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University's identity crisis keeps campuses competing for resources
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George Smith Kennebec Journal & Morning Sentinel 07/15/2009

The University of Maine used to be in Orono. It was there in 1966 when I arrived and still there in 1970 when I graduated and left for a job in Rockland.

Later, it was hijacked. The powers that be decided the University of Maine was located in many places and my alma mater was downgraded to the University of Maine in Orono. I refuse to use that reference.

The latest configuration seems to be University of Maine (Orono). Drop the Orono. I know where the University of Maine is located, right where it's always been: in the middle of Marsh Island in the county of Penobscot in the great state of Maine.

This foolishness may explain the identity crisis in the University of Maine System. That's what they call all of the campuses of this half billion-dollar enterprise.

A new report says the campuses in the UMaine System are competing rather than collaborating, not matching funding to goals, falling far short of graduating the number of students needed "to keep pace with our global competitors" and burdening Mainers with relatively high tuition costs (we're 37th in the nation when tuition is measured against average income). And oh yeah, they're facing a $50 million deficit over the next four years.

Former UMaine Trustee David Flanagan, the able chairman of the study group, included a lot of praise for the system in his report, but that's not what busts our buttons. In today's world, we like to focus on the negative. And there's plenty of that in this report, the third in a series designed to address the University System's problems and issues of governance, mission and funding.

I've scrutinized the third report on governance, available at www.maine. edu, and I've got to say, it reminds me of some of my reading assignments at the university.

Very dry. A lot of big words.

They should have asked alumnus Stephen King to write the report. Or perhaps that would make it too scary.

I sat next to King in freshman English at the university, so perhaps what little writing talent I possess was achieved through osmosis. As I remember him, his nose was always in a book.

I belonged to the campus Young Republicans; King was in the radical Students for a Democratic Society. We're both still stuck in the '60s, but he's made more money out of it.

The Flanagan Report notes that the University System "faces both a financial and a performance challenge."

I took particular note of one failing because it's personal to me.

The report noted, "More students leaving college migrate out of Maine than come in -- the reverse situation from the rest of New England. As the Compact for Higher Education points out, 'Nationally, students are more likely to stay in the state where they attend college than the one where they attended high school."

Only one of my children, Rebekah, attended college in Maine -- Bowdoin College and the University of Maine law school -- and stayed here. Hilary graduated from Colgate University in New York and now lives in Washington, D.C., and Josh graduated from Stonehill College in Massachusetts and lives there now.

I'm batting .333 for keeping my kids in Maine and it really bothers me.

The new study urges that the university chancellor be given more authority and the existing decentralization be eliminated in favor of a top-down directed system. Although I favor competition, in a state with very limited resources it makes sense to have a disciplined higher education system that allocates resources efficiently and effectively.

I like the study's focus on serving the economic needs of the state and the educational needs of the students. The list of specific suggestions toward the end of the report is impressive.

But I have one suggestion overlooked in the report. Husson University in Bangor and the University of New England in Portland, both excellent private institutions, are starting pharmacy schools.

The University of Maine has a pre-pharmacy program and the University of Southern Maine plans to start one this fall.

Shouldn't the University System be collaborating with the state's private institutions, not competing with them?

From a thousand decisions like this, a better university will emerge.

My University of Maine taught me much about life, about writing, about myself.

But I know the world has changed and the university must change with it. The Flanagan Report ought to be implemented immediately.

Just don't change the names.

George Smith is executive director of the Sportsman's Alliance of Maine. He lives in Mount Vernon and can be reached at george@samcef.org.

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