Darby Murnane Editor in Chief
On Jan. 26 and 27, the University of Maine System (UMS) Board of Trustees will convene on the UMaine campus in Orono to vote on whether or not UMS will transition to a unified accreditation, rather than function with each university being individually accredited.
Accreditation is the process by which a university is vetted for the quality of its programs and improvements as well as allowing students attending the school to seek federal aid. UMS institutions are accredited by the New England Commission of Higher Education (NECHE) which is overseen by the U.S. Department of Education (USDE) and the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA).
The new UMS chancellor, Dannel Malloy who was formerly a two-term Governor of Connecticut, is leading the push for unified accreditation for UMS as a means of cutting system costs and opening a pathway for greater collaboration among the universities.
At a November forum held at UMF on the initiative, Malloy said, “What I’m trying to get to is a much more student-centric focus, so that we understand our consumers as well as our human product at the end of the process is better served.”
According to documents released by the chancellor online, the One University initiative for unified accreditation was first proposed in 1986 and revisited in 2015 but not fulfilled. Malloy’s push to unify the system is driven by the need to protect the system financially.
Student Senate reported that UMF has had a significant decrease in enrollment in the past three years, leading to some financial distress with less funding coming from students’ tuition and fees. This reflects a statewide issue of depopulation as the birthrate in Maine has been in decline for several years, according to a report on the state population outlook released by the Maine State Economist.
It has then become increasingly difficult for UMS to justify multiple accreditations, as Malloy noted, because the repetitive process is costly.
“We know that we could potentially be under financial strain at any moment, because recessions do that sort of thing,” Malloy said. “So we want to make sure that we’re able to preserve even very small programs that in some cases might get wiped out because there’s not enough students on one campus to justify the commitment to professors and instructors. But maybe we can retain those things in difficult times if we can do it across multiple campuses.”
The One University initiative also seeks to remove the roadblocks that currently stand in the way of sharing resources among UMS institutions. During the forum, the chancellor mentioned that professors from across the system had met to discuss the possibility of creating a system-wide program, but accreditors said it could not be done under the current individual accreditations as it would be difficult to report on the program to a singular leader or entity.
Clyde Mitchell, professor of business and UMF’s faculty representative on the matter of accreditation, has seen firsthand the difficulty in attempting to collaborate across campuses under the current accreditation structure. “I have experienced the frustration on many of my students, struggling to take a class or two on other campuses and not being able to do this easily, due to multiple administrative barriers,” Mitchell said in an email interview. “I also know of many barriers that have been experienced by faculty wishing to collaborate with peers at other campuses. . .”
Malloy noted at the forum that these barriers have halted the progress of students’ degrees in their struggle to meet course requirements. “We know that at some of our smaller universities these people are not graduating on time because they missed the once every two years or once a year offering of a course,” he said, “and therefore they can’t get their license if they want to be an educator.”
Michael Poliakoff, President of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, supports unified accreditation initiatives among state university systems and sees the endeavor as a way to rectify the issues UMS institutions currently face. In a phone interview, Poliakoff noted that the prime directive of a university should be the “finest possible education at the lowest possible cost.”
“And when a system comes together and seeks a single accreditation, it sends a very strong signal that this is no longer a situation where individual campuses are competing with each other and wasting resources,” he said, “but the birth of a new efficiency whereby each campus looks at itself as part of a unit that’s entirely focused on the optimization of resources.”
For universities with a focus on liberal arts education such as UMF, inclusive and collaborative environments are vital. However, with the barriers of the current accreditation preventing this collaboration, UMS administrative practices appear dated.
“In the 21st century the word is interdisciplinary,” Poliakoff said. “But that’s just a cliche if you’ve got a bunch of campuses, each one thinking of itself as a single treehouse wanting as many different options as possible. . . rather than thinking of interdisciplinary as a way to develop programs in which scholars are sharing in the development of academic offerings of research.”
To amend the situation, Poliakoff recommends looking to technological advancements to enhance learning environments. He said, “When you have small campuses widely dispersed, in the 21st century the remedy for that is not to have an independent set of duplicative resources at each location, but to use interactive video, which has now gotten so good, in the sharing of academic resources.”
Yet, this sharing is complicated by the credit standings of UMS institutions as UMF is unique in being four-credit based while the other universities are three-credit. At the chancellor’s forum, President Edward Serna discussed the difficulty in working with fellow UMS schools due to the credit difference. He told the chancellor, “So we’re looking at a collaborative nursing program with Augusta, but three-credit hour [and] four-credit hour bear a lot of work to get it done.”
This has induced some fear among UMF students about how unified accreditation may impact the university’s credit load, many believing that it will be necessary to drop to a three-credit basis. However, Malloy ensured students that it is not part of the One University proposal to force the universities to all became three or four-credit based. “That’s up to your campus, and your leadership and your faculty. We’re not insisting on that,” he said.
One student raised some concern over how it would be feasible to open up cross-listed courses between universities under unified accreditation without matching the credit load of each school. Malloy did not give a definitive answer, but said it would have to be a topic of discussion among administrators should the vote pass.
Students were also assured that whatever the decision may be, any credits already earned by students, under whatever credit load their universities offer, are protected.
However, Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs Eric Brown raises the question of the necessity of UMF’s credit model. He said in an email interview, “I think the larger question is: do students, faculty, and staff here at UMF still see abiding value and competitive advantage in the 4-credit model? So this is an opportunity to reassess and address those kinds of questions, but operating under single accreditation will not in itself force a change.”
He hopes that the One University initiative will “help UMF to become more nimble when change is called for and better able to develop and innovate on the academic side without the additional steps and reviews that individual campus accreditation has required.”