If the University of Southern Maine were a business, we would say it had a branding problem.

With campuses in Gorham, Lewiston and Portland, the university offers both undergraduate and graduate programs, ranging from professional credentialing for lawyers to freshman courses in the fine arts.

It has the most students of any Maine university, but it’s not the flagship campus and gets fewer of the state’s research and development dollars than Orono. It attracts midcareer and nontraditional commuter students, much like the community colleges. It has a presence in the state’s biggest city, but its profile is diminished because it’s in other places too.

In short, USM has been ripe for reorganization for some time, even if it were not a fiscal necessity. And it is a fiscal necessity.

In that light, we are optimistic about the plan put forward by the USM administration and will pay attention to the public comment it receives. On its face, it looks like a good way to address both of the university’s main problems.

According to the plan, the university would break up its eight colleges into five. The University of Maine School of Law and the Lewiston-Auburn College would stay as they are, and the other six would be collapsed into three, with a more even distribution of resources.

Each school would combine elements of theoretical and practical education and faculty and students would be encouraged to work across disciplines to develop programs.

To be clear, this is a cost-saving plan. Halving the number of deans would save salary, benefits and support staff, creating a much leaner management structure. Other efficiencies would come from sharing resources and forcing what are now independent entities to work together.

But this could also be a plan that addresses USM’s branding problem. If successful, consolidation of the colleges could raise the profile of the institution and provide a better answer than we have now to the question, “What does USM do?”

Higher education is not a business, but it should be able to respond like one when the market for its services change.

Streamlining administration and focusing programs on what the community needs is the right way to do that. Fine-tuning this proposal during the public comment period is the best way to make sure it works.


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