PORTLAND — On April 2, an observant newscast watcher would have noticed two complementary events broadcast on television.

The first was a news conference held by city leaders, including Portland Mayor Michael Brennan, discussing the proposed budget cuts and faculty retrenchments at the University of Southern Maine.

While not taking a position, the city leaders nonetheless endorsed a strong USM-Portland relationship. In fact, Jennifer Hutchins, Creative Portland executive director, supported the “metropolitan university” concept, saying it could benefit both USM and Portland by aligning the university’s mission with the community’s aspirations and needs.

Also reported was the showing of the Australian documentary “I Am Eleven” to some 700 Portland public schools sixth-graders in a program sponsored by USM and the Portland Children’s Film Festival. Later that night, more than 300 people – most of them Portland Adult Education graduates and new immigrants who shared their own poignant memories of being 11 – enjoyed a reception and a second public showing, another collaboration between Portland public schools, USM and the film festival.

It was a great day for USM and the city; in total, some 1,000 Portland-area people experienced their own “metropolitan university” through a multicultural, cross-generational event.

USM regularly orchestrates these public-partnership events, whether it’s inviting gubernatorial candidates to a public forum, holding a philanthropy class that has students work with area nonprofits, or inviting high school students to its CI2 lab to create interactive sculptures with USM art education and computer science students.

In April alone, three USM concerts were presented in Portland; our Wishcamper Center was packed with bibliophiles enjoying our Book Arts Bazaar, and we presented public lectures, discussions and film showings on topics such as Native American oral traditions, “Breaking Bad,” digital humanities and women indie filmmakers.

There have been way too many negative comments and inaccurate observations made recently about USM and the “metropolitan university” concept.

Some people believe it would wipe out all science and research, leaving just the arts; others think it would eliminate or dumb down the humanities, leaving just resume-writing classes. Some self-styled wits have written that “no poets need apply” to the restructured USM, that we should offer a major in marijuana entrepreneurship, and that we should just rename USM the “Fill-in-the-Corporate Name Job Retraining Center.”

As dean of USM’s College of Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences, I was one of the architects of USM’s Direction Package and its vision for a metropolitan university. Along with five other committee members, we spent long hours crafting the vision and identity concept, which we presented in March.

Being a “metropolitan university” is not a novel identity for USM or the other 80 universities that belong to the Coalition of Urban and Metropolitan Universities. What these institutions share is a commitment to the urban area in which they reside; they all believe that “place matters.”

USM already is Maine’s “metropolitan university,” based on its unique location and its close connection to the most vibrant and exciting city in the state.

USM as a metropolitan university utilizes Portland, Gorham and Lewiston-Auburn as “living laboratories” for our students, where we optimize and apply the research and expertise of our excellent faculty to local questions and continue to develop our service-learning capacities. We are committed to strong civic engagement and to serving a diverse student body that reflects our community.

USM needs to hone this focus and expand its robust community partnerships, help our students develop a 21st-century mindset of global awareness, creativity, leadership and social responsibility and re-tool our programs to fit this vision. In sum, we must fully embrace our identity as a metropolitan university.

In contrast to what some detractors have been saying, this vision does not eliminate the liberal arts, but rather refocuses them so our students can make a real difference in the world by being educated, analytical, flexible and engaged. The liberal arts are essential to creating an educated populace and should take a leadership role in cultivating and nurturing the cultural capital of our cities. Artists, musicians, historians, philosophers, writers – and even poets – not only will find a home at USM but also will find that they are intrinsic to the future success of our metropolitan areas.

In essence, we would like to see USM keep and expand on what it already is known for – close, supportive relationships between students and faculty members, rich educational experiences and creative interactions with our various communities.

If we truly dedicate ourselves to this concept, it will continue to get USM out of the ivory tower and take it downtown where it belongs.

— Special to the Press Herald