When New Yorkers Marshall Dodge and Bob Bryan made a commercial success of their brand of Maine humor by recording their “Bert and I” stories in their Yale dorm room, they could not have known that the “Come to think of it, you can’t get there from here” punchline in “Which Way to Millinocket” would become an iconic reflection of how Mainers tend to think. Iconic, but also inaccurate.

The idea that opportunity could bypass Millinocket speaks to how much the economic landscape and population distribution of Maine have changed in less than a generation. When the Legislature created the University of Maine System in 1968, students could graduate from Stearns High School and immediately start working at Great Northern Paper, earning manufacturing wages that were 170 percent of the state average. That opportunity sustained a population of 7,700 residents compared to just 4,300 today.

The changing nature of our economy and the demographic winter that has descended upon many rural communities are creating dire challenges. The number of students graduating from Maine high schools has declined more than 12 percent over the last decade. That trend will continue well into the 2030s, resulting in a critical shortage of students to enroll in our universities, work for our employers and become the fabric of our communities.

Our universities also face fundamental, technology-driven changes in the higher education market, threatening the traditional bachelor’s degree model with online and hybrid courses, micro credentials, mass program customization and lower costs. The UMaine System must change to reflect these realities.

Over the last five years the Board of Trustees has focused its strategic oversight on the outcomes we need to achieve for our students and our state. We have identified measurable goals, with associated key performance indicators, focused on student success (such as enrollment and retention rates, time to completion, workforce readiness, debt level, research and development funding) and system sustainability.

University leaders are prioritizing collaboration over competition to meet these objectives. Finances, IT, HR, procurement and other support services have been consolidated with initial savings of $6 million annually. The board has reinvested the savings in Maine-focused research, sustaining rural access to higher education and other strategic priorities. More efficient use of taxpayer and family resources is vital, but it is not sufficient to achieve and sustain student-centered outcomes in the emerging higher education marketplace.

Collaborations in our academic programs represent the best hope for our seven-campus system to address the declining enrollment, particularly at our rural campuses, to sustain and strengthen undersubscribed programs through multi-campus partnerships, and to meet demand for strategically important programs we cannot afford to duplicate. However, academic collaborations at scale have been next to impossible because of the separate institutional accreditation standards of quality and effectiveness that the New England Commission for Higher Education requires of each of our universities. This individual-campus paradigm precludes exactly what the university system needs: large-scale sharing of resources and multi-campus governance structures.

Last June, retiring Chancellor James Page recommended that the system pursue an accreditation model that allows our universities to rely on the strengths of the entire enterprise to satisfy these standards. At our first Board of Trustees meeting with Dannel Malloy in July, I asked our new chancellor to provide his own recommendations for what accreditation structure would best support the achievement of the board’s strategic goals. In September he concurred with his predecessor and recommended seeking approval from the regional accreditation commission to transition separate university accreditations to a unified accreditation for the system.

He led an unprecedentedly vigorous and transparent campaign that included 46 campus visits, hundreds of conversations and open solicitation of feedback. In January, the board unanimously approved a plan to make that transition over the next two years. If approved by our partners at the regional commission, our first-in-the-nation model will evaluate all of Maine’s public universities for how well they collectively meet the commission’s accreditation standards.

Today community leaders are working to realize the next chapter in the Millinocket region’s storied history as a place where Maine people create prosperity at the confluence of natural resources and technology. Our job is to make sure that students and employers throughout Maine have the best possible chance to participate in the emerging new economy. Unified accreditation, though far from a silver bullet, opens up a way to get there from here.

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