Despite its desirable locations in the population centers of the state, the University of Southern Maine has seen enrollment declines over the past several years, and as a result faces a projected $15 million budget shortfall for the academic year beginning September 2015.

There are many reasons for this shortfall, including the shrinking number of high school seniors, an overbuilt public university and community college system, competition from online and other universities and an overstretched state budget.

We know USM’s budget gap cannot be closed without changes in our academic programs and reductions of some faculty and staff. We will be working to not merely balance the budget but also to make the university more attractive to students, more engaged in the community and more secure in its financial future.

Here are the steps we plan to take:

 Selectively increase scholarships and financial aid to make public education more affordable for students. This will involve an appeal to donors to assist deserving students with funding the gap between their financial aid packages and tuition.

It will also call for a more imaginative pricing model, including a market-driven tuition rate for graduate students. We want to make it easier for students to pursue professional careers and to help Maine grow its economy.

 Give all students career direction with academic programs that lead students into careers and a career center connecting students with internships and jobs. USM will gain its distinction by combining the career-oriented professions with the liberal arts – a combination that will broaden student outlook and develop leaders for Maine’s businesses, social agencies, governments and nonprofits.

 Take advantage of our locations in the population centers of the state to give students learning experiences they cannot get elsewhere. We will create distinct learning experiences in our different locations – different for our traditional residential students in Gorham than for our older working students at our other campuses. But at all campuses, we will gain a reputation as a university where faculty are engaged with students and the larger community.

 Become more flexible in our general education requirements, in our requirements within the major and in our acceptance of credits from other universities to make it easier for students to transfer into USM. Sixty percent of our students come from a community college or another university, but too many find it difficult to transfer into USM.

 Develop a comprehensive approach to online and blended education. Other universities have moved aggressively in this direction.

USM will not survive as a university if it does not develop a stronger presence in this space, especially for students who are balancing work, families and school. We anticipate the future of higher education will creatively blend online and hands-on learning.

As a public university, USM is committed to serving the larger community. We live in a region with a rich cultural life noted for its music and the arts; for its passionate commitment to protecting the environment; for its concern for children, the disenfranchised and the sick with our schools, social agencies and health care organizations; for welcoming tourists to our state to enjoy its beauty, restaurants and cultural events, and for its entrepreneurial spirit, as displayed in our small businesses, technology startups and service industries.

USM will become a university that mirrors these community characteristics – educating students and engaging in applied research to strengthen the community in all these various aspects of life in southern Maine.

Universities with such a mission are called “metropolitan” universities because they sharply contrast with ivory tower universities that are set apart from local communities in their mission, mindset and remote, idyllic locations.

USM will inculcate a commitment to public service in our students as it partners with diverse organizations in the community.

Many faculty and staff at USM are already putting this vision into practice – and we’re raising their work to become USM’s central mission and driving vision. Faculty and staff are realizing this vision by breaking down the silos and working across disciplines to help resolve the problems of the community. It is in this interdisciplinary space and with this public spirit that USM will find success.

This will be a hard year ahead as the university community grapples with the best ways to reimagine our future. We look forward to full engagement from the community in this undertaking, because it is only in partnership with the community that USM will become a vibrant public university for southern Maine.

— Special to the Press Herald