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Officials at the University of Maine System are tightening the reins on their seven universities to avoid steep budget shortfalls, they announced Monday, calling their vision “One university for all of Maine.”

The consolidation will centralize staff jobs and academic programs. It represents the latest -- some say most realistic -- in a long series of attempts by Maine higher education officials to create a more efficient statewide system. Last year, the system said, six of its seven campuses operated in the red.

Some of the system’s pushes to save money and merge operations have been controversial, like an effort to close campuses that lawmakers blocked.

This latest effort could centralize budgeting, academic programming and staff work. The university says each campus will have a unique mission and that could create all kinds of debates over programs that are found at multiple campuses in the system.

Maine’s state Board of Trustees is fairly powerful and can make the widespread changes on its own.

“Maine can no longer afford the system we have now,” Chancellor James Page said in a public statement on Monday to the trustees. “Maine cannot afford a system weighed down by far too much administration.”

His administration has predicted a $90 million deficit by 2020.

There are 30,000 students at the universities in the system -- that’s seven universities educating about as many students as some midsized public universities do on one campus. The flagship University of Maine in Orono has 11,000 students and is the largest university in the system. The smallest, the University of Maine at Machias, has just over 800 students.

Whatever Maine does, officials there said they will not close any of the seven campuses or leave any of the campuses without its own president. One of the consultants the system hired to work on the consolidations, Ellen Chafee, was president of two North Dakota institutions at once -- that sort of arrangement is not in the cards for Maine.

“For many, many of our students, they would not go to college if that institution were not in their community,” said Rebecca Wyke, the system’s vice chancellor for finance and administration.

In rural states, including Maine, whole communities depend on the local campuses. Past efforts that sought to close campuses were met with strong opposition and then flamed out.

“This kind of thing has been done in the past in Maine without that much skill; let me put it that way,” said Aims McGuinness, a senior associate with the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems.

McGuinness, who decades ago was a chief of staff to a chancellor of the Maine system, said the system’s economic situation is now severe enough that Page is doing what needs to be done.

The system’s history, the Bangor Daily News noted last year, is “filled with discussion of big changes with limited follow-through.” On Monday, the paper’s editors praised the new plan as “probably about as bold as politics allow.”

The system, though, has yet to estimate how much its new plan will save, Wyke said.

Neil Greenberg, the president of the Universities of Maine Professional Staff Association, which represents 1,400 salaried staff across the state, said he was concerned that the administration was looking at efforts that could cost people jobs without being able to say how much that might save.

“It’s kind of troubling they are going into this saying, ‘We need to save money, we need to save money, we need to save, but we don’t really know if it’s going to save money,’” he said.

Greenberg also said the system's administrators do little to communicate with its employees.

Compared to 2007, there are now 2,000 fewer full-time-equivalent students attending the system’s seven universities. During that period, the system has cut 13 percent of its workforce. That’s about 700 full-time-equivalent jobs, most of them staff positions. Two key sources of money -- tuition and state subsidies -- have been stifled recently by tuition freezes and flat state appropriations.

The system has already consolidated information technology and purchasing staff, Wyke said, which resulted in an estimated $5 million in savings.

Jane Wellman, a senior advisor at the College Access Foundation and an expert on college finances, said given the size of Maine’s budget problems, the consolidation effort seemed like a good idea.

“They shouldn’t be protecting administrative infrastructure at the expense of student access and success and meeting the state’s need for workers in the knowledge economy,” she said in an e-mail.

High-profile fights have erupted as administrators cut jobs, particularly at University of Southern Maine, where its president last year aimed to eliminate between one-ifth and one-sixth of its faculty and roughly one-seventh of its staff.

Some professors worry about the future in a more centralized system. “In a nutshell: the administration is taking over the curriculum,” Susan Feiner, vice president of the Southern Maine faculty union, said in an e-mail.

Wyke said 100 faculty showed up on a recent weekend to talk about changes to the academic offerings at the different colleges.

“I was incredibly impressed with the interest that the faculty showed in working with their colleagues from other campuses in trying to shape the future of academic delivery in this state going forward,” Wyke said.

Maine is among the nation’s most rural states – it has about half the population density of the United States as a whole, and its demographic trends show a decline in high school graduates. That means a spread-out, rural place with fewer students of traditional college age and seven public colleges still trying to stay open.

“We simply don’t have the resources to support everything we had before and, quite frankly, we are simply serving a smaller number of students,” Wyke said.

She said the system would need to “sharpen the edges of what differentiates one institution from another.”

Universities also now compete with each other for students even if their offerings are similar. Wyke said that needs to stop, and campus presidents see that.

“It’s not an easy process to work through by any stretch, but at this point in time our duty is to make sure we have a system of institutions that serves the needs of this state,” she said.

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