Knowing When to Fold 'Em

March 21, 2005

After a week of lobbying failed to win over skeptical lawmakers, the University of Maine System on Friday postponed a plan to fold the University of Maine at Augusta into the University of Southern Maine. In exchange, the merger's leading opponents in the legislature said they would let the system carry out the rest of its strategic plan.

The university system unveiled a broad restructuring plan last year, which among other things would reorganize administrative operations to save $12 million. All along, the proposal to merge the Augusta campus into Southern Maine, which lies about 50 miles away in Gorham, has been the plan's most controversial element.

System officials said the merger would allow the Augusta campus, most of whose students are adults who attend part time, to offer more four-year and even graduate programs. But faculty members, students and other advocates for the campus said they believed it would lose its identity. They also suggested that it was being singled out, since the system had discussed but then abandoned plans to consolidate three other rural campuses.

Despite those concerns, the system's Board of Trustees approved the plan last September.

State Sen. Elizabeth Mitchell, who represents the Augusta area and is co-chair of the Maine Legislature's education committee, said her problems with the strategic plan began at the start, when a draft of it was produced with little or no involvement from faculty members or other constituents and released only when a professor filed a Freedom of Information Act request. She said officials of the university system declined to seriously consider ways other than a merger to achieve its goals for the Augusta campus. "They refused to talk about a different model, a different way to give UMA a place at the table," Mitchell says.

Technically, the university system does not need legislative approval to move forward with any aspect of the strategic plan. But no university leaders want truly unhappy legislators, especially those responsible for setting state budgets.

To get the trustees to listen, Mitchell and other lawmakers introduced legislation that would, in various ways, have required legislative approval for the merger and other elements of the strategic plan.

"Normally the Legislature does not involve itself in the day-to-day affairs of the university," Mitchell says, "but when they cease to be sensitive to the constituents that they claim to represent, there's no other choice."

The university system's chancellor, Joseph W. Westphal, and leaders of the Board of Trustees, concerned about further delays in instituting the strategic plan, lobbied hard last week to try to win over Mitchell and other legislative critics. But late in the week, they offered to stop working on the merger for a year (while continuing to study it along with lawmakers and others) if legislators agreed to let the rest of the strategic plan proceed.

"The chancellor and the trustees feel they've been moving in the right direction with the merger, but they recognize it's important for the education committee to feel comfortable," says John Diamond, a spokesman for the Maine system. Mitchell, he said, "agreed that her committee and the university system would work together for the next 12 months to explore different aspects of the merger and "explore all alternatives to it."

Mitchell agrees that that's what they agreed to, but says she has her doubts about how committed university officials are to alternatives.

"The quotes from all the leaders of the university [Saturday] suggest that they haven't backed off the merger at all, but are just waiting a year," she says. "That's not my understanding. My understanding is that we're going to have a truly open and honest discussion, and that's what I'm going to work toward with faculty members and community leaders. If the merger is the best thing for all of us, that's what we'll do. But we we want to understand why all the other universities can remain independent and the University of Maine Augusta cannot."

Although Mitchell promised university officials Friday that the Legislature would not inhibit efforts to put other parts of the strategic plan in place, she noted that the bill she introduced requiring legislative review of, and "academic and community input" into, "any major restructuring like this one" is already in process and can't be withdrawn. A hearing is scheduled for next month.

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