The University of Maine System has paid nearly $3 million to outside consultants over the past 12 years to do strategic planning, coordinate searches for campus presidents, provide executive coaching and more.
The system’s reliance on outside consultants, especially for strategic planning, came under criticism this week from a team that was evaluating the seven-university system to determine whether it should maintain its unique unified accreditation.
Accreditation is a voluntary process, but without it, higher education institutions are disqualified from receiving federal funding for things like financial aid. The University of Maine System since 2020 has been accredited by the New England Commission of Higher Education as a full system, a switch from having each campus individually accredited.
The accreditation team’s chair, Bryant University President Ross Gittell, identified system strengths and weaknesses in an exit report delivered Wednesday morning following a multi-day visit to the University of Maine’s campus in Orono. The latter category included a lack of strategic vision and the system’s reliance on outside consultants to help develop that new vision.
The University of Maine System spent $2.99 million on outside consultants between January 2010 and June 2022, according to records provided to the Bangor Daily News in response to a public records request. By comparison, the university system’s budget for this fiscal year is $616.7 million.
Those consultant payments, ranging from $5,100 to more than $566,000, funded 34 contracts.
The university system paid another $366,000 in 2020 and 2021 to a firm that supplies interim leaders for universities. That sum includes both the salary paid to the interim officer, the chief human resources officer, and a fee to the firm, the Registry for College and University Presidents.
The largest contract for an outside consultant since 2010 — a contract for $566,250 from April — went to Chicago-based Huron Consulting Group to facilitate and develop a University of Maine System strategic plan.
The university system has tapped Huron repeatedly since 2011, paying the firm more than $1.46 million for 11 contracts. In addition to strategic planning, the university system has relied on Huron to develop a unified financial modeling structure, assess the student financial aid system, design a grants management system and more.
The university system also looked to an outside consultant for help on the unified accreditation initiative that brought the regional evaluation team to Orono this week. Last year, the system paid $100,000 to consultant William Balzer for help on unified accreditation, which was one of the first initiatives Dannel Malloy pursued when he became system chancellor in 2019. It was meant to allow the seven universities to share resources, faculty and services to a greater extent, though professors have repeatedly raised concerns about the initiative.
The accreditation team’s criticism wasn’t the first time this year the university system has come under scrutiny for its reliance on an outside consultant.
Malloy earlier this year blamed the system’s overreliance on an outside firm for bungling the search for a new president of the University of Maine at Augusta, which ended with the chosen candidate backing out but leaving the university system on the hook to ensure he’s paid at least $235,000 annually — his $205,000 salary plus a $30,000 housing allowance — over the nearly three-year life of his contract.
The University of Maine System paid more than $1.1 million to executive search firms since 2011 to coordinate 13 searches for campus president positions as well as that of chancellor and chief human resources officer.
Just this week, the University of Maine System issued a request for proposals seeking an executive search firm to coordinate the restarted search for a University of Maine at Augusta president. And the University of Maine in August issued a request for a firm to coordinate the search for a new athletic director.
Despite the concerns the accreditation team noted Wednesday, Malloy said he was pleased with the results of the accreditation team’s visit.
“Quite frankly they clearly understand the gravity of the work that’s been undertaken as a first-in-the-nation process,” Malloy said Wednesday. “And it’s a clear endorsement of what we’re doing.”