SOUTH PORTLAND — Hope springs eternal, and I am among those hoping that David Flanagan will succeed where two presidents have failed to lead the University of Southern Maine toward the bright future it deserves as Maine’s only public, comprehensive, metropolitan university.

He surely knows that a careful inventory of the assets of an organization is an essential step in reversing its decline. One of USM’s best assets, unique in the University of Maine System, is Portland – Maine’s arts, cultural, business, service and population center. As such, community engagement can and should be a hallmark that distinguishes USM and propels it to a successful future.

Community engagement is not just a feel-good phrase indicating warm relationships between town and gown. It is an institutional stance and a pedagogical and curricular approach that integrates student work in community settings with academic study and reflection.

Also known as “community-based learning,” “service learning” and “civic engagement,” it enriches the learning experience with real-world context, immediate relevance, and civic skills and dispositions for students. It also builds rich, reciprocal partnerships between institutions and their communities that benefit both.

Community engagement in higher education has achieved at least one, if not two generations of scholarship. It runs counter to deeply engrained academic culture and it is a challenging way to teach, but its impact is powerful.

I was director of community service learning at USM until a year ago, and my experience was that despite their lip service to it, neither President Selma Botman nor interim President Theo Kalikow took seriously the potential for community engagement at USM.

I am dismayed that President Kalikow named her golden parachute “a community engagement initiative at the system level,” because doing so renders the label meaningless. It’s hard to imagine that she’ll do work at the state level that she not only failed to move forward, but for which she significantly cut funding and staff in her two years at USM.

Though she served on the Board of Maine Campus Compact, an organization committed to fostering engagement in Maine’s colleges and universities, there is little evidence that she understands or embraces its implementation.

Even so, community partnerships flourish in around 50 undergraduate courses at USM each year, with nearly 1,500 students providing over 20,000 hours of energy and intelligence to Portland-area municipalities, schools and nonprofits.

Participating students learn more deeply and broadly academic course content and its application and meaning in the real world, while also gaining lifelong skills of citizen problem-solving. And they connect to the community in which we dearly need them to remain as educated young adults, having invested some of themselves even as they became so.

By many undergraduates’ own assessment, service learning is one of the most meaningful learning experiences they ever have, and according to research, it contributes to higher rates of academic success, persistence and graduation.

Thousands of students in Portland Public Schools, Boys & Girls Clubs, Portland Housing Authority Study Centers and community centers like Parkside have had USM students as tutors and mentors, raising their academic achievement and aspirations.

Scores of immigrants and refugees being served by public and private programs to support their resettlement and success have benefited from the energy and intelligence that USM students bring to the work.

An interdisciplinary coalition of faculty members and students has brought not only science, but also community planning, business, social work and ethics to a partnership with the Casco Bay Estuary Partnership. And there is much, much more.

The benefits are not only human. According to Independentsector.org, in 2011 the “value of a volunteer hour” for the state of Maine was $17.03. Taking academic service learning, internship and co-curricular community service hours into account, USM’s community engagement added $1.28 million in value to the Portland area last academic year alone.

All of this points to the tremendous asset that USM is to the community, and the community to USM. As Maine’s only “metropolitan university,” USM is uniquely suited and situated to do this work, and can benefit as an institution from its distinguishing and attractive quality to students and sponsors alike.

Community engagement has been an ace up USM’s sleeve for a long time, and I sincerely hope that President Flanagan will play that card, leading USM into a future that is bright with promise for the institution, its students and our region.

— Special to the Press Herald