Opinion

Maine must invest in its public university buildings

By Daniel Malloy
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 not conducive 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 and development undertaken by the R1 University of Maine has spurred and strengthened thousands of small businesses and helped heritage industries innovate for the future, including growing Maine’s wild blueberry production by 500 percent 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, energy efficiency, and operation and maintenance cost reductions.

Modernizing existing space and systems is planned to ensure reliable heating and cooling, roofs that don’t leak, and life safety and ADA compliance. So is 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 percent of these university upgrades, including from Congressionally Directed Spending secured by U.S. 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, like revenue bonding and public-private partnerships, where a third-party pays upfront for improvements the university can’t afford in return for future revenue. For example, $11 million in projects underway at the University of Maine at Farmington will be more than paid back through operational cost savings and renewable energy credits. And in Orono, a private developer is currently converting two 19th-century buildings that our flagship cannot restore on its own because of onerous historic registry requirements into a boutique hotel that will be managed by a Maine-based hospitality group.

Some have questioned whether such bold investment is out of touch when our universities are struggling to maintain enrollment, balance budgets and meet employee demands for higher wages.

Those challenges are exactly why we must invest, and now.

We cannot starve our System to strength. Strategic one-time investments in our infrastructure will pay ongoing dividends for Maine. 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 percent increase in the return rate to that residence hall. Meanwhile, simulation lab enhancements at universities in Augusta, Fort Kent, Orono and Portland are enabling UMS to double nursing enrollment and 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 including in rural regions like the St. John Valley and Downeast, and keep tuition costs and debt down for Maine families.

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.

Daniel Malloy is chancellor of the University of Maine System

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