PORTLAND – Mayor Michael Brennan’s recent proposal to create a collaborative partnership with business, research and education presents an exciting opportunity to shape the city’s economic future.
It’s no surprise that great cities have strong universities that work closely with business, government, social agencies, and nonprofit organizations in the type of collaboration Mayor Brennan envisions.
These universities align their academic programs with the business community and the city’s social and economic development objectives. The research programs at these universities and the expertise of the faculty generate new businesses and support current businesses that help shape the city.
This type of symbiotic relationship draws students to New York to study finance and communications and to Boston and the San Francisco area for technology. Students go to Los Angeles for film and entertainment programs and to Washington to study government and international relations. In these cities, businesses enjoy a ready supply of highly talented graduates, encouraging expansion in the region, and students profit from real-world learning opportunities, such as internships or field experiences, and better job possibilities upon graduation. It’s a win-win arrangement.
It would be wise for Portland and its universities to become more closely aligned. Portland enjoys a vibrant tourism industry, including all the businesses that attract and depend upon visitors: hotels, inns, restaurants, recreational businesses, retail shops and the creative arts. There is also an industry cluster around health care and another around technology and applied scientific knowledge.
Local universities have aligned with these industries with varying degrees of success. The University of Southern Maine recently launched a new graduate program in public health and a new major in tourism and hospitality as a response to each industry’s growing need for a highly skilled work force.
USM has also developed a risk management and insurance program with a 90 percent job placement rate and a sport management program that works closely with the local and regional sport industry. The Maine College of Art and the USM School of Music have been leaders in the creative arts. The University of New England has devoted itself largely to the health care industry. Husson’s, Saint Joseph’s and USM’s accounting programs work closely with that profession. And Southern Maine Community College continues to support workforce development through its programs.
It’s no secret that technology companies have been frustrated by the number of qualified graduates local universities have produced for these businesses, and steps are being taken to correct that misalignment.
An economic development strategy built on local industry strength recognizes that it’s easier to grow existing businesses than to start new ones. Successful start-ups tend to come from employees with deep industry experience who leave their jobs to pursue a promising new venture in that same industry, which is why growing our strongest businesses is also a strategy for spawning new businesses.
Those communities that are serious about start-ups fund incubators and offer assistance to entrepreneurs to get those businesses established. Fledgling businesses require a strong, supporting environment to succeed.
In Portland, USM’s Small Business Development Centers, with funding from the federal government, helps 2,100 companies start up and expand each year. The SBDC model could be used to further support area entrepreneurs.
University research also serves as a valuable economic activity for a community because it attracts resources from the federal government and other funding sources. The Muskie School’s research programs in social policy, the environment, and public and rural health brought into the community $28 million last year — and a highly talented work force.
Research faculty and staff members possess expertise that often leads to intellectual contributions with commercial applications. And funded research builds the human infrastructure required for a robust entrepreneurial culture. As the center of Maine’s commercial activity, Portland can tie into research at the University of Maine at Orono to take advantage of the commercial opportunities coming out of its science and engineering labs. Research at USM in cybersecurity and immunology also offers the possibility of commercialization.
By attracting students and faculty and engaging in funded research, universities contribute to the economic life of the community.
Serving as engines of economic development is just one of the functions of a modern university, but at a time when our economy is so seriously challenged, it makes sense for universities to play a more integral role in building the economy of the region.
And that’s especially true of public universities with their commitment to public service. We need a much closer alignment between the region’s economic development interests and its universities.
Joseph McDonnell is dean of the College of Management and Human Service at the University of Southern Maine and a Muskie School of Public Service faculty member.