March 10, 2010

Comprehensive university has depth and breadth students and society need

— PORTLAND — Since becoming president of the University of Southern Maine last July, I have grown more deeply committed than ever to the critical role that USM, as a public, regional comprehensive university, must play in providing what southern and central Maine need, not only today but in the eventual post-recession growth economy.

Students need to build professional skills for employment in new sectors and areas of need. Businesses need expert advice to help them manage the changing economic landscape and adapt to new realities in the marketplace.

More and more young people and working adults are beginning to realize that now is the right time to get an education and prepare for the future.

More undergraduates in the United States are educated at comprehensive universities than at any other institutions of higher education except for community colleges. These comprehensive institutions have a special mission to address the needs and aspirations of the regions in which they are located.

Not surprisingly, comprehensive universities prepare students for local employment because those students are often bound to their communities for financial, professional or personal reasons.

Created to fulfill Maine's need for a public regional comprehensive university whose wide range of degree programs would serve the needs of this region, the University of Southern Maine's mission places it at the epicenter of this region's future -- supplying the business people, public servants, health care workers, engineers, lawyers, teachers and artists whose talents will fuel Maine's economic recovery.

Just as importantly, many of USM's faculty typically conduct applied research by working with local companies, governmental agencies, non-profit organizations, schools, and hospitals to serve the immediate, local concerns of individuals and organizations.

For example, Associate Professor William Moore in the School of Applied Science, Engineering and Technology is an expert in failure analysis of materials. As director of the Manufacturing Applications Center, he works closely with companies as they design and test prototypes of their products. He is also a frequent consultant to lawyers and insurance companies concerned with product safety.

Samantha Langley-Turnbaugh, chair of USM's Department of Environmental Science, is a nationally recognized expert on soil quality and contamination. Her research into lead contamination in Portland's urban soil and the links between soil, dust, and childhood asthma could not be more relevant to the quality of life for Mainers.

This past April, a boat filled with USM nursing students traveled out to Chebeague Island to provide medical services to residents whose health needs are otherwise poorly served.

This free clinic addressed a need felt by many in a state like ours whose geographic features and widely dispersed population make public healthcare access a continuing challenge.

The arts also benefit. In addition to his distinguished teaching in USM's School of Music, Professor Thomas Parchman is principal clarinetist with the Portland Symphony Orchestra.

On top of that, his students go on to teach music to young people across Maine, and he works on joint projects with our public schools to improve access to musical education.

These examples highlight USM's pervasive reach into the community. But a story related to me by a member of my staff recently really brought it home.

Last April, he was shopping at the Hannaford's on Forest Avenue with a few out-of-town guests.

Passing through the checkout line, they were chatting about attending a formal USM event when the young man at the register interrupted to say that he had been there as well -- as a member of the USM Wind Ensemble who had played during the reception afterwards.

USM's faculty and students are certainly everywhere.

Truly distinctive regional public comprehensive universities cultivate the intellectual synergies that arise from student contact with faculty. They marry faculty research with the needs and aspirations of their communities.

Even during a time of financial distress and fiscal uncertainty, Maine must nevertheless prepare for the future, for the certainty of the economic rebound which inevitably follows recession.

This region's financial health and civic well-being depend on an educated workforce, and USM's faculty and staff are dedicated to providing it.

It is not a stretch to say that USM is helping to create Maine's future.

— Special to the Press Herald

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