The University of Southern Maine in recent months has proposed significant cuts to programs, faculty and staff — measures administrators say is necessary to put the school on solid financial footing while preparing for a revitalization and new investments in high-demand 21st century programs, like the university’s nascent cyber security program.
The tumult at USM has caused significant uproar among students and faculty, who are upset about the lost jobs and eliminated programs, and who have openly challenged the administration’s claims of a fiscal crisis as exaggerated or outright false.
Interim USM President David Flanagan — hired in July to spend a year doing the unpopular work of balancing the budget, in part, so the school’s eventual permanent hire can start with a clean slate next year — says the university is facing a $16 million budget gap for fiscal year 2016.
USM and University of Maine System officials have consistently said their financial problems come from a perfect storm of dropping enrollment, frozen tuition and flat funding from the state Legislature.
Now, Portland Mayor Michael Brennan is trying to prop up at least one of those three stool legs.
City Hall announced on Tuesday that Brennan went to the state capital to lobby legislators to provide the university more funding in the short-term, to buy time for the school leaders to build financial momentum behind what are expected to be more lucrative programs like cyber security.
Brennan’s proposal, which he’s pushing Portland’s sizable legislative delegation to get behind in Augusta, calls for the state to fund the university system in such a way that USM will not need to make any more faculty or program cuts for another two years.
The plan also seeks an additional $2 million in funding for USM to develop “retention, recruitment and marketing infrastructure to stabilize enrollment and offer a pathway to future growth,” and as much as $20 million in bond or general fund spending on research and development initiatives.
The last major bullet point of Brennan’s proposal is to have the Legislature direct system Chancellor James Page and his administration to review the system’s tuition rates, fees and financial aid packages.
The plan, at least as it was distributed publicly on Tuesday, did not include guesses as to what two years of funding with no cuts would cost, nor whether the system’s tuition rates should be increased to create revenue or lowered in an attempt to goose enrollment.
In either case, Brennan wants to see USM’s dream of becoming a dynamic “metropolitan university” — an urban engine of problem solving, innovation and, perhaps most of all, economic stimulus — realized. (In case you haven’t been following the USM saga over the past year, the pursuit of this metropolitan university vision is a major part of the school’s plan to rebound. Click here for more.)
Why does Brennan care so much about USM? One of the mayor’s main initiatives over his tenure has been to establish a research and development cluster like Silicon Valley in California, Research Triangle in North Carolina and the Route 128 Corridor in Massachusetts.
Pieces of that puzzle locally would include University of New England and the Gulf of Maine Research Institute, but it would be difficult to grow that cluster to the size Brennan wants without a thriving USM.
The more immediate question may be whether Brennan’s proposal will gain any traction in Augusta, where lawmakers will have to weigh increased university spending against other priorities — including K-12 subsidies — and where the fiscally conservative GOP controls both the Senate and the Blaine House.