BANGOR, Maine — Post-it notes stick to the few remaining photos hanging on the walls of the University of Maine System offices, in a grand brick, renovated onetime W.T. Grant department store built in 1948.The notes are instructions for the movers, since the pictures and everything else are in the midst of being packed up and divided among the system’s seven campuses.
Only 20 people work here now, down from a peak of 120, and the rest will soon be gone, too, following their colleagues and fanning out to the campuses. Disassembled cubicles and crates of documents are piled in the corners of the 36,000-square-foot space, and light shines from the doors of the few lonely offices still occupied. All of the agency’s three floors in the building, in a quiet part of town near a statue of Bangor native hero and Abraham Lincoln’s first-term vice president, Hannibal Hamlin, have been put up for sale.
It’s part of a little-noticed but surprising shift under way that suggests new resolve in some places to improve the efficiency and productivity of stubbornly labor-intensive higher education.
Surprising because statistics suggest the opposite is happening. The number of people employed by public university and college central system offices like this one — which critics complain often duplicate work already being done on the campuses they oversee, with scores of bureaucrats who have no direct role in teaching or research — has kept creeping up, even since the start of the economic downturn and in spite of steep budget cuts, flat enrollment and heightened scrutiny of administrative bloat.
From just before the recession until 2014, the latest year for which figures are available, higher education central system office staffs grew by nearly 4 percent, according to federal data analyzed by the American Institutes for Research in collaboration with The Hechinger Report.
When private, for-profit university headquarters and the regional offices of California’s unusually structured community colleges are excluded, the increase in staffs was almost 9 percent.
While there’s no breakdown about how much central system offices contribute to the cost of running universities — one survey in 2010-11 by the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems put the average at $484 per full-time student, with a high of $3,336, though which system spent what was cloaked from public view — this continued growth has happened at a time when states have collectively cut their higher education spending by 18 percent, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, forcing hikes in tuition.
The University of Maine System central office is among those that grew the most: by 26 percent, in spite of an enrollment decline and budget cuts that resulted in five academic programs and at least 51 faculty being dropped, among what a spokesman said were 902 jobs eliminated.
But while the persistent rise in the number of central system bureaucrats seems to suggest insensitivity to how much colleges cost to run, and who is forced to pay, it’s behind these figures that a change turns out to be under way.
After years of promising to save money by streamlining operations, cutting duplicate staffs and maximizing purchasing power, some university systems have been forced by political pressure and economic realities to finally start doing it.