Not surprisingly, the University of Maine System board of trustees’ decision to extend Chancellor Malloy’s contract has resulted in new controversy. Unfortunately, negative comments directed at the top have morphed into misplaced criticism of the entire system.

As a state, we can be proud of our university. We also should be concerned about its future.

The UMaine System is a tremendous, dynamic resource for Maine residents, offering quality, affordable undergraduate and graduate education. It has outstanding professors and staff who create state-of-the-art programs. Having attended many, I can attest to the quality.

More than 30,000 students attend annually. Most are from Maine, but increasingly students from other states and countries also attend. Some will decide to call Maine home. We need them.

The university system is an economic driver, integral to a knowledgeable, skilled workforce and to innovation, research, and entrepreneurship. More than tax incentives and other corporate benefits, high-wage jobs locate where there are qualified workers in sufficient numbers.

Public universities also have the mission of community impact. UMS campuses make their facilities available for public use, reach out to nontraditional students, offer training for employees at prices that companies can afford, and more.


No other single institution in our state plays all these important roles.

Nevertheless, campuses continue to be characterized as competing, self-interested fiefdoms. System administrators are seen as controlling, isolated bureaucrats. Trustees are described as out of touch. These stereotypes are unfair and don’t reflect the very real issues at the root of the problem, which go beyond who is chancellor.

The university system is facing profound changes in the economy, demographics, education delivery, competition and cost. It’s not alone. Colleges and universities nationwide are grappling with the same issues. Dozens have closed in recent years.

Did we see these big challenges coming? Yes. Decades ago, we understood the future demographics of northern New England. We predicted with accuracy which sectors would be struggling for skilled workers. We knew that a far-flung infrastructure of seven university campuses, seven community college campuses, plus Maine Adult Education would eventually outpace the state’s ability to pay. We assumed increased competition would emerge, and it has. But it was no easier then to alter course.

Today, the pace of change has quickened even beyond these predictions. Time is not on our side.

UMS has taken steps to counter the financial challenges. Campuses are working hard to attract out-of-state students, specialize their offerings, provide online statewide courses, consolidate administrative functions, upgrade infrastructure, partner with businesses and relentlessly pursue donations.


Despite these efforts, the system remains a financial house of cards. The problem is existential.

Certainly, the solution requires a chancellor with expansive leadership qualities. But that isn’t enough. It also requires the courage and cooperation of governors, legislators, trustees, faculty and communities to agree on and work toward a shared vision for higher education – all assets – that benefits the entire state. It includes coordinated public and private investment and fully leveraging the unique characteristics of campuses – both physical and virtual.

The alternative is a public higher education system that cannibalizes and competes with itself for a dwindling number of students and resources. On this trajectory, we can see the end game. Averting this downward spiral will take leadership, clarity of purpose, collaboration, high-level execution, patience and increased, sustained investment in a longer-term plan.

In some ways, perhaps, the controversy surrounding the chancellor has been beneficial in refocusing our attention to issues that have been growing insidiously for many years. Without question, the university of the future, in Maine and everywhere else, will look quite different from the university of the past. What we do today will determine that future. We are at an inflection point.

The University of Maine System is a precious asset that can play a pivotal, catalytic role in the future of our state. Being critical and voicing disagreement is both important and necessary. It also should not distract or deter us from supporting this system in as many ways as possible.

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