BANGOR — As the search for the next permanent president of the University of Southern Maine gets underway, it is important for USM’s many stakeholders to understand how the search process will work. It’s also important to put that search process, which I have been asked to chair, into the context in which USM, the University of Maine System and, indeed, higher education worldwide find themselves today. Higher education is undergoing a revolution driven by increasing demand for higher-level skills and knowledge, rising costs, mounting student debt and disruptive technology. Major universities with large endowments and entrepreneurs backed by venture capital are exploring how to deliver degree-worthy educational content globally, entirely online, at little or no cost. Highly acclaimed professors will seek to profit from this technology by branding themselves as the brightest stars in the educational firmament.

Meanwhile, competition now comes from for-profit and nonprofit enterprises delivering both classroom and online education without the high cost of large and complex facilities.

The university system faces a structural deficit, while a 20 percent decline in traditional college-age students between 2010 and 2020 continues to erode enrollment. The spending reductions required to address this deficit are having harsh effects on USM and its sister institutions.

The serious fiscal and enrollment challenges facing the university system and USM are requiring a transformational response. At the system level, Chancellor James Page is implementing major structural reforms designed to reduce costs in the near term while transforming the University of Maine System into an integrated, efficient system of universities that have distinctive campus identities and provide relevant, affordable educational opportunities to students regardless of location or circumstance.

USM has developed a consensus on, and is already moving toward the adoption of, a metropolitan university model within the newly conceived system. Nationally, nearly 100 institutions have adopted the metropolitan university concept. By becoming indispensible community partners in the urban regions they serve, many have reinvigorated their campuses and created new opportunities for students and the community at large. Seeing USM through this transition will be one of the new president’s top priorities.

All these factors combine to make the search for a new president especially important, but also especially challenging.

The system board of trustees has an established process that starts with a search committee of 14 members from a broad spectrum of stakeholders, including trustees, faculty, students, administrators, employees and community representatives.

The search process is spelled out in Section 204 of the board’s policy manual, available on the board of trustees’ website ( system/board-of-trustees).

Letters have been sent to the appropriate constituencies seeking designees for the committee, which should be in place by the end of July. We will start our work in earnest in September. We have issued a request for proposals for the hiring of a search consultant to ensure that we get the best possible pool of qualified candidates.

The best candidates will make campus visits to meet faculty, students, staff and other constituents. The committee will then submit two to four finalists to the chancellor for his consideration, with final appointment by the board of trustees.

The search committee will proceed in a way that ensures every student, faculty member, employee and concerned citizen has a chance to contribute. We will be conducting the public’s business, and we will do so in full compliance with the Maine Freedom of Access Act.

The University of Southern Maine is an institution of immense importance, uniquely positioned to offer students from all circumstances the opportunity to improve their ability to lead productive and fulfilling lives.

We may think of USM only in regional terms because its campuses are located in Portland, Gorham and Lewiston, in or near Maine’s two largest urban centers. But USM can and indeed must project its value more widely. Already a metropolitan university in many respects, as it fully embraces that model it will be uniquely positioned to serve students, employers, nonprofits and communities throughout Maine.

The next president, while facing serious challenges, will also be presented with an extraordinary opportunity. USM’s location here in southern Maine may be one of its greatest assets, but as Maine’s metropolitan university it will have the potential to radiate far beyond.

— Special to the Press Herald