There may be no more important catalyst for the state’s economy than the University of Southern Maine.

It is a regional entity located in the state’s center of population and commerce. It produces what businesses say they need most – educated workers – and it attacks fast-aging Maine’s demographic challenge by bringing in young people from away.

It provides affordable higher education – the most reliable way for people to pull themselves out of poverty and stay there. And through research and public service it has the potential to improve conditions for every kind of employer, boosting economic opportunity.

But over the last few years, it has been easy to forget how important USM really is because it has underperformed so badly. An enrollment slide that began a decade ago has coincided with a series of budget shortfalls, leading to a series of high-profile and painful cuts to programs and personnel. The institution has been slow to respond to competition from the community college system and expanding for-profit and nonprofit options. It has appeared to be aloof from the surrounding communities. And during this time of crisis, there has been a leadership vacuum at the top.

NEW LEADER

Last week, USM welcomed its fifth president since 2007, and we are looking forward to seeing how he handles this challenge.

Harvey Kesselman is an experienced college administrator from New Jersey who has a tough job ahead. His predecessors have alienated faculty and students, while failing to speak to the wider community about why it should care about USM.

There is no time for Kesselman to lead a three-year strategic plan process. He needs to reverse some troubling trends right away.

Last year, interim President David Flanagan cut $16 million to balance the budget that begins July 1. That required eliminating 50 faculty positions, along with cuts to administration, staff and facilities. He said those cuts would buy the new administration one year, but unless there are structural changes, more layoffs can be expected.

The persistent shortfalls are related to a steady drop in enrollment, which has fallen 12 percent over the last five years and 25 percent since 2002. There were nearly 3,000 fewer students at USM last fall than the 11,382 who attended 12 years earlier.

USM cannot sustain these losses, and it can’t cut its way back to health. First on Kesselman’s to-do list must be growing enrollment. Without more students, the institution will not be able to prevent more budget reductions or be able to fulfill its important role in the state’s economy.

But this is not just an issue of the university’s size. Students are not going to make the enormous commitment of investing in a college education unless it offers something they need. The technology revolution has created an expectation that information is immediately available and tailored to individual needs. Record companies and encyclopedia publishers have changed. USM can’t do things the old way and expect different results.

WHAT KIND OF SCHOOL?

There is also a question about what kind of institution USM should be. Some think it should be primarily a collection of professional schools; others want it to be a comprehensive university with a full range of liberal arts offerings. There is a difference of opinion about how much research funding should be diverted from the University of Maine campus in Orono, and whether USM should compete with the flagship campus as a residential college.

If it’s true that USM can’t fill all those roles, then the university needs to speak with a clear voice about what role it will fill and what it will abandon. If the institution does not respond to the radically changed landscape of 21st century communications, USM will never be able to live up to its potential as a driver of the state’s economy.

The “metropolitan university model,” in which teams of professors and students across disciplines work on real problems faced by the community, may be the right way forward for USM. But someone has to sell it, both inside the institution and out.

Kesselman might be the person who can do that. If he is, the university and the state could be looking at some happy days ahead.