PORTLAND — I am joined by Hillary Bassett, director of Greater Portland Landmarks, and Thomas Johnson, director of Victoria Mansion, to express our support for the University of Southern Maine’s American and New England Studies master’s program, which has been slated for elimination to address a budget shortfall.

The program is an irreplaceable asset to Portland and the state as a whole. It is perfectly suited for community partnerships, and Portland, with its rich cultural resources, has benefited immensely from the participation of students, faculty and alumni educated through this graduate program.

As leaders of local and state organizations dedicated to preserving, researching and interpreting the cultural life and built environment of Maine, we are concerned about what would be lost if this program were eliminated.

It’s important to remember that the American and New England Studies program was founded in 1987 in response to requests from community leaders in Portland to develop an interdisciplinary master’s program in the humanities and social sciences. At that time, there was a realization that Maine required additional scholars, teachers and professionals to work in the cultural institutions and schools who had specialized training in understanding and interpreting our history and identity.

There was a tangible need for teachers, historians, artists, politicians, economists and architects who could see beyond the popular Down East characterization of Maine. It was hoped that a rigorous and intellectually challenging graduate program with a focus on the New England region and course work in archaeology, history, literature, anthropology, art and architectural history, philosophy, and American studies would result in a deeper understanding of how Maine and New England fit into the world.

The American and New England Studies program has met these goals and more. Since 1987, the program has graduated more than 200 educators, who in turn teach our children. Numerous graduates have gone on to a doctoral program and are now professors, many of them in Maine.

Graduates staff the state’s historical societies, research institutions and libraries; they are archaeologists, sociologists, writers, researchers, advisers, consultants and historians of the built environment and landscape. The program has received Guggenheim Fellowships and National Endowment for the Humanities Grants and has a national reputation for excellence.

Importantly, from our perspectives, the students from this program play a vital role in our organizations. In Portland, the Maine Historical Society, the Victoria Mansion and Greater Portland Landmarks have directly benefited from American and New England Studies interns, as have numerous other nonprofits in Portland and across the state. We employ American and New England Studies graduates in our organizations, from docents to top administration.

American and New England Studies has, since its beginning, been intertwined with Portland – and the program itself is a valuable resource for the city, state and region. As we conduct outreach to every corner of Maine, we collaborate with graduates of the American and New England Studies program, especially those working as teachers, museum curators and directors, librarians and archivists, and in business, government and the arts.

Graduates from this program overwhelmingly work in Maine: They have good jobs and make a significant impact on our cultural and social institutions as well as on our economy.

American and New England Studies is one of only two graduate programs in the country that focuses on New England studies, and the only one that has a strong emphasis on northern New England.

Without this public university department, Maine residents who wish to enroll in this type of program will have no other choice but to go to Boston – with the accompanying high cost of tuition and living expenses. For many Mainers, especially those who actively teach while pursuing their master’s degrees, this is not an option.

The loss of American and New England Studies will foreclose so much potential. The notion of developing a “metropolitan university” is a wonderful concept and seems like an apt focus for USM. But making good on that vision is inconceivable without the program that is so uniquely and fundamentally dedicated to understanding, exploring and celebrating the identity of our city, our state and our region.

As we have each communicated directly to the university’s leadership, the proposed elimination of the American and New England Studies program at USM will, in the end, leave Maine a poorer state. We urge the university to retain this valuable program.

— Special to the Press Herald