With the University of Maine System in the midst of an effort to reduce costs, especially by reducing administration and increasing collaboration, it has hired the right person to oversee this work.
The system and governor’s office announced this week that Becky Wyke, the governor’s financial chief, will be hired as vice chancellor of finance and administration, pending approval by the system’s trustees. Ms. Wyke had been nominated by the governor to head the Finance Authority of Maine. Her expertise is more valuable at the university system, which has a $600 million operating budget.
When she became the head of the Department of Administrative and Financial Services in 2003, the state had no reserves and a shaky bond rating. She completely remade the state budgeting process, requiring departments to justify all new expenditures. In one of the early examples of government consolidation and efficiency, she brought disparate departmental financial operations under the DAFS umbrella.
The Web site PolitickerME.com recently ranked her the most powerful person in the state. “She controls the money. She is smart. She has been around for a long time, and she is not particularly afraid of anyone,” the Web site said in its 2008 Power List. “Heads are going to roll at FAME,” it added.
Change FAME to the university system and you get the idea.
The system, which is composed of seven campuses and a central office, has begun what it calls an operation audit. This is much needed, but its savings goals are modest and its timeline long. Expect Ms. Wyke to change that.
“No matter how meritorious certain positions or projects appear to be, we cannot afford to steer much-needed resources into activities that don’t directly improve our universities’ quality of education, the success of our students, and the enhancement of Maine’s economy and its quality of life,” Chancellor Richard Pattenaude wrote on these pages earlier this year.
He has set the right standard, but giving campuses and his office three years to save $5 million dilutes that standard. With the state expected to face a budget shortfall of at least $400 million beginning in 2010, lawmakers aren’t likely to allocate additional resources to the university system. Neither can the university system continue to ask families to shoulder significant tuition increases at a time when the state needs more of its young people to graduate from college.
Finding and eliminating duplication and efficiency, as outlined by Chancellor Pattenaude, must be at the top of the system’s financial agenda. Comparing Maine’s universities to their peers nationally and against their missions to ensure that expenditures are needed and align with priorities should guide this work. So should the chancellor’s push to steer resources to instruction rather than administration.
As much as Ms. Wyke is known for saying “no” to budget increases that couldn’t be justified, she will be a strong advocate for the university system. With her in charge of the books, that advocacy will come after she is convinced the system’s finances are in order.