The University of Maine System has a slew of challenges to overcome if it intends to carry out its mission sufficiently as the state’s public institution of higher education, according to a recently released report.
The report “Made in Maine: A State Report Card on Public Higher Education,” released jointly by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni and the Maine Heritage Policy Center on Wednesday, gave the University of Maine System failing grades in four out of five categories ranging from intellectual diversity to governance.
“If the University of Maine System were itself a student, it would be repeating the semester. That’s because of a series of failing grade in areas critical to providing a high quality public higher education in Maine.” Chris Cinquemani, director of communications for the Maine Heritage Policy Center, a Portland-based conservative advocacy group, said at a press conference at the University of Maine’s Buchanan Alumni House on Wednesday.
“Lax course requirements, roadblocks to academic freedom, a rubberstamping board of trustees, rising tuition costs—clearly the University of Maine System needs improvement. Maine taxpayers are funding failure,” he continued.
All campuses within the system earned failing grades concerning tuition increases, which were higher than the national average across a five year period.
Between the 2004-2005 and 2009-2010 academic years, tuition increased an average of 35 percent across the seven campuses, with Farmington taking the top spot at nearly 50 percent.
While the University of Maine System still maintains the lowest in-state tuition rate among public land-grant institutions in New England, ACTA Policy Director Michael Poliakoff said the increases become problematic when compared to the average income of Maine families.
“When we’re dealing with in-state constituents … it should be calibrated to Maine per capita income,” Poliakoff said. “We keep a serious eye on that.”
The report also found faults in the way three campuses spend that money, failing system campuses in Augusta, Machias and Orono for increasing administrative budgets more rapidly than instruction funding.
The system overall, however, received a passing grade in this category.
At UMaine, money allocated to instruction increased by 13.2 percent from fiscal year 2002-2003 to 2007-2008. Administrative budgets rose by 38.9 percent during that same period.
Poliakoff said occasionally factors like the creation of new positions to bring growing online education programs into compliance with federal law will spike administrative spending.
“But that would not account for—that just doesn’t cover—a 10 percent differential in growth as we see on the Orono campus,” he said. “More often than not, it does signal growth in, essentially, the apparatus of administration.”
The report also calls the system board of trustees a “rubber-stamping” agency. In a press release following the conference, it said that in the 27-month period studied, trustees unanimously approved “every construction project, real estate transaction and purchasing contract put before it, and, in most cases, authorizing spending decisions made during sub-committee meetings less than 24 hours later.”
System spokesperson Peggy Markson said Wednesday afternoon that the system office was not consulted or interviewed for the report and that she took issue with much of the report, including the trustee characterization.
“The trustees have sub-committees … that review everything and ask questions and go back and forth,” Markson said. “They’re absolutely not rubber-stamping. They’re a very productive and involved board that are concerned about the well-being of Maine students.”
When it comes to instruction, the system’s general education program was given a failing grade due to the absence of required courses in areas like language, government, economics and literature at some campuses.
Out of the seven areas of study examined under the general education curriculum, the system only received passing grades across the seven campuses in two categories—English composition and science.
“Not a single campus requires an American history survey course or a survey of institutions of American government. Not a single one has a requirement for a basic course in economics. Not a single one requires even intermediate levels in foreign languages, a topic that has been of concern to business and industry,” Poliakoff said. “As core curricula go, this is not adequate prep for the challenges of a job market in which most young people will change jobs nearly a dozen times before the age of 42.”
A statement released through Markson said system Chancellor Richard Pattenaude “appreciates” such reports on the system’s well-being, but that the main focus of the system and its trustees in a tough economic climate has been on balancing budgets.
“Like every other public higher education institution, our trustees have been very focused on financial sustainability in these challenging economic times,” he said. “However, our trustees also place great emphasis on making academic outcomes a priority. I’m pleased to note that work is already under way to improve retention rates, graduation rates, and to align academic programs to best meet Maine’s workforce needs.”