselors and cementing transfer plans with Southern Maine Community College. Admissions officers are directed to aggressively clear student roadblocks however they can, and the campus added new financial aid incentives.

“We went back to the basics and we’re seeing the results because of it,” Griffin said. In-state tuition and fees at USM are currently $8,920, and $21,280 for out-of-state students.

USM, with about $1 million in additional financial aid funds from the system, offered scholarships to transfer students for the first time. They also shifted existing financial aid to direct more of it to first-year students with high grades and a demonstrated need for aid, and “stacked” financial aid offers so that grant aid didn’t count against merit aid, meaning students who qualified for both got more aid, she said. Previously, and at many colleges, merit aid is reduced if grant aid is awarded.

“Students are taking a whole new look at USM,” Cummings said.


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