Friday, December 6, 2013
Fragmented. That’s the word University of Maine System Chancellor James Page used to describe the University of Southern Maine campus he visited in May after the narrow escape by President Selma Botman in a faculty no-confidence vote.
What Page describes is not just a situation where the administration was at odds with the faculty, but one where administrators were fighting among themselves and some faculty members were at war with other faculty members.
You can blame Botman for that if you want, but these are problems that predate her four years at the helm of Maine second largest and least understood campus in the university system. Ever since its days as the University of Maine Portland/Gorham (or affectionately “Po-Go”) this has been an institution that was built to balkanize like the former Yugoslavia.
Budget deficits, program cuts, declining enrollments and labor strife all led to the leadership change.
But if that’s all the change we can expect, then things are going to continue to fragment, confusing the people who might want to attend the local university, or those who want to work with it to hire educated workers or test a new idea.
The institution can’t make its fractured history go away, but it doesn’t have to accept it in the future. USM needs to reinvent itself again, and here are a few ways it can do that.
CHANGE THE NAME
The school should be called University of Portland. The name “University of Southern Maine” is a compromise put together to avoid making anyone feel left out. The result is an institution that is not understood by the public.
UMaine Presque Isle is not called “The University of Northwestern Aroostook County.” Naming the institution for a region instead of a place invites a lack of focus.
Portland is the heart of the state’s population center and its economic engine. It is a popular destination for young people looking for a place to live. Its arts and cultural offerings and its employment possibilities would be a powerful draw for students from other states.
This doesn’t mean pulling up stakes in Gorham (which is part of Greater Portland). It just means associating the university with the state’s biggest city, taking better advantage of what it has to offer and making future planning decisions with that in mind.
There will be complaints from people in other southern Maine towns that changing the name leaves them out. But that doesn’t have to be the case. Just ask anyone in Gorham if they don’t live and die with the Red Sox because they don’t live in Boston.
CHANGE THE VENUE
USM has highly regarded music and performing arts programs. After graduation, students have gone on to play in famous orchestras, sing at the Metropolitan Opera, star in Hollywood.
Every year performances are held by current students and faculty, often in half-filled houses of families and friends. Why the big secret?
USM is doing itself and its students a disservice by holding these performances so far away from the critical audiences that would build the university’s reputation and help students improve their craft. The university would do the entire state a disservice if it goes ahead with often-discussed plans to build a new performing arts center on the Gorham campus.
The same is true for sporting events, public lectures and art exhibits which should be held, whenever possible, where the greatest number of people could see them. The more people who wander in to hear a concert or watch a baseball game, the stronger the university’s connection will be with the community.
CHANGE THE APPROACH
The Research Triangle in North Carolina is the name given the mostly high-tech business development that grew because of its proximity to public and private universities.
During his campaign last year, Portland Mayor Michael Brennan proposed a local research triangle that would involve local institutions of higher learning, hospitals, research groups and other businesses that could work together with the city’s support.
USM has a chance to be right in the middle of such an effort. It has the facilities and the brain power. Joint projects with local businesses could create a pathway to employment for its students and ease the pressure on the university’s other sources of revenue, especially state funding and tuition, which are both stretched to the limit.
This will require an institution that reaches out to businesses, finds out what they do and matches them with faculty in compatible fields.
Chancellor Page said this week that getting “Southern Maine right” was the key to developing a successful higher education system that the state needs. If that’s going to happen, USM is going to change a lot more than its president.
Greg Kesich is the editorial page editor. He can be contacted at 791-6481 or at email@example.com