BANGOR, Maine — The University of Maine System’s financial troubles will be front and center at a board of trustees meeting in Portland on Sunday and Monday. In addition to a financial update, the trustees will hear a presentation that makes a case for a new graduate school in Portland.
The meeting comes at a time when the system’s universities are preparing their fiscal year 2016 budgets. Those budget plans will be completed within the next couple of months and the board of trustees will vote on the joint budget in March.
Maine’s two largest universities are looking for places to make cuts to address a budget shortfall that administrators have said is the result of flat funding from the state, declining enrollment and a frozen tuition rate, paired with rising costs. The other five universities have not yet announced whether they will makes cuts, although UM-Fort Kent projects that it will not have to make severe changes.
The system’s vice chancellor for administration and finance, Rebecca Wyke, said that if the university system changes nothing it will be $69 million in debt by 2019.
The University of Southern Maine likely will feel the impact of the budget shortfall most acutely. President David Flanagan said that his university will have to cut $16 million, in part by eliminating 50 faculty positions, half of which are layoffs. Five academic programs were cut this year.
In Orono, administrators are looking to cut $7 million, which they say they will do with no faculty cuts and limited impact on academic programs.
Wyke will present the trustees with a financial update and also will seek approval to develop a plan that will give the system office more control of individual budgets of the seven campuses. Under a very preliminary version of this plan, financial officers on campuses who once reported to their presidents will report to a chief operating officer at the system level next year.
The trustees also will hear a plan to create a new professional and graduate center in Portland, which would house a consolidated business school and the law school. An outside consultant, the Parthenon Group, was hired to study the feasibility of this project. The group will report on Monday that the plan is supported by members of the business and legal communities and has the potential to “catalyze the growth of small to medium businesses across Maine,” according to meeting materials.
The Parthenon Group’s work was paid for by the Harold Alfond Foundation.
The initiatives proposed at the university system over the past year have not been received well by all and that’s not likely to change next week.
Members of the group Students for USMfuture, who have advocated for a reversal of the cuts, are organizing students to walk out of class in protest on Monday while the trustees are meeting on their campus.
The group announced Thursday that it has raised $10,000 which will be used to pursue legal action on behalf of the students who have been affected by the academic program cuts at USM.
Some members of the USM faculty have argued that the financial crisis at USM has been largely manufactured by administrators at the system level.
“They are basing their numbers about a crisis on projections,” economics professor Susan Feiner said at a meeting of students and community members that was held on campus in October. She said that university system administrators overestimate expenses and underestimate revenue when they create the budget and, after they’ve cut jobs and programs, often end the year with a surplus.
The university system did end the 2013-2014 fiscal year with an $11 million surplus, Wyke said at the time.
Some of the surplus went into the system’s rainy day fund, which was used last year to help the campuses pass balanced budgets.
System administrators maintain that the financial crisis is real and that reserve funds are necessary to avoid further fiscal problems.
The trustees also will vote whether to update a sexual harassment policy and on facilities upgrades.