Joyce Gibson said she grew up in a family that prized education. For her, a career in education isn’t as much a choice of vocation as a calling. But her sixth year as dean of the University of Southern Maine’s Lewiston-Auburn College might test that devotion to education as the school struggles with cutting budgets and programs. Gibson said she’s up for the challenge and expects that other campuses within the university might learn a thing or two from L-A, especially around creating connections between the campus and the community.

Q. How did you become dean of Lewiston-Auburn College?

A. My parents believed deeply in education and social justice, both of which I carry with me, even in selecting positions. I’m committed to education as a means of helping people complete their lives. So many poor and disenfranchised people in our society can’t get a break except through education. And in this area, where the people in this community started this college, it smacked of social justice and opportunity and it appealed to me. I was raised in Mississippi and my father was one of 10 children, and my dad is the most celebrated of his siblings because he went on to finish dental school and completed an education. They drummed it into us to get an education and they said, “They can’t take it away from you and you use it to help others.”

Q: How does the Lewiston-Auburn campus fit in with USM and the broader college system in the state?

A: The people in these two cities fought for this college for a long time. The UMaine System wasn’t really interested in having another institution here – they said people could go down to Portland or go up to Augusta. But our college is more in tune with the community than any in the UMaine System. Our classes (are held) just once a week, not two or three times a week, because our population works, they have families. The majority of the students who attend here are women and have child care needs and jobs. So we try to make this as accessible as possible. We’re moving toward the whole vision of a metropolitan university.

The faculty members have a responsibility to help with writing skills and we have a writing center. We also have a community engagement office that is credit-bearing. Classes have a component of community service that’s part of the curriculum. Students don’t see it as extra because it’s part of their course work. All of the deans from the inception of this college have been actively involved in the community; for instance, this is my fifth year on the executive committee of the local chamber of commerce, so I’m involved in the life of the business community, because that’s part of what we do.

Q: What are the changes your campus will see from cuts announced this week?

A: The arts and humanities program here has been eliminated, so we will be working with the College of Arts and Humanities and Social Sciences in Portland to replace some of those classes. But it’s akin to our nursing program: We have a program here, but the base of the program is in Portland.

Q: It sounds like the cuts are intended to pull the three campuses together more, with some professors teaching at more than one location.

A: A lot of people don’t understand that in many ways we’re already well-integrated in Portland and Gorham (campuses). We have degree students who take courses here, some of it’s online, some is blended and some is face-to-face, so it will be an interesting challenge because a lot of faculty hasn’t taught at more than one campus before. We’re a small campus with four undergraduate degrees, and we have two graduate programs, but our bachelor’s in occupational therapy is a stunning program. Our students have an 89 percent first-time pass rate on the state exam and they’re all placed (in jobs). So while we have had a decrease in our enrollment, we have been pretty efficient. The university wants to downsize to fit the number of students we actually have, but part of the decrease in enrollment is due to competition. Here in Lewiston-Auburn we have Kaplan and we also have a community college and we don’t have a lot of flow agreements (to steer students toward USM after community college), and we’re trying to develop stronger relationships and make our curriculum align a little better. Our institutions are not as nimble as they could be. We’re trying to downsize to a more manageable institution financially, but we have to continue to attract students and bring in new majors and concentrate things. As one of our former presidents used to say, we can’t cut our way to success.

Q: So what do you see five years down the road?

A: We have to grow. Part of our challenge is getting more exposure – there are more than 200,000 people in our state who have some college education, but not a degree. Our population is a lot of older students and transfer students, but we are seeing more traditional-age students because of the economy – people who are going to stay closer to home to save money.

We also have a program with the high school to offer a three-year degree with early college courses and summer courses. We’re hoping to launch a pilot project to attract high school students to come here. A student could get perhaps up to a year or more (of college credits) if they began early college classes.

We have to think of innovative ways to be attractive to our community.

Q: Lewiston-Auburn has a large population of Somali immigrants. What are you doing to attract them as students?

A: Most of the (immigrant) students we have are interested in sciences and health. We have a number of Somalis in our nursing program and as science majors. We also have a strong relationship with the adult education community. We have regular (outreach) sessions to give people exposure to us and we are focusing our recruitment in the immigrant community so they can think about the value of a college education. There’s a group called College for Me Androscoggin that has businesses and nonprofit groups working to raise people’s aspiration levels to go to college. They have scholarships to help adults come back to college and they also support the early college initiative. We’re all interested in pushing the degree attainment of people in this region.

And the university system is thinking of a systemwide degree, where you could take some courses at a regional university, rather than get all the courses commuting to Portland or Orono. We’re trying to meet the needs of this community and I think people will always need a university that offers what we offer. This whole place was designed to pay attention to students. This building used to be an indoor tennis court, but we try to have a bright and open campus, and it’s a lovely spot.

Q: How is being dean at Lewiston-Auburn College different from heading up one of the other campuses?

A: I’m responsible for facilities, for marketing and communications, for our book store and our relationships with the community. We have a full campus and that’s different from being a dean within an institution where other people are responsible for those things. It makes us kind of unique and I love that part. We operate a little differently, but there’s a greater sense of community. It’s different from the way the other colleges are run and that makes it challenging to establish our programs in Portland and Gorham because they’re so interconnected. But we can show them how to connect with the community the way that we have with ours.


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