Everyone knows COVID-19 will force hard choices. To the demographic and other challenges already buffeting higher education, the pandemic has added a financial crisis and unparalleled uncertainty about the future. Every college and university will be impacted; public institutions will have the added problem of reduced state budgets and increased competition from state-funded services that are already reeling from the pandemic’s effects.
Facing these challenges, independent colleges as a last resort may merge or close. Either is painful to the campus and alumni, and closure can be a significant blow to the local community.
Yet closure is rarely an option for public institutions, nor should it be. Those public campuses that are most vulnerable — small and generally rural — are often among a region’s last anchor institutions, playing essential social, economic and cultural roles as well as providing critical educational access to the communities they serve.
There are rarely opportunities for successful mergers in these cases, either for lack of suitable proximate partners or because merging institutions that are each financially struggling rarely if ever yields one that is financially stable and viable.
However, most public institutions have an advantage: they are members of state systems with access to human and capital resources that go well beyond those of their individual members. Systems also have a mandate to serve the entire state and its varied communities, including those regions and therefore their campuses that are most at risk. This mandate means the system can and must look beyond the individual institution in a way that is not in the latter’s remit.
If the system is properly structured, its scope of action and scale of resources obviate the need for campus closure and open up a range of options that can best meet these challenges without costing the institution its identity or compromising its mission.
What do I mean by a system being properly structured? Public systems have commonly been operated as cooperative federations. Yet federations no less than individual institutions are badly equipped to meet the present challenges.
Responding to these challenges requires the statewide scope that systems offer, but it also requires that systems be able to act as systems with aligned, comprehensive planning; rational resource allocation; and the ability to audit and hold those with operational responsibilities accountable to the larger picture. To the degree that a public system in the COVID age is unable to do this, it is working with a broken model.
I’ll describe four types of actions a system can take to protect its most vulnerable campuses, illustrating each by what we have done in Maine, although many other systems have implemented one version or another of these strategies. The first type is especially important as it makes the other system-level strategies possible.
1. Functional administrative integration. Effective system action requires an integrated administrative structure able to plan, budget and allocate resources at the system level. In Maine, administrative integration to date includes the finance, HR, IR, IT, facilities and procurement functions. Each is managed at the system level but operates at the campus level. This integration is therefore functional, not institutional, requiring a matrix management model involving both system and campus personnel.
Finance provides an important example. The University of Maine system created the Unified Financial Management Structure under the direct supervision of the system’s vice chancellor for finance and administration, with campus finance and business officers reporting to both the vice chancellor and the campus president.
This enabled the creation of a comprehensive planning and budgeting process built on a common 12-month calendar that gives the system’s Board of Trustees unprecedented insight and control while leaving the campuses the operational authority and responsibility to manage their missions.
This arrangement is effective. It has, for example, enabled Maine to eliminate over $80 million in annual operating costs without loss of critical functions, something that could not have occurred otherwise without crippling the smaller campuses or forcing their closure. Importantly, it is this ability to plan and allocate resources that it makes other changes possible, especially those that will be necessary for an effective long-term response to the COVID emergency.
2. Regional partnerships. Small public institutions required to rise or fall on their own can become hollowed out by cuts due to declines in enrollment or state support, reaching a point where they no longer have the human or capital resources to meet their mission or in some instances maintain accreditation. This happened at the University of Maine at Machias, a small campus forced to accommodate years of budget reductions in one of the most economically and demographically challenged areas of New England.
By 2015 it had fewer than 70 FTE faculty and staff, a perennial 10 percent budget gap and doubtful accreditation status. Yet simply closing the campus would have saved the UMaine system no more than $6 million annually. No responsible public board is going to deny access and opportunity to an economically and socially challenged region by closing its last anchor institution, especially for so little return.
The solution was to make Machias a regional campus of the system flagship, the University of Maine at Orono. Machias gave up its autonomy — its head of campus now reports directly to the UMaine president — and its individual accreditation, but it has kept its identity, mission and specialized programs and services.
This partnership has provided Machias with a breadth and depth of administrative expertise in critical areas such as enrollment management it could no longer afford on its own. Complementary academic programming is being developed, and Machias’s accreditation crisis is over. The campus has not merely survived but has stabilized and is beginning to thrive.
3. Formal collaborations. There may, however, be cases where small campuses face challenges they cannot meet on their own but for a number reasons — distance, for example — may not be able to join with a senior partner. In those cases, proximate institutions need not merge but can develop substantial, formal administrative and academic collaborations.
In Maine’s most rural and remote area, the University of Maine at Fort Kent and the University of Maine at Presque Isle face common challenges but have different strengths and even different pedagogical models. A simple merger would alleviate few if any of their challenges.
The solution has been to collaborate. Academically, each campus exports its strength to the other. Fort Kent, for example, now offers its nursing program on the Presque Isle campus, and Presque Isle offers its education program at Fort Kent.
Administratively, the two campuses share a number of positions including a registrar and enrollment management director, allowing each access to talent that neither would have been able to afford on its own. But each campus retains its own identity, president and mission. The system provides direction and resources, and as an objective third party, it can help mobilize community support, facilitate difficult discussions and, when necessary, referee difficult decisions.
4. Unified accreditation. The most far-reaching option is to bring all a system’s institutions under a unified or single accreditation, ensuring maximum governance and management flexibility. It may appear that this is the accreditation tail wagging the resource dog, but in fact the changes required to achieve unified accreditation eliminate almost all formal administrative and academic barriers to coordinated action. The basic unit of analysis is now the entire state or region served by the system. The field of action includes all the system’s institutions taken as a whole as the system now functions and is assessed as a single, albeit geographically distributed, enterprise.
There are two primary ways to pursue unified accreditation. One is to develop a statewide partnership with all campuses becoming regional campuses of, say, the flagship. There are numerous examples of this arrangement nationally.
A second option is to locate accreditation with the system itself, an option recently adopted by Maine. The system scenario has several advantages: it leaves all the campuses operationally as they were; it puts no campus in a new, privileged position to the detriment of the others; and it allows each to maintain its own identity and distinct mission. It does not, for example, distract the flagship from its lead research responsibilities.
This option is not available to every system — much depends on the governing board’s authority as delegated by the state as well as its accreditor’s willingness to pursue this kind of accreditation. But where it is possible, it provides the most comprehensive and best long-term option for effective management and change.
To conclude, these four options are not mutually exclusive; indeed, they can be mutually reinforcing. What is key is giving leadership access to the largest set of resources available and the flexibility to deploy those resources where they are most needed. When that can be done, the range of responses to higher education’s present and coming challenges is large and the work to be done exciting, even in these times.