Maine’s new engineering school raises questions for professors

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In 2020, the University of Maine System announced plans to establish a new Maine College of Engineering, Computing, and Information Science (MCECIS), funded by $75 million from the Harold Alfond Foundation and an additional $75 million in matching funds from the system.

It’s an ambitious project, part of a $240 million gift made by the Alfond Foundation in 2020 aimed at bringing “transformative change” to the system. The donation is the largest ever made to a public institution in New England and the eighth largest to a public institution in the United States.

MCECIS will consolidate the resources of the various engineering, computer science, and system information science programs under a single statewide institution based at the University of Maine at Orono. The goal is to double the number of engineering graduates in the system to help produce enough skilled workers to meet Maine’s growing needs.

MCECIS is moving forward slowly – the system is already looking for an academic dean for the college. But it also faces significant challenges, chief among them establishing an organizational structure while allaying the concerns of faculty across the system about losing autonomy over their campus-specific programs.

Last month, Carlos Luck, chair of the University of Southern Maine’s electrical engineering department, told the system’s board that he and others in his department were concerned about the initiative. He cited concerns about the autonomy of the programs, confusion over the “troublesome ambiguity” of the new college’s structure, and fears that MCECIS would erase the distinct characteristics of USM’s engineering curriculum.

Penny Rheingans, director of the University of Maine’s school of computer and information science and co-lead of the MCECIS initiative, said she understands the faculty’s concerns, particularly as responsible for a program that would be integrated into the MCECIS. But she hopes that an acceptable solution will be found.

“I think the discomfort of creating this stems from the fear that everything will be homogenized,” she said. “It would be counterproductive… You have to respect the differences between IT and engineering and between the institutions of the system. That’s the only way for it to work. »

Organizational structure in the air

Joseph Szakas, acting president of the University of Maine at Augusta and co-lead of the Rheingans initiative, called MCECIS’s organizational framework a “work in progress.”

“In about two months we will probably have a clearer roadmap,” he said.

In the meantime, Szakas thinks the latest MoU on MCECIS should address faculty concerns.

“The memorandum of understanding laid the groundwork to allay USM faculty fears that they were going to be subsumed by the University of Maine,” Szakas said. “I think it’s clear that’s not going to happen.”

Luck is not so confident. While he was pleased to see the MOU as an assurance that USM Engineering would confer its own degrees and be independently accredited, his continuing concerns relate to a specific stipulation in the MOU that makes the USM School of Engineering a division of MCECIS – which is itself a college of the University of Maine.

“How can USM Engineering become a college division at the University of Maine?” I have my own dean, my own provost and president. Who’s my boss now? ” he said. “These issues are far from over.”

Jim McClymer, president of associate faculties for the University of Maine system, says MCECIS’s proposed structure would violate faculty contracts, which he says don’t allow appointments to multiple universities, which would be necessary if USM Engineering became a division. of the MCECIS.

“The university has really complicated things by creating an unusable administrative structure,” he said.

Margaret Nagle, executive director of communications for the University System of Maine, said “nothing described” in the memorandum of understanding regarding the structure of MCECIS would “violate the terms of the collective agreement.”

McClymer said the initial planning process for MCECIS, established by the Alfond Foundation and system administrators, did not consider the perspective of faculty.

“They sat in a room and decided what it should be without having to face the reality of being a faculty member, where we live and breathe in our academic communities,” he said.

Emily Baer, ​​communications director for Joan Ferrini-Mundy, president of the University of Maine, disputed McClymer’s interpretation. She said that while the Alfond Foundation requested that the college be based at the University of Maine with USM as a partner, it gives the system and its member institutions the flexibility to determine the organizational structure beyond.

Rheingans stressed that some growing pains are to be expected given that there is little precedent for what the system is trying to accomplish.

“We’re building this thing that there’s really no national plan for,” she said. “Trying to combine disciplines, and in particular trying to combine institutions, is very difficult and complex design work. So it’s no surprise that there are bumps along the way.

McClymer said the drive to innovate could be part of the problem.

“I think [the system] is more interested in doing something first than doing it well,” he said.

A precedent that “left a bad taste”

Recent disputes between faculty members and system chancellor Dannel Malloy — including a botched presidential search at the University of Maine at Augusta that led to four separate votes of no confidence in May — have made faculty extremely suspicious of the system’s attempt to centralize programs at MCECIS.

McClymer said tensions between professors and Malloy were simmering long before the votes of no confidence.

“The WBU’s botched presidential search resulted in many of our concerns being voiced,” he said. “There is a concern about the way the Chancellor speaks to faculty, the way our concerns are characterized as fear and anxiety…it leaves a lot of frustration.”

“It certainly didn’t make it any easier,” Szakas said. “But I think the goal [of MCECIS] is stronger than these troubling things across campuses.

Luck’s concerns go beyond the college’s organizational chart. He fears that the USM engineering curriculum, which he has seen grow over the 27 years he has taught there, will be subsumed by the larger, more traditional curriculum at the University of Maine, and that the USM students suffer from it.

USM Engineering, which has about 250 students, serves a distinct population in the Portland urban area that is largely made up of non-traditional and part-time students, Luck said. In contrast, the University of Maine School of Engineering at Orono, which has approximately 2,000 students, primarily serves a typical undergraduate population right out of high school.

“It’s not about protecting territory,” Luck said. “Residents of southern Maine may be denied a separate engineering program tailored to the needs of our urban population.”

Luck said there are good reasons for faculty to be wary of merging resources with the University of Maine. In 2018, as part of an initiative funded by an Alfond Foundation challenge grant, the USM business school merged with the University of Maine and became the combined Graduate School of Business, housed at UMaine.

The new business program is now double the size of the original USM and UMaine programs combined, according to Baer. In a way, this could be seen as a model for the MCECIS initiative, which also seeks to increase the capacity of system engineering programs. But Luck says the parallels also set off alarm bells.

“[The university system] can argue the numbers all day, but they can’t deny that people who wanted a face-to-face MBA in the greater Portland area are now being denied that option,” he said. “I didn’t see it as a merger but as a hostile takeover…so when MCECIS comes along, it’s red flags and bells everywhere.”

Baer said the Maine Graduate School of Business, although housed at the University of Maine, has representation from USM faculty and administrators, and the merger allowed the system to leverage the strengths of both. institutions.

McClymer says the MBA issue “has really left a bad taste in people’s mouths” throughout the university system.

Szakas said leaders of the MCECIS initiative drafted the MOU “to address concerns about the MBA merger.”

Luck conceded that the memorandum of understanding states that USM engineering faculty will be housed at their own facility and retain full autonomy over the curriculum. Still, he said, the “MBA debacle” makes it hard to believe things will be any different this time around, especially with the Alfonds once again involved.

“It’s like the old saying,” Luck said. “A dog bitten by a snake will be afraid of a rope.”

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