For decades, the University of Maine System has seriously underinvested in its statewide physical plant. More than half of academic spaces and three-quarters of residence halls have not undergone real renovation since students used slide rules.
Classrooms are unconducive to 21st-century workforce preparation. Research labs lack capacity to meet industry innovation needs. And too many Mainers are opting for costlier out-of-state colleges and higher debt.
That’s bad for Maine, which depends on its public universities to drive educational attainment and economic development. Since 2003, UMS has awarded 106,362 degrees — double the credentials conferred by community colleges. Research undertaken by the R1 University of Maine has spurred and strengthened thousands of small businesses and helped heritage industries, including growing Maine’s wild blueberry production by 500% over the last 50 years.
We can no longer paint and plaster our way out of this problem. That’s why last month, I presented UMS Trustees with a plan.
By 2028, we need to invest $1.2 billion in Maine’s most important talent and innovation asset, pursuing 400 projects that advance our System’s new strategic plan, the State’s 10-year economic strategy and energy efficiency.
Modernizing existing space and systems to ensure reliable heating and cooling, roofs that don’t leak and ADA compliance. Demolition of more than 20 functionally obsolete buildings, and also new construction, including to expand UMaine’s Advanced Structures & Composites Center, which is pioneering commercializable processes to revitalize our forest economy including through 3D-printing of affordable housing using wood waste.
This isn’t just a wish list. Funding has been identified for 70% of these university upgrades, including from Congressionally Directed Spending secured by Sens. Collins and King and Reps. Pingree and Golden, Gov. Mills’ Maine Jobs & Recovery Plan and the Harold Alfond Foundation.
We are also leveraging forward-thinking financing, including public-private partnerships, where a third-party pays for improvements the university can’t afford in return for future revenue. In Orono, a private developer is converting two 19th-century buildings that our flagship cannot restore because of onerous historic registry requirements into a boutique hotel that will be managed by a Maine-based hospitality group. And $11 million in projects underway at the University of Maine at Farmington will be quickly paid back through operational cost savings and renewable energy credits.
Some have questioned whether such bold investment is out of touch when our universities are struggling to maintain enrollment, balance budgets and meet employee wage demands.
Those challenges are exactly why we must invest, and now.
We cannot starve our System to strength and strategic one-time investments in our infrastructure will pay ongoing dividends for Maine. We are seeing this already at the University of Southern Maine, where the opening this fall of the first Portland residence hall and the McGoldrick Center for Career and Student Success is transforming that campus and the community and stabilizing enrollment. Similarly, the semester after the University of Maine at Presque Isle spent $662,000 from the Legislature to renovate 54-year-old Park Hall, there was a 20% increase in the return rate to that residence hall. Meanwhile, simulation lab expansions and enhancements at universities in Augusta, Fort Kent, Orono and Southern Maine are enabling UMS to double our output of in-demand BSN-prepared nurses.
Modern facilities that complement the caliber of our world-class education and research will ensure Maine’s public universities can compete with better-resourced institutions in the Northeast to keep our best and brightest here, attract new talent, and grow the size and skill of the state’s workforce. And by regaining enrollment and reducing our System’s footprint, fossil fuel usage and operating costs, UMS will recover the revenue necessary to better compensate employees, sustain our campuses as drivers of jobs and opportunity, and keep tuition costs and debt down.
Our System’s five-year capital plan provides a path to strengthen our universities and the state’s workforce. Maine’s economy and communities are depending on us to move forward.
About the University of Maine System
Established in 1968, the University of Maine System (UMS) unites seven Maine’s distinctive public universities, comprising 10 campuses and numerous centers, in the common purpose of providing quality higher education while delivering on its traditional tripartite mission of teaching, research, and public service.
In 2020 UMS became the first and only statewide enterprise of public higher education in the country to transition to a unified accreditation for the system. Much different than a merger or consolidation, unified accreditation is a new operating model for the University of Maine System that removes the primary barrier to inter-institutional collaboration.
A comprehensive public institution of higher education, UMS serves more than 30,000 students annually and is supported by the efforts of more than 2,000 full-time and part-time faculty, more than 3,000 regular full-time and part-time staff, and a complement of part-time temporary (adjunct) faculty.
Reaching more than 500,000 people annually through educational and cultural offerings, the University of Maine System also benefits from more than two-thirds of its alumni population residing within the state; more than 123,000 individuals.
The System consists of seven main campuses: The University of Maine (UMaine), including its regional campus the University of Maine at Machias (UMaine Machias); the University of Maine at Augusta (UMA); the University of Maine at Farmington (UMF); the University of Maine at Fort Kent (UMFK), the University of Maine at Presque Isle (UMPI); and the University of Southern Maine (USM). The System also includes a UMA campus in Bangor, USM campuses in Gorham and Lewiston-Auburn, the University of Maine School of Law, and the University of Maine Graduate and Professional Center.