The politics of Maine higher education policy


“Bigger and bolder” reforms: political perils and opportunities

Governor LePage recently wrote a letter to Michelle Hood, the Chair of the University of Maine System’s Board of Trustees urging “bigger and bolder” reforms. Among those were whether to keep a “central office,” including a Chancellor for the multi-member system. (The letter can be read here.)

 What are the politics of higher education in Maine?

1. Talking about reducing administrative costs and increasing funding for professors and students is a political winner. No one supports more administration — ever. The tricky piece will come when the University of Maine System argues, as it typically does, that it has relatively low administrative costs compared to other states.

2. It will be important to see which constituencies defend the role and even existence of the University of Maine System. There is not a lot of love for the System among my campus’s faculty. Many here (the land-grant research university) support a model that exists elsewhere, in which the land-grant is autonomous and the other campuses are part of a state college system. In any case, people at the smaller campuses may believe they get more from the System and this could be its political constituency. Observers of Maine politics know that some of these smaller campuses are in locations with strong political leaders, so if those campuses like the System, that will help it survive.

3. If the governor starts delving into micromanagement, this will weigh him down, particularly if he does not get the details right. The big picture argument is a political winner. But then the governor’s letter gets some things wrong. For example, the end of the section in the letter labeled “productivity” is not based in an accurate understanding of graduate student-professor links nor the benefits received by people who are awarded research grants. Getting such details wrong tends to backfire.

4. Some details matter and pose political perils. Some specifics matter a lot — both in terms of policy and politics. The idea that the System should avoid duplication of programs has been around for awhile and makes sense to some extent. However, there are some areas of study that have to be on every campus and the land-grant university generally has to have the widest scope. Moreover, when decisions are made to focus a particular campus, some populations may have lesser access to particular sorts of education and training, such as nursing. This could cause some political backlash.

5. There’s a missed opportunity in not addressing the realities of transferabilty and quality. One of the ways parents and students have tried to save money is by transferring from a community college or four year college to another institution. Taking on the difficulties involved in actually doing this would be a political plus, particularly if there was a recognition that institutions taking transfer students have to assess the quality of the coursework and that courses are not always transferable. While this may be a politically difficult discussion to have, bringing up quality would demonstrate leadership.

6. There’s only so much the governor can do. Given that decisions about the System are made by the Board of Trustees, a body that has staggered membership, the governor faces some real constraints. However, speaking out carries possible political consequences, both good and bad.

(As always, these are just my personal opinions.)

Amy Fried

About Amy Fried

Amy Fried loves Maine's sense of community and the wonderful mix of culture and outdoor recreation. She loves politics in three ways: as an analytical political scientist, a devoted political junkie and a citizen who believes politics matters for people's lives. Fried is Professor of Political Science at the University of Maine. Her views do not reflect those of her employer or any group to which she belongs.