University of Maine System Chancellor James H. Page is retiring at the end of the academic year, almost seven years after taking over a university system that was struggling financially and facing upheaval from staff and students over budget cuts.

When he took over as chancellor in 2012, the University of Maine System was struggling financially and facing upheaval over budget cuts. The system is more stable now, but still faces demographic challenges and pressures from tight budgets. 2012 staff photo by John Ewing

“It’s a good time,” Page said, noting that the system has stabilized during his tenure and system leaders are poised to adopt a new “refined” set of strategic priorities that represents the next three to five years of work that began under Page. “I’m 66 and we’ve reached this milestone, and there’s a new one coming up.”

Page’s retirement comes as he and the trustees are facing a lawsuit from a Cape Elizabeth investor who was thwarted in his effort to repurpose a closed pulp mill in Old Town and claims university officials criminally conspired against him. A system spokesman called the allegations “baseless.”

Page is scheduled to announce his retirement Wednesday at a board of trustees meeting in Bangor. A national search for his successor is being launched, and a new chancellor is expected to be appointed in the summer of 2019.

At the meeting, the trustees are scheduled to vote on the “Declaration of Strategic Priorities,” which sets out goals such as adjusting academic offerings to be more accessible to students statewide, modifying class offerings to synchronize with Maine workforce needs, increasing enrollment in the face of declining state demographics, and keeping education affordable.

The document is intended to serve as a kind of road map for the system and the new chancellor, said James Erwin, chairman of the system’s board of trustees.

“The timing of a leadership change can be a really important factor in how successful the next leader is going to be. This timing issue is really key to this,” Erwin said. Page said he decided to retire because the next phase would last longer than he wanted to serve as chancellor. He said he plans to go into higher education consulting.

Page inherited a system in 2012 that was struggling financially in the wake of the recession. Enrollment was dropping rapidly and long-term demographics showed a continuing decline. Budgets at multiple campuses were in the red, and early in his tenure the system announced a five-year, $90 million structural budget gap . The state – also struggling with dire financial shortfalls – was not in a position to increase funding for the system.

Other states in similar financial circumstances drastically cut state university budgets and tuition soared – but Maine went a different route. Under Page, the system froze tuition for six years in exchange for the state not cutting funding – and only reinstituted tuition increases two years ago. During Maine’s tuition freeze, public universities in other states had an average 13 percent increase in tuition.

Page’s salary – $277,500 a year – remained unchanged while he was chancellor.

MORE STABLE, BUT CHALLENGES AHEAD

Erwin said Page led the system through a difficult time, which isn’t over – the system still faces demographic challenges and financial pressures from deferred maintenance and tight budgets – but is significantly more stable.

“The university system is certainly in a way better position than it was seven years ago when Jim Page took over,” Erwin said.

U.S. Sen. Susan Collins issued a statement Wednesday citing Page’s accomplishments.

“Delivering a high quality, affordable education to students has always been Jim’s number one priority,” she said. “He deserves credit and praise for his visionary leadership during a period of challenging demographics and economic constraints.”

System finances remain volatile, buffeted by shifts in enrollment and tuition, return on investment income and ever-increasing personnel costs. For example, in November the system reported an $8.2 million surplus in its roughly $551 million annual budget. However, the latest five-year financial projections, released in May, anticipate a projected $12.2 million deficit in 2022, and a deficit of $13.8 million in 2023, based in part on lower-than-expected credit growth and flat state subsidies.

Page, whose experience straddled both the academic and business worlds, brought a businesslike sensibility to running the system. Key events of his tenure included:

• Overseeing cost-cutting and streamlining decisions that included consolidating back-office functions at all seven campuses, moving to a universal budget process, closing the system’s central office in Bangor, authorizing the elimination of academic programs, and making personnel cuts that included the controversial firing of tenured professors at the University of Southern Maine. The cumulative effect of those changes resulted in roughly $80 million in savings, officials say.

• Establishing what is called the “One University” vision of a cohesive system working in tandem, as opposed to seven campuses operating as silos. This included allowing students to attend courses at different campuses via online technology and simplifying campus credit transfers.

• Naming new campus leadership at each of the seven campuses, including the 2014 appointment of Susan Hunter, the first woman to lead the flagship campus.

• Rebranding all campuses and initiating new, robust marketing and recruitment efforts to attract new students, particularly from out of state.

• Having the University of Maine at Machias become a regional campus of the University of Maine, which is aimed at saving money by cutting administrative costs at Machias.

Meanwhile, the lawsuit that entrepreneur Samuel Eakin filed against Page and the trustees in October continues to play out in Cumberland County Superior Court. Eakin alleges that Page had undisclosed financial interests in one of the parties connected to plans to redevelop the Old Town mill and secure two lucrative, long-term energy contracts with the university system. Eakin said that constituted a conflict of interest that tainted the process.

Coverage of Eakin’s allegations prompted the trustee’s audit committee to review the energy-solutions process. It found no improper or unlawful influence.

On Tuesday, Erwin said the trustees would continue to indemnify Page after he retired.

EDUCATION AND EXPERIENCE

Born and raised in Caribou, Page earned a bachelor’s degree in history at the University of Maine at Fort Kent, a master’s degree in philosophy at St. Andrews University in Scotland, and a doctorate in linguistics and philosophy at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

He received several fellowships and taught at a few colleges before working as an assistant professor of philosophy at the University of Kansas from 1992 to 1997.

Page returned to Maine that year, hired by an uncle to become senior vice president and chief operating officer of the James W. Sewall Co., a consulting firm. At the same time, he worked as an adjunct professor of philosophy at the University of Maine since 1998.

The year before being selected chancellor, Page was one of four finalists to be president of the University of Maine in Orono.

The University of Maine System’s enrollment is 29,735 students, down from about 31,000 when Page was hired.

Noel K. Gallagher can be contacted at 791-6387 or at:

[email protected]

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