Chancellor James Page addressed the state legislature Thursday with the “State of the University,” reflecting on his first year as system chancellor and giving his thoughts on the present state of higher education in Maine and the future of the University of Maine System.
Page, a Maine native, said that he was hired by the board of trustees last year to “reposition the university to meet its responsibilities in a period of unprecedented challenges and change.” He characterized these challenges as a product of both the struggling economy and Maine’s demographics and cited the declining employment rate and average household income as daunting issues to be overcome.
Page also said one of the state’s greatest challenges is that the median age of its citizens is the highest in the country — this means that Maine citizens are the oldest in the nation. Further, young people are leaving the state at an alarming rate to find opportunity elsewhere. To compound this issue, last year only 14,000 students graduated from Maine high schools, and that figure is predicted only to decrease in the coming years.
The third challenge that the chancellor outlined is one that he said faces all higher education. “We are undergoing a revolution in how education is delivered. The rise of online and distance education, for example, challenges nearly all our traditional educational assumptions.”
“Our task is not just to address these challenges in some minimally sufficient way,” Page said. “Our responsibility is to help Maine prosper.”
In response to the challenges that face the state and public higher education, Page said, “The University of Maine System will take our state’s motto to heart: we will lead.” To do that, the chancellor laid out an outline for Maine’s universities to become “the most responsive public university system in the country in meeting educational and economic development needs and opportunities for our students, families, businesses and communities.”
Maine’s future depends on the education of its citizens, but currently, only around 25 percent of Mainers hold bachelor’s degrees or higher. To make sure that Maine remains competitive, education must be affordable, accessible, top-quality and relevant, Page said.
According to Page, tuition and fees at Maine public universities represent nearly 20 percent of the state’s median household income. “That’s too much,” said Page. “Forty-three other states rank better when we compare their state’s public university’s tuition to their median household income.”
To address cost, Page said that the system is trying to “break the back of year-over-year tuition increases.” Part of his plan to do so involves the current tuition freeze, and he spoke further about becoming more efficient as a system by reducing costs while enhancing services. He also suggested that, in the future, the system link tuition increases to Maine median household income.
There are many Maine citizens who would like to get a university education or finish their degree, but are “place-bound” and unable to pick up and move their lives to one of the state’s universities. Page said that new methods in distance and online education will make Maine universities more accessible to these individuals. He also revealed that the system has begun the Adult Baccalaureate Completion Distance Education Project, which specifically aims to improve the accessibility of the university and to help adult Mainers finish their degrees.
Page said that the UMS faculty is top quality, but that the decline in financial resources over the past years has put a strain on overall program quality. “We cannot simply cut,” Page asserted. “We must also leverage our academic strengths and we must invest in our academic programs.”
The relevancy of higher education in Maine is already self-evident. According to Page, the UMS is the statewide leader in research and economic development. Further, the creation of the new outcomes-based funding program ensures that Maine campuses will be rewarded for producing well-educated citizens who can contribute to and take part in Maine’s workforce. Partnerships between the UMS and local businesses, in particular the launch of Project Login, are set to grow and place students in high-paying jobs in the areas of technology and the sciences.
Later, when The Free Press asked the chancellor to classify the benefits of maintaining programs beyond technology and the sciences, particularly in the liberal arts, he said “They’re enormous. In regards to the humanities and social sciences — we’re a university… We have an absolute responsibility to teach the liberal arts, the humanities and the social sciences.” Page went on to say that the liberal arts are critical, “not just for a good education, but for preparing students to be active, engaged and informed citizens.” He also highlighted the economic value of a liberal arts education, citing that Maine businesses are in desperate need of workers with good skills in communication and critical thought.