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Faced with declining enrollment and a tight budget, the University of Maine system’s Board of Trustees voted unanimously Monday to try to become the first in the nation to have its seven campuses accredited together instead of separately.

Trustees and university leaders called the move, more than 30 years in the making, “historic” and “revolutionary” and said it will give the system more flexibility to deal with its issues. But the work is just beginning.

The vote by the trustees gives the go-ahead to figuring out detailed answers to questions like how to share resources while ensuring the quality of education at distinctly different campuses. The plan will then be submitted for approval to the system's regional accreditor, the New England Commission of Higher Education.

While faculty and students expressed support for the idea of unified accreditation, David Townsend, an oceanography professor and chairman of the University of Maine’s Faculty Senate, noted at a meeting of trustees before the vote that “the devil is in the details.”

The idea has its roots in the Maine system’s origins. When it was created in 1968 -- bringing together the University of Maine and its five campuses with five independent state colleges -- Gorham State College, Farmington State College, Aroostook State College, Washington State College and Fort Kent State College -- the idea was in part to make it easier for the institutions to collaborate and combine resources.

But each of the system’s campuses was required to be accredited separately, which officials of the Maine system says ties the system’s hands in dealing with problems familiar to higher education leaders around the county -- the inability of state funding to keep up with rising costs and steeply declining student numbers, which are projected to continue.

The Maine system, like public universities in many states, has seen state support decline from funding two-thirds of costs to a third, said James B. Thelen, its chief of staff and general counsel, in a phone interview. At the same time the number of college-bound students in the state is projected to decline from 7,562 in 2020 to 6,894 in 2036.

The idea of unified assessment has been around for years, first raised by a statewide commission on higher education in 1985, which found the system wasn't evaluating how its campuses coordinated programs. The idea was never acted upon, as the problem continued to grow.

"Facilities aged and costly-but-necessary maintenance was deferred. Enrollments failed to grow at the pace predicted by the 1985 commission. State appropriations did not keep pace with inflation or the System’s rising expenses, and tuition rates climbed higher than Maine families could reasonably afford. Every System campus budget was strained to varying degrees by some combination of all three of the preceding factors," noted a September 2019 report by Maine system chancellor Dannel P. Malloy and Thelen recommending unified accreditation.

As an example of the problems posed by the current accreditation system, Thelen pointed to collaboration between the system’s two small rural campuses. The University of Maine at Presque Isle began offering education degrees at the Fort Kent campus after many of Fort Kent’s faculty members retired. The University of Maine at Fort Kent also began offering its nursing program at Presque Isle.

However, the regional accreditor, the New England Commission of Higher Education, has informally questioned if the campuses could separately meet its accreditation standards under the arrangement.

In a situations where so many professors retire that a single campus would not have enough professors in certain fields, unified assessment would give the system options other than having to close programs, Thelen said.

Thelen said unified accreditation would remove a barrier to create more offerings. While every campus in the system has experts in geospatial mapping and data analytics, no campus has enough to be able to offer a concentration in the field. Being able to draw on the instructors from throughout the system would let it offer the concentration.

It’s unclear whether other systems will follow. Thelen said the Maine system has the advantage of already having public funds go to the system, which disperses it to the individual institutions.

There have been other efforts. The Connecticut State Colleges and Universities system is proposing consolidating the state's 12 two-year institutions for the second time after NECHE rejected the plan in 2018.

Paul Gaston, professor emeritus at Kent State University, an expert in higher education reform, noted in an email that the University of Alaska’s governing board considered consolidating the accreditation of the system’s three universities but backed off in December because of concerns over maintaining the distinctiveness of each.

The Maine proposal could face similar concerns from accreditors, he wrote in an email. “Similarly, within the University of Maine, the differences between the flagship at Orono, the ‘rural university’ at Fort Kent, and the regional comprehensive, the University of Southern Maine, are conspicuous. And then there are the institutions at Farmington (the public liberal arts college), Presque Isle, Augusta, etc. In fact, the University of Maine is remarkable for the diversity and singularity of the missions of its constituent institutions,” he said.

“It is difficult to understand how such differentiations would not call for discrete accreditor evaluation as well,” he said.

Peter Ewell, president emeritus of the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems, said Maine’s effort could “be very significant, and many university systems would want to emulate it because of both cost and the benefits of having a single financial aid eligibility.” But he predicted NECHE might be reluctant to allow it. “The campuses making up the system are quite different with their own strengths and weaknesses, and accreditors would want to allow these differences to come out,” he said.

Despite the greater efficiency, he said, “the main drawback is not providing a clear picture of what are the attributes of a set of very different institutions. Accreditation is supposed to aid student choice, so collective accreditation would not provide any useful information of that kind. It is also supposed to provide early warning of potential difficulties for a campus, also hard to do if you are accrediting a system with quite different constituent entities. All in all, I don't think it is a very good idea and kind of negates the whole purpose of accreditation.”

However, NECHE president Barbara Brittingham said in an interview that she’s “optimistic” the accrediting commission will grant a substantive change approval, letting unified accreditation move forward and setting off a two-year evaluation of the change.

She said, though, that the commission will want to see in the upcoming plan how the change will benefit the state and its students. A key will be to see how the plan would enhance the individual campuses’ programs, she said.

NECHE has also been working with the Maine system after questioning in 2015 whether it was allowed only to accredit individual universities. In 2018, NECHE and the Maine system jointly retained Jay Urwitz, former legal counsel at the U.S. Department of Education, to look into whether a unified Maine system could be considered an individual higher education institution. Urwitz said it could. And in discussions, the U.S. Department of Education said it was open to recognizing a unified system if it is accredited by NECHE.

Thelen acknowledged a number of details still need to be worked out before the system submits its plan seeking approval for the idea in June, including how to assess quality at campuses of different sizes and resources, and how to create a system of faculty leadership. A key, he agreed, is showing how the quality of each campus will be preserved.

Still, the move generated some excitement among trustees about the changes it could bring the system. “The main obstacle is fear of change and degradation of quality,” Trustee Samuel W. Collins said at the meeting. But it will bring about “an engagement of the brightest people in the system,” he said.

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