Portland has long been a popular tourist destination. It also has a growing population and the most vibrant economy in the state. It is a fixture on magazine “best-of” lists, which extol the walkable small city as a place to live, work and visit.

Everyone has seemed to know this except the state university system, which, despite its massive investment in Maine’s biggest city, has failed to take its place as a key local institution. But finally, that might be changing.

In the midst of more bad news about budget cuts last week, University of Southern Maine President Theo Kalikow spoke of planning efforts to reinvent USM as a “metropolitan university” that would use the city of Portland and its local businesses as a laboratory, enriching the experience for students while engaging the local economy.

This attitude change makes a lot of sense, and it is long overdue. For too long the university, made up of three campuses spread across the metro region, has kept a low profile and delivered a muddled message about what it has to offer, trying at times to replicate the flagship campus in Orono.

But an urban university has a great deal to offer that no other campus could duplicate.

For students, it’s a place where they can combine hands-on work with their studies, graduating with real-world experience in addition to a diploma. For startup and expanding businesses, it’s a source of research partners in the faculty and access to a pool of well-prepared workers. The whole metropolitan region benefits from having a hub for the arts and culture that improves the quality of life as well as attracting visitors.

What makes this vision so attractive is that it is achievable. Most of this is happening already – it just needs to be brought into focus.

The university simply has to take better advantage of its presence in the state’s population center, and to be more systematic about networking faculty, students and local businesses to benefit them all.

A good place to start would be making sure that the university’s performing arts and sports teams have a presence in Portland, where the biggest audiences exist. These should be seen as marketing opportunities for the school as well as educational experiences for the students.

The proposed budget cuts throughout the university system and especially at USM show what lies ahead if the university continues on its current path. Offering less to students every year invites disaster.

Becoming Maine’s metropolitan university is a way to offer students more without any new resources from the state.

The state would benefit from having a thriving university campus in its biggest city. USM has not always been willing to embrace that role, but if it is ready to do that now, there could be good news ahead.