August 5, 2012

Our View: UMaine's strengths should not be secrets

The public needs to know what it stands to get from a healthy public university system.

University of Maine President Paul Ferguson said he repeatedly heard two things before he moved east from California to take the top job at Maine's flagship university.

"They said you will be surprised by the quality of the programs, and you will be surprised with the quality of the people," Ferguson said in a recent visit to our Portland office. "They were right on both accounts."

While it's reassuring that Ferguson is pleased with what he found when he came to Maine and plans to build on its success, we are still concerned any of this should come as a surprise. Maine is a wonderful place, known for its pristine environment, rich natural resources and quality workmanship known around the world through brands like L.L. Bean, Bath Iron Works and Fairchild Semiconductor. Why should the quality of its university system be a secret?

But it is, and changing that will be a primary task for Ferguson, University of Maine System Chancellor James Page and everyone else in and outside the system who has an interest in higher education and economic development in the state. Fortunately, doing a better job of marketing the university is one of the top priorities that Ferguson has identified in a report titled "Blue Sky Project: Reaffirming Public Higher Education at Maine's Flagship University."

The report rightly identifies the need to communicate better, not only with the world outside our borders, but also inside the state so that people know what's going on at the state's university campuses, and why it matters.

Whether they know it or not, every Mainer stands to benefit from a thriving public higher education system in the state. Educated graduates will get better jobs, earning better pay and they will be stimulating the economy in their communities. Collaborative research projects between university labs and private businesses can put new products on the market or boost traditional industries like paper-making and agriculture.

And robust university enrollments can reverse the brain drain, importing rather than exporting talented young people who will want to stay in the state after they graduate and contribute to our state by creating a highly qualified work force that businesses are looking for. As the state with the oldest population in the nation, Maine faces a demographic challenge. There are fewer young people to finish school and enter the work force.

The University of Maine system should be treated as an engine for economic growth and one that needs the state's full support. That means more than getting stable support from the state's general fund. It also means state investment in Research and Development, which brings money into the university, helps businesses grow and produces students with real-world skills.

UMaine is already one of the top 100 universities in the country for research, receiving more than $100 million a year in mostly federal money that circulates through our economy. The state should do its part and continue its investment in R&D.

But it's not just state government that should do more. Ferguson's plan calls for better student recruitment and retention, and increased philanthropy to make up for what tax money and tuition won't cover. Those efforts will require something that the university has not done a good job of in the past: letting people know, both in and outside the state, how much it has to offer.

If it can do a better job of telling its story, maybe when people talk about the quality of the University of Maine System, it won't come as such a surprise.Whether they know it or not, every Mainer stands to benefit from a thriving public higher education system in the state. Educated graduates will get better jobs, earning better pay and stimulating the economy in their communities. Collaborative research projects between university labs and private businesses can put new products on the market or boost traditional industries like paper-making or agriculture.

 

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