Ask anyone to predict the future of higher education and the conversation leads almost inevitably to technology. Virtual classrooms, large-scale Skype screenings, massive open online courses and “hybrid” delivery options roll off the tongue of those even remotely connected to higher education – or technology. Colleges and universities that ignore these trends place their future, it seems, in peril.

Yet, the prominent position of technology in discussions of higher education obscures a more fundamental challenge, one that the University of Southern Maine is very well positioned to meet.

Almost 25 years ago, the U.S. Department of Labor issued a report that went relatively unnoticed, at least in higher education circles, despite its significance and thorough research. The report described in rich detail the skills and abilities that America’s businesses, small and large, most sought from our schools and colleges. The conclusions have been further validated by follow-up studies.

In summary, the report highlighted four major qualities desired by future employers. These include the ability to problem-solve multifaceted challenges, to communicate in a variety of methods, and to work collaboratively with colleagues. The most important quality? The capacity to self-manage work projects and bring them successfully to completion without constant input from supervisors.

The report is surprising in at least two ways. First, the seemingly unresolvable debate between a liberal arts education versus a career-focused academic experience may be unnecessary. The outcomes and predispositions needed for both are remarkably similar.

Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, taking these expectations seriously sets a crucial direction for the future of the American university. Universities that can graduate students with these abilities, skills, and predispositions will offer a strong “value proposition” in the marketplace of higher education and will remain vital.

USM is uniquely positioned to become one of those universities. 

Consider the following guiding principles for expanding the work already begun by USM faculty and staff.

Build deep community partnerships. While traditional and on-line classrooms offer an effective venue for some forms of learning, the acquisition of these abilities requires “real world” application. Based in the largest metropolitan area of the state, rich with nonprofit organizations, businesses, government agencies and educational institutions, USM exists in a superb position to leverage this asset through comprehensive internships, co-ops, externships and guided independent study. Embedding this type of commitment into the experience of every USM student aids in the acquisition of crucially sought skills. Much of this work within the school has already begun and can be built upon further, an initiative President Kalikow has strongly promoted.

Engage in solving regional problems. These skills imply tackling “real world” problems in ways that can transform society. Conducting use-inspired research and fieldwork to improve the life of regional citizens not only improves the vitality of the region, but provides authenticity in acquisition of knowledge, which maximizes student achievement and increases lifelong commitment to learning.

Environmental protection of the Gulf of Maine, economic development of former mill towns, countering domestic violence, substance abuse and disenfranchised youth, addressing the needs of the homeless and celebrating the unique heritage of the region are but a few of the challenges which USM research and student fieldwork can address.

Work across disciplines. While the academic world is compartmentalized, our social and economic challenges are not; solving them requires multiple disciplines and a unified approach to problem solving. This presents another advantage for a school like USM, whose tradition of collegiality and tight faculty relationships bodes well for such collaboration. Add value to a master’s degree in social work, for example, by encouraging, even requiring, courses in policy at the Muskie School or a course in law at the University of Maine School of Law. Such collaboration could be done in multiple programs and degrees.

Be global in our thinking. Building global partnerships and international experiences broadens the perspectives and capacities of our students. It also promotes a key expectation of employers: to work collaboratively with diverse populations.

Be bold. Be nimble. Be sustainable. Putting forth a bold vision, committed to these principles and practices, on a comprehensive, school-wide basis breathes new life into the school and into the region.

Equally importantly, it makes USM attractive to the marketplace of student enrollment. These transitions require flexibility, financial prioritization and investment as well as a long-term plan to make the school fiscally, culturally and environmentally sustainable.

Indeed, building an organizational culture of social and economic entrepreneurship within the university stems from bringing research and learning into the many challenges facing our region and state. It also offers a rich opportunity for educating our USM students in the best possible way.

While the delivery system of high education may, indeed, be changing, let us not forget our key challenge: to continue to build a university that impressively, and uniquely, meets the expectations of a demanding world.

Glenn Cummings is assistant professor of educational leadership at the University of Southern Maine and president of the Maine Academy of Natural Sciences at Good Will-Hinckley Sustainable Energy Systems.