Last week, University of Maine System Chancellor Jim Page presented his plan to better coordinate that system to make it more efficient. At the same time, the Maine Community College System is under pressure from Gov. Paul LePage to find better, cost-effective ways to serve the state’s students.
Against this backdrop, lawmakers are considering proposals to better align — and maybe merge — the two systems. The time is right for this work.
State Rep. Peggy Rotundo, D-Lewiston, has introduced legislation to create a single board to oversee the two public higher education systems.
“It just gets everybody thinking much more holistically and beyond the savings, which I think are there,” she said this week. “The people of Maine will be better served by having the state with one unified vision of where they feel higher education should be heading and how it works.”
Numerous states have boards that oversee both community college and university systems, but most still leave budgeting and academic program decisions to the individual systems. On paper, Maine has a coordinating board of higher education, but its members say it has no clout and clearly there is little coordination.
Several years ago, the publication Inside Higher Ed called board consolidation a “ trendy idea.” Since then, several states have embarked on different consolidation models.
In 2013, Oregon lawmakers created a new Higher Education Coordinating Commission.
“Architects of the plan, Gov. John Kitzhaber chief among them, say having a single board look out for the interests of students and the state will lead to better results at lower costs,” The Oregonian reported that year.
The state’s universities and community colleges will continue to maintain separate boards, but the state Legislature makes a single allocation to the coordinating commission, which decides where the money goes. The commission, which began July 1, 2014, also approves new academic programs.
In 2011, Connecticut lawmakers merged the boards and system offices of the state’s 12 community colleges, four state university campuses and Charter Oak State College, an online institution. The University of Connecticut remains separate. The head of the new board of regents was Bob Kennedy, after he left the presidency of the University of Maine.
Because the changes were quick and from outside the campuses, the Connecticut merger remains a work in progress.
State Rep. Victoria Kornfield, D-Bangor, the House chairwoman of the Legislature’s Education Committee, which has jurisdiction of the higher education systems, wants to go further than these examples and believes a full merger of the two systems will happen in the not too distant future.
“I think their missions are very different, and if we can think of a way to honor the missions of each type of school, then we could do a lot better with combining administrations and using buildings effectively,” Kornfield said.
Shawn Moody, the founder of Moody’s Collision Centers and an independent candidate for governor in 2010, is the only person to serve on both Maine’s university and community college systems boards of trustees, positions he asked LePage to appoint him to. From his unique vantage point, he says it is obvious that there needs to be more collaboration between the two systems. But, he said, their two distinct missions need to be respected.
He suggested beginning the process by having three or four trustees who serve on both boards.
LePage agrees with this approach rather than a merged board at this point because the systems have different missions and needs, his spokeswoman, Adrienne Bennett, said Friday. His focus is ensuring affordability and access for students while increasing efficiency.
These are the right priorities. With Page’s plan, the university system is remaking itself into a better coordinated entity with centralized budgeting and academic planning. It is an apt time to bring the community college system into this effort with the goal of ensuring more Maine students go to — and complete — college.