University of Maine System Chancellor Dannel Malloy discusses a proposed unified accreditation system in September 2019. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

The regional organization that evaluates whether colleges and universities are meeting basic quality standards has for the first time voted to accredit the University of Maine System as a collective entity rather than evaluating each of its seven universities separately.

That makes Maine’s public university system the first in the nation to receive a collective accreditation, a change it has considered making since 1968. The system’s board of trustees formally decided to seek that collective evaluation at the start of this year.

The New England Commission of Higher Education voted to accredit the whole University of Maine System earlier this week, the system announced on Friday.

System representatives have said that unified accreditation will give all its member universities more freedom to share their resources, faculty and services. They have also estimated that the single accreditation could save $800,000 over 10 years because the system, not individual universities, would have to pay annual New England Commission of Higher Education dues and review fees.

“[The New England Commission of Higher Education’s] decision is the culmination of five years of work to put our universities on a path to becoming more efficient and more responsive to Maine’s people and workforce needs,” said Jim Erwin, chair of the university system’s board.

The schools that make up the system include the University of Maine flagship campus in Orono, the University of Southern Maine and universities in Augusta, Farmington, Fort Kent, Presque Isle and Machias.

Accreditation is a stamp of approval by a regional evaluating agency showing that an educational institution meets a benchmark of quality. When a university receives accreditation, it means that its academic programs meet basic quality standards, that its facilities are sufficient for a college education and that it has a particular organizational structure.

The New England Commission for Higher Education decided that the unified accreditation was consistent with the federal Higher Education Act of 2008, based in part on discussions with the U.S. Department of Justice and a report from the University of Maine System. The commission will now conduct future monitoring of Maine’s initiative, including a visit within six months and a comprehensive evaluation in two years.

“Our university presidents, System staff and faculty leaders all deserve credit for imagining a future in which they share resources so that all Maine students have broader access to the rich array of academic programs we can offer together all across the state, which are so critical to graduating the workforce and civic leaders Maine needs,” said Dannel Malloy, chancellor of the University of Maine System.

The university system had already moved toward consolidation as much as possible under the previous model, including by merging many of the course offerings and administrators of the campuses at Presque Isle and Fort Kent.

The University of Maine at Machias has shared its accreditation with University of Maine since 2017, when it was absorbed as a regional campus of the system’s flagship school at Orono.