ORONO, Maine — As the next president of the University of Maine, Susan Hunter hopes to engage the public in conversations about the importance of higher education at a time when the state’s public universities are facing millions of dollars in budget cuts.
To do that, Hunter said she will capitalize on her long career in Orono and more recent experience in the University of Maine System office to try to build stronger partnerships between UMaine, the central administration and the other six campuses.
“The current landscape of higher education demands that we work together,” she said at a Tuesday morning campus press conference where UMS Chancellor James Page announced Hunter would be UMaine’s 20th president and the first woman to hold the position.
Hunter has served as vice chancellor of academic affairs for the system since September 2013. She replaces Paul Ferguson, who announced in May that he was leaving to become president of Ball State University in Indiana.
Hunter will serve as president for a limited two-year term, beginning July 7. She will be paid $250,000 per year, according to Dan Demeritt, the system’s director of public affairs. During the second year of her term, there will be a national search for a president. Hunter will not be a candidate because she plans to retire, she said.
At the press conference, Page acknowledged that there is a “structural tension common to many public universities” between the system office and each of the seven campuses, which is heightened during times when resources are constrained.
Hunter will be able to bridge the divide between the system office and the state’s flagship campus because of her experience working for both entities, he said.
“The mission of the flagship is in her DNA,” he said of Hunter after the event. “To be with us for eight to 10 months means she also gets the perspective of the larger system.”
Hunter said that in her role as vice chancellor, she has formed relationships with the presidents of the other six campuses, which she hopes to continue as president of UMaine.
She plans to visit each of the campuses to discuss how UMaine can better partner with them, she said.
“It is quite obvious that we have substantial challenges to address,” Hunter said at the press conference. “Meaningful progress will be difficult unless we find a way to create constructive partnerships.”
Hunter said much of her role will be focused on engaging the public and the state Legislature and making a case for public higher education in Maine.
Before taking the position in the system office, Hunter had a lengthy career as both a member of the faculty and administration at UMaine.
At the press conference, board of trustees chairman Sam Collins called her “a seasoned pro who bleeds Black Bear blue.”
She began working at the Orono campus as a research associate in 1982 and became a full professor in the department of zoology in 1991. She has since worked as chair of the department of biological sciences, dean of undergraduate admission, and most recently as executive vice president of academic affairs and provost.
Hunter takes her new post at a difficult time for UMaine. In May, the system’s board of trustees approved a budget that cuts 157 full time equivalent jobs across all seven campuses and pulls $11.7 million from the system’s rainy day fund.
UMaine had to cut $9.7 million — about 3.5 percent — of its budget this year. In March, Ferguson announced that 61 faculty and staff positions would be left vacant or cut in order to help the university pass a balanced fiscal year 2015 budget.
The university is three years into Ferguson’s five-year strategic plan, which Hunter praised at the press conference and said she will see to fruition.
“Strategic plans often end up on the bookshelf, but not this one,” she said. The plan involves increasing student enrollment, particularly among out-of-state students, which the university was able to do this year.
“UMaine has been able to weather the demographic winters” that other campuses have seen, Collins said.
Many at Tuesday’s event brought up the financial challenges public higher education institutions across the country are facing, and said Hunter would be a strong advocate for the role UMaine can play in this state when she’s fundraising and speaking with lawmakers.
“I’m an unabashed believer in the power of education to change lives,” Hunter said. “It is increasingly important that public higher education play a role for the citizens of Maine.”