Your reactions to the September 24th launch of our process to set strategic directions for this university were heard and have resulted in an improved and more clearly defined path forward.
“What are the meaningful specifics about actions?” asked one member of the campus community. “We need to change but no clear direction given for change…,” said another. Faculty and staff, wrote a colleague, “…are interested in more concrete issues.” “We need a more inclusive process,” said many.
It was made very clear that a segment of the USM community is suffering from planning fatigue, a segment wants inclusive input and all want to move forward with tangible next steps.
One overarching theme also struck me. Passion. There is great emotion around the issues we face. And I do believe that passion is something positive, no matter how it is stated. We are facing uncertain times and uncertainty creates anxiety. That is why I am asking you to be part of the process, part of the solution.
So, taking all that under consideration, we are transitioning to a new phase with an inclusive committee of faculty, staff, students and external partners.
I will be reaching out shortly to leadership of key constituent groups to ask for their help in establishing this committee. Once formed, I will charge the committee with taking a careful look at all the material compiled and reviewed over the summer, e.g., previous planning documents; information on perceived needs of current and prospective students; the competition we face for those students; workplace needs throughout Maine and the region; the value that USM offers; and what we can do as well, if not better, than other institutions.
All that material needs to be reviewed in the context of our budget projections, as well as the enrollment and demographic challenges facing this and many other institutions of higher learning. We are not alone. But we must act rapidly, independently and with progressive ideas.
All members of the campus community will be kept informed of the committee’s progress and asked to contribute your thinking. I will expect the committee to recommend draft, tangible strategies and tactics that will guide the decisions that have to be made. These will be communicated to the USM community for review and input.
Ultimately, I will be responsible for selecting those recommendations that will set our direction forward.
This process needs to be wrapped up in time to help inform development of our budget for fiscal year ‘15 and beyond. Our specific process and timelines will be communicated soon.
You know as well as I the fiscal challenges facing us. And as you’ve heard me say more than once, each March we must submit a balanced budget for the upcoming fiscal year to the System office. This budget is reviewed, incorporated with those from other campuses and then submitted to the Board of Trustees.
Some decisions will have to be made even as we’re building out this process. Budget deadlines for the fiscal year are such that we have no choice.
We will be facing difficult fiscal decisions. Cutting across the board will not lead us to success or excellence. Instead, we must make very focused, strategic choices.
Focused, strategic choices, however, must be made in the context of a framework, an accepted direction. Without that direction, we’ll be just cutting, not making decisions that also nurture our strengths, plant some new ideas and grow resources for the future.
Our future depends on this. (And as a quick aside, so does the presidential search because the Chancellor has stated that he will not initiate a search until we’re clear on our future direction.)
It’s human nature in tough times to forget, or ignore, all we have going for us. We all know about USM’s assets in terms of location, community partnerships, creative minds and inventive spirits. And because of those assets, the fundamental, life-changing work of this university goes on. I have received the message loud and clear that I have the role of leading this positive campaign and I accept that feedback. I ask for your help and guidance in doing this.
This is about making decisions so that our very valuable work is sustained into the future. Your input, dialog and creative thinking are vital to this effort.
Thank you for your commitment to this institution.
At this year's Opening Breakfast, I reported that small working groups consisting of the President's Council and Provost's Staff have been meeting to give careful thought and consideration around what our current and future students and the external community need from us.
As part of our work, we dusted off dozens of USM planning documents, legislation dating back to the late 1800s, articles on the current status of public higher education and prognostications on where it is heading, as well as studies related to the Maine and regional economies. All of these are available for you to look at if you are interested.
Here are just a few snippets of information we learned, or were confirmed, during our planning:
- We face increasingly intense competition for fewer students who, along with their families, continue to deal with financial constraints.
- There are calls for greater accountability, affordability and even questions about the value of a college degree.
- We have stagnant revenues and increasing costs.
- And many others
Based on this, we have mapped out an outline of a process and some preliminary thoughts that we hope provide sufficient guidance so that all of us have the opportunity to contribute to a strategic direction for this university as we prepare for the future USM.
Our goal is to use our resources as strategically as possible in ways that will allow us to further strengthen our commitment to students and to attract, educate and graduate more students.
It’s part and parcel of a larger effort to think about new ways to provide transformational educational experiences, to be prudent stewards of our resources, and to be the intellectual hub and a cultural and economic driver of our region.
As George Mehaffy, Vice President for Academic Leadership and Change at AASCU stated in Challenge and Change, "We are facing unprecedented, fundamental challenges and are surrounded by dramatic, rapid changes. This is not simply a difficult moment for higher education: it is the dawn of a very different era" (p.35).
Yes, it is difficult, sometimes painful, and it’s impossible to predict the future; but there are some things we do know for sure.
We do know that we can’t go back to the past, to just wait out an economic cycle and return to the good old days.
Nor can we give up and go home. Why? Our students need USM, and our community needs USM and the State of Maine needs USM.
I believe that we CAN and MUST move USM toward the goals of student success, community engagement and fiscal sustainability.
Why do I believe this?
Folks, this university – Portland, Gorham, Lewiston and online - is sitting on a goldmine of people with creative minds and inventive spirits; the arts; the creative economy; start-ups and entrepreneurs; and potential new partners are all right here.
There are many higher education institutions, including everyone else in the University of Maine System, that would love to be where we are and to have the assets we have.
Of course, all this boils down to one question: How do we create a sustainable, re-crafted USM to serve our students and our community, one that becomes an integral part of our communities?
And the answer is… we do it together. That is where the hope lies. Each other. My job is to lead the USM community in this effort, to listen to all ideas, take the good ones and turn us in their direction.
That’s the work we are going to do this year.